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The Vatican has been reining in the progressive leadership of American nuns, creating a political test of wills over the future of a faith with one billion adherents worldwide as it braces for an historic papal transition. Described as a modern ‘Inquisition,’ this punitive campaign against the nuns lands on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and raises fundamental questions about the mission of a global church and the role of nuns who were inspired by Vatican II in taking the social justice gospel directly to the world’s poor.

A New Inquisition: The Vatican targets US nuns

The Vatican is reining in the progressive leadership of American nuns, which has led to a global clash over the future of the Catholic church.

“When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women,” says Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious. “They found instead nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so.”

The leadership conference endorsed women’s ordination in 1977 — 12 years before Pope John Paul II officially banned it. Farrell says they have not campaigned for it. Nor has LCWR endorsed abortion. The CDF demand that the leaders speak out against abortion and gay rights is a battle over conscience, forcing words into superiors’ mouths. Seattle Archbishop Sartain, the CDF delegate to oversee the group, is tasked with approving their conference speakers, a hotly contentious issue.

Sister Nzenzili Lucie Mboma, Executive Director of Service of Documentation and Studies on Mission, in her office in Rome.
(Jason Berry/GlobalPost)

"These women are really rooted in Christ and committed to the poor,” says Sister Nzenzili Lucie Mboma, executive director of Service of Documentation and Studies on Mission, in Rome. A Congolese, Sister Lucie had two friends murdered in political violence in the 1960s, during her novice years. “It is painful to see the Vatican carrying on these kinds of things,” she says.

“In certain parts of the church we have an us-versus-them mentality,” says Father Míceál O’Neill, an Irish Carmelite prior in Rome with background as a missionary in Peru.

“'Us' is religious, and 'them' is officers of the Holy See.”

“We have a church that is doctrinally conservative and pastorally liberal,” says O’Neill. “The Vatican is trying to assert control, ‘we are in charge’ … Many people are saying the two churches are not coming together.”

“There is a fundamental problem of honesty.”

Sister Farrell, 65, came of age in Iowa in the heady years of Vatican II. She joined the Franciscans at 18, and in her 30s worked with Mexicans in San Antonio. She moved to Chile in 1980 during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Disappearances were common. “It was routine for police to torture people in the first 72 hours,” she says. Demonstrations were banned, yet protests were the only way to put a spotlight on abductions when lives were at stake.

She joined “lightning-demonstrations,” unfurling banners of the anti-torture protest movement in congested traffic, spreading leaflets that gave people information on the missing who were airbrushed out of news reports. At one point she was arrested, with 100 other people, but coverage in a growing clandestine media saw them released the same day.

In 1986 she moved to El Salvador with a handful of sisters to help people reeling from a grisly civil war with US military support of the government. In 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero had been shot dead while saying Mass; several months later, three nuns and a laywoman from America working with the poor were kidnapped, raped and murdered.

Sister Pat Farrell
( Nancy Wiechec/Catholic News Service)

Farrell spent her first weeks sleeping at night in a church sacristy, getting to know people, and eventually moving into a sprawling refugee camp. The bishop supported their mission, because she lived with villagers displaced by military bombings. American nuns were a nonviolent presence giving thin cover to locals. What she remembers most of those years is walking, miles and miles of walking with the people.

“We learned never to leave the road because any area off defined footpaths could have land mines,” she explains. “I remember walking down one long hill with trembling knees to meet a group of soldiers who entered the camp. Part of our role as internationals in the camp was to keep the military out and I was on my way down to ask them to leave. That time they did, thank God.”

Religious processions common to Latin America took on heightened meaning. For a newly repopulated community to show up en masse, with banners of saints and the Virgin Mary, conveyed “a political statement.” As she puts it, “we are not afraid. We have a right to be here. Our faith continues to be a source of strength to us.”

One woman who fled the death squads, moving at night, toting a baby from town to town, made it safely into Honduras — but the baby died. As the war wound down, the woman returned to El Salvador with aching spasms in the shoulder and chest. After training as a therapist, Farrell used a treatment model for torture victims, helping the woman unpack the pain embedded from guilt over the baby’s death.

In 2005 Farrell returned to the Dubuque convent of the Franciscan sisters that she had entered at 18. Elected to the LCWR board several years later, she was midway through her one-year term as president when they made their annual trip to Rome, in April, to update church officials on their work. With Farrell were Sisters Mary Hughes, the past LCWR president; president-elect Florence Deacon, and Janet Mock, the executive director.

Before their appointment in the Palace of the Holy Office, they held an hour of silent prayer in a Carmelite center.