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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.

The prefect, Cardinal Levada, was about to turn 76 and retire to his native California. Putting LCWR under investigation for “radical feminist themes” followed his view of how sacred truth, the teaching of the church, must be upheld.

Doctrinal truth is a tightly held process in the hands of the definer. Levada, like nearly every bishop or cardinal in the constellation of hierarchs involved with the LCWR investigation, had shown unbending tolerance as an archbishop in America toward priests who were sexual predators.

In 2005, the newly elected Benedict XVI lifted Archbisop Levada from the muck of victim lawsuits and bad press in San Francisco to the Holy Office in Rome. Levada is the only US bishop to be sued, successfully, for defamation by a priest he pulled from a parish for blowing the whistle on another priest. Father Jon Conley told police that the pastor with whom he served made advances on a teenage boy. Levada yanked Conley from ministry; Conley, a former US attorney, sued. After the accused priest owned up in a civil case, which paid the victim’s family $750,000, the archdiocese paid Conley a six-figure “pre-retirement” settlement.

The nuns had met once with the CDF investigator, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, but had not seen his report. Blair had left an accused pederast in a fundraising job for 18 months, removing him only as the diocese was paying off two victims’ lawsuits. He was not in the meeting with Levada that day.

The nuns were expecting some conclusion to Blair’s inquiry but had no indication about what it would entail. After a cordial greeting, Cardinal Levada read aloud an eight-page, single-spaced assessment that his office was just posting on the web. The assessment accused the nuns of “corporate dissent” on homosexuality and failure to speak out on abortion. The assessment also castigated LCWR for ties to Network, a Catholic activist group that supported Obamacare, and Resource Center for Religious Institutes, a group that gives religious orders canon law guidance on property issues.

Leaving the Holy Office, Farrell felt numb. “It was in the press before we had time to brief our members,” she recalls.

“The reaction of rank-and-file sisters was anger. Now there is a stage of deep sadness and concern for the climate in the church and the misrepresentation of religious life,” she says.

In a darkly ironic twist, the CDF had processed 3,000 cases of priests who have been laicized, or defrocked for abusing youngsters. Several hundred are reportedly pending.

Yet those procedures that Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, put in place as CDF prefect in 2001 have a large loophole. The office that enforces moral truth and judges guilty priests has not judged bishops and cardinals whose negligence in recycling abusers caused the crisis.

A double standard embedded in church justice gives a de facto immunity for men of the hierarchy.

In the most glaring example, Cardinal Bernard Law, whose soft-glove treatment of pedophiles ignited the Boston scandal, resigned as archbishop in 2002. The Roman Curia welcomed him in 2004 as pastor of a great basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, with a $10,000 per month salary and a highly influential role in choosing new American bishops.

Cardinal Franc Rodé, the retired prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders
(Jason Berry/GlobalPost)

Law was a driving force behind a preliminary investigation of all American religious orders of women, save for cloistered communities, according to several sources interviewed here, and a May 15 report by Robert Mickens, the respected Vatican correspondent for the British magazine, The Tablet. Law, who has not spoken to the media in a decade, refused an interview request. But Cardinal Franc Rodé, 78, the retired prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders, in a wide-ranging interview at his residence in the Palace of the Holy Office, confirmed Law’s role, adding: “It was the American milieu in the Roman Curia that suggested it.”

The “visitation” of all but the cloistered communities was the initial phase. The CDF aggressive investigation of the main leadership group soon followed.

But the specter of cardinals and bishops who played loose with child molesters, targeting nuns for doctrinal disobedience, is unseemly to many.

“Some people say this is an attempt to divert attention from the abuse crisis, like politicians do,” a missionary nun from a Third World country with her order in Rome, said of the CDF investigation.

“We go to US churches to solicit contributions for our work,” she said, insisting that her name and order not be used. “We get dates from dioceses. That could be in question if a bishops sees us as threatening because of our support for LCWR.”

“The Vatican is trying to assert control, to say ‘we are in charge,’” she continued. “This envisions a different church from Vatican II. Many people are saying that the two churches are not coming together.”

LCWR has indeed pushed the envelope with conventions giving forums to theologians who questioned celibacy and the evolution of religious life, at a time when far fewer women enter American convents and most members are moving toward elder care. As liberal theologians clamor for change, the LCWR has collided with the doctrinal office over freedom of conscience, a core principle of Vatican II.