Connect to share and comment

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.

Cardinal Rodé, as prefect of Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, ordered the 2009 “visitation” of American nun communities. He told Vatican Radio of his concern for “a certain secular mentality … in these religious families and perhaps also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”

Rodé was also prompted by a 2008 conference he attended on religious life at Stonehill College near Boston. Sister Elizabeth McDonough, a canon lawyer, accused LCWR of creating “global-feminist-operated business corporations” and “controlling all structures and resources.”

“I'm unaware of any such facts that would back up that claim. It sounds like a sweeping indictment of the direction many orders have taken which the hierarchy found offensive or disloyal, summed up in the ‘radical feminism’ catch phrase,” says Kenneth A. Briggs, author of "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns."

“Most orders were scrounging to come up with funds to support retired sisters, often selling off property that belonged to them to do so. It seems clear to me that the aim of the Stonehill meeting was to paint a picture of disobedience as a pretext for a crackdown,” Briggs says.

Rodé in an interview brushed off suggestions that the visitation was unfair. “Vatican II was reform, but not a revolution,” he insists.

The cardinal echoed Benedict in saying that Vatican II has met “a hermeneutic of discontinuity” — liberal drift.

Rodé requested $1.3 million from religious communities and bishops to cover travel and other expenses for the visitation, which he appointed Mother Clare Millea, superior general of Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Mary, to carry out.

The funding request raised eyebrows among many missionary orders.

“Why would you want to pay them to investigate you?” asks one of the missionary sisters in Rome.

The study by Mother Millea has not been made public; however, the CDF began its investigation of LCWR before the first one was done.

“Vatican II was the most important event that changed the Catholic Church,” says Sister Nzenzili Lucie Mboma.

“Jesus was a carpenter. He didn’t build cells, but windows to see every culture.”

She pauses. “Why is this investigation happening?”

Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, sponsored by the Knight Program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.