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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.

Cardinals gathering St. Peter's Square
A cardinal walks near St. Peter's Square ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's last public audience on February 25, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Benedict has been the leader of the Catholic Church for eight years and is the first Pope to retire since 1415. He cites ailing health as his reason for retirement and will spend the rest of his life in solitude away from public engagements. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

As pope steps down, disinformation permeates Vatican crackdown on nuns

Accused of straying from Catholic theology and put under official investigation, tens of thousands of American nuns hope the next pope will end the 'Inquisition.'

Editor’s Note: As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to make his historic resignation official on Thursday, the college of cardinals who will choose the next pontiff are arriving in Rome. These ‘Princes of the Church’ are landing amid a firestorm of press coverage about the still-unfolding clergy abuse crisis and about a balkanized Vatican bureaucracy traditionally loyal to the pope.

A key strand in this story of Vatican factionalism — and deep divisions in the church between conservatives and relatively progressive forces — is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents the superiors for 80 percent of America’s 57,000 nuns.

This investigation has challenged the role many sisters have taken in a polarized church led by a rigid Vatican hierarchy that criticizes the nuns’ theology while approving their work with poor and marginalized peoples of the world.

Last April, a “Doctrinal Assessment” accused the leadership of nuns of “radical feminism” and a form of latter-day heresy. It was seen by some theologians as tantamount to a modern ‘Inquisition.’ The Vatican boldly ordered a takeover by an archbishop of key functions of the nuns’ Leadership Conference, sending a chill over many missionary orders headquartered in Rome. It followed a Vatican attempt to get records on real estate, property and assets that many nuns feared was an attempted confiscation by bishops scrambling to shore up church coffers to pay the staggering cost of the priest sex abuse crisis and ameliorate the economic consequences of the deepening priest shortage. 

Where this controversial investigation goes under the next pope is a looming question; but the story behind the investigation reveals new fault lines within the Curia. This second part of Jason Berry’s Special Report for GlobalPost which is based on three months of reporting from Rome, Germany and across America, takes a deep look at property issues faced by nuns in the larger context of church finances.

“The Vatican doesn’t know what to do with people who chart their own course.”
~Sister Christine Schenk

ROME — When the Vatican first launched an investigation of American nuns in 2009, it sent a questionnaire seeking extensive information on the religious congregations’ property.

The questions made many mothers superior recoil from the invasive tactics, given Canon Law’s protection for religious orders to govern their own assets. But it took meetings with church canonists to understand just how they should respond.

Rome’s sweeping searchlight came at a time when many convents are immersed in asset-management plans to cover rising elder-care costs, while the larger Catholic church is reeling from the costly litigation connected to a sprawling priest sex abuse scandal from Boston to Los Angeles and Ireland to Germany. As the Vatican investigation of the nuns deepened, many sisters grew appalled at what they saw as disinformation tactics, powerful churchmen using doctrine to mask a campaign of retribution for the nuns’ liberal politics, and, as they saw it, a psychological projection by scandal-stained cardinals and bishops.

“It feels almost evil to me, like there’s another agenda — to get even, as if they think we’re connected with all the problems in the priesthood,” says Sister Cecilia Dwyer, prioress of St. Benedictine Monastery in Bristow, Va. 

With Pope Benedict set to resign on Feb. 28, and the global media converging in Rome, the main leadership group of American nuns, locked in conflict with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is hoping for a break. Under church law, leaders of Vatican congregations must step down when the papacy is vacant until a new pontiff is elected. Roman Curial staffers continue their work, but no major decisions will be made until the new pope has had sufficient time to decide on his appointments of prefects at the various congregations and to review initiatives by his predecessor. Many sisters are hoping the next pope will end the ‘New Inquisition.‘

Video: The story behind the story - Jason Berry reflects on reporting on the Catholic Church

Last April, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — the office governed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for a quarter century before his election as Pope Benedict — declared a “supervision” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents the