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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.

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.'

superiors of the vast majority of American nuns. The decree by Cardinal William Levada, who has since retired to his native California, named a Vatican delegate to function rather like an overseer of the Leadership Conference.

I never expected to confront this climate in the church — to be seen at as ‘bad girls.’ We have been nothing but faithful to Vatican documents,” says Sister Dwyer, the Benedictine prioress in Virginia.

“This is about politics, not faith,” says Sister Simone Campbell, who became famous leading a nationwide campaign called “Nuns on the Bus” to raise important social justice issues on the campaign trail in support of President Obama’s reelection.

Campbell is Executive Director of Network, a national lobbying group for Catholic issues of social justice, was also named in Levada’s decree, called a Doctrinal Assessment.

Levada scored LCWR for “radical feminism.” He ordered Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to vet publications, speakers and impose conformity. But, says Sister Pat Farrell, the LCWR immediate past president: “Little has changed. We are in a holding pattern.”

Farrell and LCWR board members had one meeting last June with Sartain, which she described as “cordial and respectful,” while declining to offer details. But other sisters, speaking on background, portray Sartain taking his time in light of Benedict’s resignation, waiting for a clear signal from the new papacy about how he should proceed.      

The Assessment criticized LCWR for its ties to Resource Center for Religious Institutes (RCRI), a small consultant group that advises religious orders on legal issues, notably property. Father Daniel Ward, a Benedictine with degrees in civil and canon law, directs the center, which charges fees for advising on a range of issues that religious orders confront.

A number of women’s orders are selling or consolidating properties as their numbers drop and elder-care costs increase. The Assessment made no allegation of any specific wrongdoing against RCRI, but left a threat of further investigation hanging for future action. To many nuns, this was payback for the Resource Center’s advice to them on the probing questionnaire from the Vatican office of Cardinal Franc Rodé about the value of their real estate assets.

But beyond the land issues lie questions of theology.

Many religious communities feel betrayed by the Vatican for the way Levada’s document impugned a lecture by Dominican Sister Laurie Brink, a Catholic Theological Union of Chicago scripture scholar — cherry-picking some of her lines, distorting the conclusion to suggest some kind of a feminist conspiracy that the Vatican has made tantamount to an allegation of heresy.

"I am still declining all interviews,” Brink state in an e-mail exchange with GlobalPost. “The CDF document concerned the LCWR, of which I am not nor have ever been a member. I may like to defend myself and the taking of my talk out of context, but I do not feel that inserting myself into this concern is wise or helpful for those involved. This event has provided me an opportunity to practice the very reconciliation which I espouse. And let me tell you — it is easier to write about reconciliation than to live it!"

The climate of Vatican retribution many nuns decry arises from the muddled, archaic way the CDF operates. The Congregation, the nexus of the conservative leadership under Ratzinger, has actively retrenched from the reformist and more liberal policies of the church ushered in by the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, a half century ago. Led by Cardinal Bernard Law, a conservative group of American bishops pushed for an investigation of socially progressive sisters — women who stand on their orders’ constitutions, which were approved in Rome after Vatican II by the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious as they took on greater pastoral activism in the world.

Several years ago, that Vatican office underwent a name change from Congregation for Religious to The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Cardinal Franc Rodé became prefect of the newly named Congregation in 2004. Rodé, a Solvenian-born prelate whose family fled the post-war Communist takeover, and settled in Argentina, has sternly criticized the evolution of religious life since Vatican II for “the hermeneutics of discontinuity” — opening the gates to radical changes that, in the view of traditionalists like himself, have gone far beyond