Should Pope Francis continue a punitive strike against the mainstream organization of American nuns? Is the survival of the group representing 57,000 liberal US nuns even on His Holiness' radar screen? And if not, how do the group's leaders put it there?
These questions will be hovering when the pope meets Wednesday morning with 800 women superiors of religious orders across the globe for one hour, before his weekly audience that draws 10 times as many people. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious — an American organization — has four members in the International Union of Superiors General, representing 700,000 sisters from across the world.
In April 2012 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — historically, the office that monitors strict compliance with church teaching — put the LCWR under supervision, a kind of receivership.
CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada, who soon retired to a condo in California, scored members of the LCWR for “radical feminist” initiatives; he appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to vet their writings, speakers and rewrite their guidelines.
Levada singled out a speech at an LCWR conference by Dominican Sister Laurie Brink, Chicago Theological Union scholar, as “a serious source of scandal...incompatible with religious life.” Brink had criticized church leaders, who too often recycled pedophile priests, without naming any bishops. Levada had been mired in abuse lawsuits as San Francisco archbishop before his 2005 elevation to Rome. But Brink called on the mother superiors, many disillusioned by the reactionary Vatican politics, “to become ambassadors of Christ.”
“If there is to be a future for women religious that upholds our dignity,” she said, “we must first be reconciled with the institutional church.”
LCWR officials refused media interviews amid a year-long dance of diplomacy with Sartain, as public opinion supporting the nuns backfired so hard some Vatican officials sit up.
“The CDF never should have done it,” a canon law judge in Rome told GlobalPost on background. “Why waste the effort with older nuns who aren’t rejuvenating religious life?”
That cynical view is not shared by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the feisty Brazilian prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders. The CDF’s failure to consult with his office, he said on Sunday, caused him “much pain.”
"We have to change this way of doing things," Braz de Aviz said during an open dialogue session with the 800 women of UISG in an assembly in Rome on Sunday, as covered in National Catholic Reporter.
"Our relationships,” he said, "are sick, profoundly sick," in reference to Levada’s 2012 order in which he says he was not consulted. "Cardinals can't be mistrustful of each other,” he continued. "This is not the way the church should function."
De Aviz’s comments broke with a Vatican statement last month, after Pope Francis met with Archbishop Gerhard Muller, who succeeded Levada at the CDF, saying that the pope upheld the 2012 position.
Braz de Aviz may be the most outspoken reformer in the Curia. In early March, during general meetings among cardinals just before the secret vote in the papal conclave, he drew applause according to La Stampa from some two dozen cardinals among the 117 for confronting Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone over his handling of the Vatican Bank, which has been dogged by a money-laundering scandal.
"Obedience and authority must be renewed, re-visioned," de Aviz stated on Sunday to the nuns. "Authority that commands, kills. Obedience that becomes a copy of what the other person says, infantilizes."
On Tuesday the Vatican Press Office fired back.
“Recent media commentary on [de Aviz’s] remarks,” the statement read, “suggested a divergence” between de Aviz and Mueller. “Such an interpretation of the cardinal’s remarks is not justified. The prefects of these two congregations work closely together according to their specific responsibilities and have collaborated throughout the process” – despite Aviz’s statement that he complained to Levada about failing to consult him in 2012.
The rare spectacle of the CDF in damage control gain momentum on, of all places, the website of EWTN News, the Alabama-based Catholic TV network.
“We are perplexed because the matter is the exclusive responsibility of the congregation and we aren’t stepping on anyone’s toes,” an unnamed CDF source said in a report by Estefania Aguirre. She wrote:
“He explained that the LCWR follow the ‘gender ideology’ and ‘have developed an exacerbated ultra feminism which makes them reject all type of male authority. They have been fired in many parishes because they teach things that provoke great discomfort within communities.’ "
Turf wars with collateral damage to innocent people are common in all bureaucracies; but Levada’s heavy-handed tactics, notably misrepresenting the import of Brink’s lecture, magnified an image of the Vatican prosecuting nuns who worked for decades with people on the margins — women living out Pope Francis’s endorsement of “a church for the poor.”
Sister Florence Deacon, the LCWR president, in a speech in Rome to other sisters over the weekend, said: “I doubt if he followed us very closely when he was in Argentina. We wonder if he was told much at all, and we assume he would have, if told anything, it would have been as written in the report of the  assessment. So we’re not really sure what it meant that he’s reaffirmed the continued renewal. In the first appearance after his election, he spoke of a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us, bishop and people together. And that’s specifically what we are asking for and hoping for.”
But issues confronting nuns cross a gamut of cultures in a church of 1.2 billion believers. Fidelity to the pope and church traditions is a hallmark of Third World nuns for whom poverty, sexual trafficking and bare survival issues supersede scandals of the male hierarchy.
“Women religious in the church have been for centuries in the forefront of where the people are in need,” Sister Mary Lou Wirtz, a Franciscan and President of the Union of Superior Generals in Rome recently told Vatican Radio.
“I think in some circles it’s been recognized, but I think from the circles within the Vatican we don’t hear that recognition,” she said. “But even if we’re not hearing it…. we continue our mission.”