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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.

Pope Francis St. Paul 2013
Speculation that the new pope would reverse his predecessor's 'inquisition' is shown to be incorrect.

Pope Francis attends a Mass in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on April 14, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

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Behind the white, marble columns at the entrance to Vatican City, a clash of wills is underway, an ideological struggle over strikingly different interpretations of Vatican II and the global agenda of the Catholic Church in years to come.

Under the rigidly conservative leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican accelerated an investigation into the main leadership group of American nuns, accusing them of betraying Catholic doctrine on homosexuality and the role of women. In short, the Vatican has gone after the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for what amounts to heresy.

One of the church’s preeminent scholars, Hans Küng of Germany’s University of Tübingen, likens the Vatican campaign to a modern Inquisition, one that is unfolding against a backdrop of the 50th anniversary of Roman Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and Benedict's historic resignation. Through the papal transition, the meaning of Vatican II, the future direction of the church and the state of this 'new inquisition' all hang in the balance. 

For the leaders of the American religious orders of women and their community members, an epic sense of mission grew out of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Inspired by Vatican II to rewrite their constitutions, the nuns took to heart the call for a modernizing church, allied themselves with the poor and embarked on Third World missions with a new ethos for social justice. The Vatican now seems intent on redefining the terms of how the nuns operate.

At the center of this drama is Sister Pat Farrell of Dubuque, Iowa, the recent president of the LCWR. Her journey as a Franciscan mirrors the confidence and activism of many nun ushered in by Vatican II. She did courageous work on behalf of the poor during the wars in Chile and El Salvador when dictatorships and oligarchies put the work of the church in Latin America under attack.

In sharp contrast Cardinal William Levada, who guided the early phase of the investigation as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a theologian charged with upholding and enforcing Catholic doctrine.

If Sister Farrell personifies the Vatican II agenda of social justice, Cardinal Levada is a product of the hierarchy that caused the worst crisis of the church since the Protestan Reformation, the long tide of clergy child sexual abuse scandals that has left stress cracks, financially and morally, at the foundation of the church. In the CDF investigation of the nuns, Levada was surrounded with many of the same bishops and cardinals who engaged in disastrous reshuffling of pedophile priests from one parish to the next, leaving a trail of traumatized victims and massive law suits that have driven some dioceses into bankruptcy.

In this first installment of a GlobalPost Special Report series to continue in 2013, award-winning journalist and author Jason Berry draws on his many years of reporting on the church. Through two months of reporting in Rome, Germany and across America, Berry presents a vivid portrait of both Farrell and Levada and places them in the context of this struggle as it enters a crucial phase of negotiations. Berry portrays it as a tearing tug-of-war about the meaning of justice, and the denial of justice in a church that has become deeply polarized in the half-century since Vatican II called for a church engaged with the modern world.

Led by Berry, this GlobalPost Special Report sets out to tell this story through reporting from around the world. As GlobalPost correspondent and editor Kevin Grant writes from a reporting trip across Arizona, Los Angeles and Mexico, the story is a global one precisely because it is about the mission of the Catholic church as carried out by the nuns who lead so many orders and missions in so many corners of the world:

-- From South Central Los Angeles to the Bronx, American nuns and the missions they serve offer ministry every day to those suffering a myriad of problems that arise out of broken families, generational poverty and a sweeping indifference by too many.

-- On the US-Mexico border where migrants are caught every day in a no man’s land of despair, there are more missions led by nuns that provide food and shelter.

-- In the Congo where women are systematically raped in a country where sexual violence is a tool of war, American nuns do what they can to save lives and minister to deep wounds.

-- In the slums of Asia where human trafficking forces desperately poor women and children into lives of prostitution and often sentences them to AIDS, these nuns do not preach or moralize but do anything they can to save lives.

This kind of field work often puts the nuns who do it up against strict Catholic doctrine on birth control, homosexuality and other thorny issues that always seem more nuanced and complex when they involve real people who are suffering in real time.

There is no attempt by the Vatican to shut down these missions or pull funding for the important field work they do, but the spiritual and social ethos that sustains these nuns is very much under attack. It is an ideological clash that Vatican observers say, fits within a larger struggle within the church over Vatican II and how the church will carry itself in the world.

By Charles M. Sennott
GlobalPost Executive Editor and co-founder
 

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