|NATIONAL | FALL 2009
Two surprise Vatican investigations of U.S. nuns may be
attempts to root out—gasp!—feminist beliefs
By Sr. Maureen Fiedler, SL
Over the past year, the Vatican has initiated two
chilling investigations of
American nuns’ communities. Nuns
are not singing “hallelujah.”
“The planned visitation comes as a
surprise,” was the polite public reaction
from the Leadership Conference
of Women Religious (LCWR) to “apostolic visitations” launched in
late 2008. The nuns’ community
leaders are being sent questionnaires
about their practices, followed in
some cases by on-site visits in 2010.
The second is a “doctrinal” investigation,
launched in early 2009, looking
at the adherence of nuns in leadership
posts to selected church doctrines.
But why these investigations, and
why American nuns?
The Vatican cites as an excuse the
sharp decline in membership in U.S.
communities of nuns, from about
180,000 in the 1970s to about 59,000
today, and the lack of young women
joining the sisterhood. But that decline
has been trending for 40 years, and in
Europe—where there have been no investigations—
communities of nuns
have shown even greater decline.
Some conservative sisters take the
investigations at face value as a benign
attempt to rebuild membership.
But most progressive nuns suspect a desire by the church hierarchy to rein in the
independent lifestyles and ministries
of active, often outspoken, feminist
women, and to push them back into
highly scheduled convent living and
recognizable religious garb habits).
Other nuns see the investigations
as an attempt to silence their cries
against injustices in the church. Fueling
such suspicions are the three targets
of the doctrinal investigation: It
will assess whether nuns’ leaders accept
the all-male priesthood, adhere
to church teaching that homosexual
activity is “intrinsically disordered,”
and believe that only the Catholic
Church provides salvation, while other
Christian churches have “defects.”
Those teachings have been challenged
for years by prominent theologians.
Many nuns have been active
for decades in the movement for
women’s ordination to the priesthood.
Some nuns have questioned
teachings on contraception and abortion.
Others have defended the rights
of gays and lesbians, and still others
work for interfaith understanding
Perhaps the Vatican is most afraid
of how public American nuns have become.
Although nuns are not clergy,
they are often seen by laypeople as a
kind of pseudo-clergy: “publicly Catholic.” Feminist theologian Mary
Hunt puts it this way: “The power to
be ‘publicly’ Catholic [is] something
the men have long reserved for themselves.
Now that Catholic women, including
nuns, are saying, ‘This is
what Catholic looks like,’ there is
trouble in Vatican City.”
The investigations are shrouded in
secrecy. In August, LCWR publicly
complained about the lack of transparency
in the process, and asked
bluntly who is funding the project. “They haven’t given us a reason for
the investigation of nuns in this country
that makes sense,” says Sr. Joan
Chittister, a Benedictine nun, a feminist
and author of many books on
spirituality. “It has simply deleted the
whole notion of woman as a participating
moral agent in her own life
and the evaluation of it.” You can view
the questionnaire sent out as part of the
Maureen Fiedler is a Sister of Loretto
and the host of “Interfaith Voices” on
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