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Vatican Rebuke: Are U.S. Nuns Promoting ‘Radical Feminist Themes?’

April 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new Vatican report criticizes the largest group of U.S. Catholic nuns -- the Leadership Conference of Women Religious -- for promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." Judy Woodruff discusses the charge with Christendom College's Donna Bethell and Fordham University's Jeannine Hill Fletcher.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a new report from the Vatican criticizes the largest group of Catholic nuns in the United States.

The assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious comes from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It says the group of sisters promoted — quote — “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” It concluded that the sisters had contradicted church teaching on homosexuality and on male-only priesthood in public statements that — quote — “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

To discuss this assessment, we’re joined by Donna Bethell. She is now the chairman of the board of directors for Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. And Jeannine Hill Fletcher, she teaches theology at Fordham University in New York.

And we thank you both for being with us.

DONNA BETHELL, Christendom College: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me start with you, Donna Bethell.

You agree with what the Vatican has done here. Why is what the Women Religious did offensive to the leadership of the church?

DONNA BETHELL: Well, I think to understand this correctly, you have to know that the church expects a great deal of people who are publicly consecrated in the church for its service, which is what Women Religious are.

And at the very beginning of the document, they quote Pope John Paul II to the effect that it’s important that consecrated persons in the church be faithful to the teaching of the church and witness to it in their life and works.

The second point is that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is an entity established by the Vatican, approved by the Vatican, its statutes approved by the Vatican for the purpose of supporting the Women Religious in their life and work. And so it’s the responsibility of the Vatican to see that the conference is actually doing its job. And that’s what it’s done in this assessment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the finding is that they strayed from Vatican teaching?

DONNA BETHELL: Yes, as you summarized, and in other areas, they found that they either put out materials that are troublesome, not presenting the full doctrine of the church. They supported speakers at their conferences who — some of whom challenged the church or simply ignored its teaching in various aspects, and that they have not been a positive.

It’s not — it’s one thing to actually contradict the church, but it wasn’t just their job to avoid contradicting their church. It’s their job to present the fullness of the Catholic faith and to help their members to understand it and to live it. And that’s where they had been found short.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeannine Fletcher, how does the Women Religious group see this? Do they acknowledge, in your understanding, that they’ve strayed from the doctrine?

JEANNINE HILL FLETCHER, Fordham University: Well, my work as a feminist theologian — I am not religious. I’m not ordained. I’m a laywoman. So I don’t have an insider’s picture on this.

What I do have is a sense of the life and work of Women Religious in this country and around the globe as being people who very much carry on faithfully the Catholic tradition, especially in the work of social justice. So these are Women Religious who are at the U.N. defending — defending human rights. They are in our colleges and our universities.

They are running our hospitals. And so from the perspective of being faithful to the church, they are — in my understanding as a feminist theologian, as a Catholic feminist theologian, they are continuing the work of the church.

Now, at issue is the teaching, the doctrine of the church, the authoritative stance on issues. Now, the one element of the report seems to suggest that they’d like for the Women Religious to go back to the catechism more, present the catechism more, or take up the issues that the bishops have found important, the issues against women’s reproductive rights or denouncing homosexuality.

And what I see the Women Religious doing really are looking at the world that we live in, the issues that we face, the signs of the times, and thinking through church teaching and church tradition in light of those new questions. And they’re doing so in. . .


JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to say, let me just stop you there and ask Donna Bethell, is that what is — what the Vatican sees as going against what it sees the role of these Women Religious?

DONNA BETHELL: Well, the Vatican in its document actually commended the kinds of activities, apostolic, social justice activities, that the sisters are carrying out. It recognizes those.

It says you must — but that’s not enough. That’s not the fullness of the Catholic faith. We are also engaged in primary justice in the defense of life, for example, from conception to natural death in the issues of abortion and euthanasia. And the church expects its consecrated publicly — public witnesses to be fully on board and to be advancing the Catholic view of the right to life.

So that’s just one point, where it’s not that they’re being criticized for all the great work that they do. That’s recognized. They’re being asked to be fully in the church.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jeannine Fletcher, are the two things incompatible?

JEANNINE HILL FLETCHER: I’m sorry. I’m not sure the two things that you’re. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

On the one hand, teaching — we heard Ms. Bethell talk about the issue of life, contraception. . .

DONNA BETHELL: Abortion and euthanasia were the points that she brought up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is that teaching that the Vatican is asking compatible with the other teachings that you were describing that have to do with social justice?

JEANNINE HILL FLETCHER: Well, I think what I see the Women Religious doing is really — is really looking for the various ways that they can engage in the well-being of humanity, the fullness of life for humanity.

And what they’re being criticized in this document is about what they’re not doing. Right? They’re not taking up these issues sufficiently. They’re not making them the head of their agenda. At least that’s what the document proposes.

The other thing that the document does is, it criticizes the Women Religious for the things that they seem to be thinking or discussing or exploring. It criticizes their theological investigations within their own private conference, within their discussions among themselves.

And I think that that’s a real — one of the real problems for me as a scholar of women and religion is the document seems to be trying to tell Women Religious to stop exploring the dynamics of the faith and simply take the tradition as it’s been handed to them. And I think that that’s one fundamental difference.

As a theologian, I think that the life of the Catholic community is to continue to engage the life of the faith with the questions that are at hand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in just little bit of time that we have left, Donna Bethell, is there room for debate in the church on these questions?

DONNA BETHELL: Well, there’s room for debate on some questions, but not on all questions.

There are doctrines in the church which are not open for debate. Everybody knows that. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be a Catholic Church. And there are things that are open for debate, for discussion about how you apply this principle. There’s lots of room for prudential judgment, especially in the area of social justice, but there are things that are not open for debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, let me just ask. . .


JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead, quickly. Go ahead.

JEANNINE HILL FLETCHER: Let me just say, as a scholar — as a scholar of religion and a theologian, church teaching does change.

And I think that’s one of the fundamental issues here, especially around the issue of LGBTQ persons and homosexuality. I think that the issue — one of the issues is the church teaching we have seen in — from the second to the 16th century, church teaching was no salvation outside the church.

At Vatican II, in the 20th century, there’s a very different understanding of the relationship of the Catholic truth and the Catholic faith to the truths and faiths of people of the world. And so to suggest that there are some things that simply will not change, I’m not sure that that’s been the tradition of the Catholic Church.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Big subject with certainly room for more debate. And we are going to have to leave it there today.

I want to thank both of you, Jeannine Fletcher and Donna Bethell.