Vatican Report on US Catholic Nuns


BOB ABERNETHY, host: The Vatican released a major report this week cracking down on the umbrella group that represents most of the Catholic nuns in the United States. The report criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for what it called “serious doctrinal problems.” While acknowledging the group promotes social justice, the report faulted the sisters for being silent on other issues dealing with the right to life, including abortion and euthanasia. Members of the conference were also chastised for publicly challenging the Catholic bishops on certain occasions.

We have an analysis now of the Vatican’s charges and their consequences from David Gibson, national reporter for Religion News Service, a longtime Vatican observer, and author of the book The Rule of Benedict. He joins us from New York. David, welcome.

DAVID GIBSON (National Reporter, Religion News Service): Good to be here, Bob.

ABERNETHY: What stood out for you in this report, this challenge?

GIBSON: Well, Bob, I think it was really significant that this announcement came the day before Pope Benedict celebrated the seventh anniversary of his election as pope. Back seven years ago in 2005 when he was elected, so many people thought he’d be the German enforcer when he became pope, and that really hadn’t proved to be the case for most of his seven years on the throne of St. Peter’s, and many are wondering if this signals a new crackdown overall from the Vatican. The nuns were certainly very surprised at this announcement. They didn’t expect it, and they’re sort of formulating their response, and how that back and forth goes over these next few months will be really telling, I think.

ABERNETHY: But what is the Vatican going to do. and what are the U.S. bishops going to do to the nuns? They’ve got—they’re going to have severe oversight, right?

GIBSON: Yeah. I think you could compare it to a hostile takeover, more or less. They’re going to take this organization. and the bishops have the canonical authority under church law, so they can kind of do what they want. In fact, the nuns, the LCWR is thinking or one option they may have is simply disbanding.

ABERNETHY: Leadership Conference on Women Religious.

GIBSON: Yeah, the Leadership Conference on Women Religious. They’re thinking of simply disbanding and reorganizing on their own, out from under the church’s purview. But the church will have, they have—the archbishop of Seattle has a five-year mandate to oversee this overhaul, and they can rewrite their statutes and vet their speakers for their conferences and pretty much do as they like.

ABERNETHY: Do you see a role that the U.S. bishops might have played in preparing and going along with this announcement?

GIBSON: Yeah. I think obviously the bishops were on board with this. In past years, even under the late Pope John Paul II, the American bishops often pushed back on some of these things and defended their own, or they were involved in negotiations to try and mediate an agreement before you had this kind of firm crackdown. But, obviously, I think the bishops were on board with the Vatican from the get-go on this.

ABERNETHY: Some people have said that they see signs of a split within the Catholic community—between attention to social service, taking the care of the poor and all on the one hand, and religious freedom, defending religious freedom on the other, as the bishops are trying very hard to do, especially on proposals for health care reform. Do you see that, and is this part of that?

GIBSON: I think to a degree it is, Bob. I think it’s really the split between social justice, between doing all those things that the nuns in America and sisters throughout Catholic history have done, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, running hospitals and universities, educational institutions, schools, and the more doctrinal issues, the pro-life, anti-gay marriage initiatives, the preaching that the bishops want to do, and the bishops are really wanting to get everyone on board here.

ABERNETHY:Thank you very much, David Gibson of Religion News Service.

GIBSON: Thank you.