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.

  • M. Frances

    Thank you for your coverage on this issue. Please continue to follow the developments. The sisters ARE the Church in the United States for many people. They live the mandate of Vatican II and act in ways that are truly consistent with the message of the Gospel. They deserve our full support.

  • David

    The nuns have nothing to worry about. They should just carry on their good work and ignore the Taliban in the Vatican. By the end of this year, the Christ will have returned to the world openly. When he does, he will straighten out these Vatican bishops who think they are the boss and that they are authorized to speak for God. See for more info.

  • Tim Roemer

    If Mr. Gibson believs that these superiors were actuallty surprised, then he is either very gullible or believes the superiors to be benighted. The Congregation for the Doctrine of The Faith ( CDF) started this inqury three years ago . The superiors knew the matters about which the CDF was concerned; they knew they encouraged public dissent against established moral and revealed teaching. In contrast to Mr. Gibbons thought, it seems perfectly clear that the superiors knew that they were teaching doctine opposed to authentic Catholocism. .

  • Marcello

    It’s very sad, but very predictable. I’m a cradle Catholic, and remained Catholic for most of my forty years. I even stood by the Church through much of the sexual abuse scandal. But instead of administering the healing that the Church so badly needs, the Vatican has chosen to pour salt in our wounds. The actions of the hierarchy have been heartless, gutless, and mean-spirited. The recent report on the LCWR is yet another example of this pathology. It would seem that the darkest days for the Church are not behind us, but ahead.

  • Michael W. Brinkman

    A Sonnet on the Church’s Hierarchy

    The mitred Pharisees have clearly heard
    Each Gospel’s messages throughout the years—
    And though they’ve sworn allegiance to the Word,
    They’ve abdicated that for rank careers—
    Careers that long to quench their thirsty quest
    For egocentric powers and prestige.
    What Christ resisted during Satan’s tests
    These Pharisees find pleasing, and have seized.
    Thus, now these seizors are but minions of
    The Temptor; and the septer of their chair
    Opposes justice and the God of Love.
    But despite such hypocrites, I don’t despair,
    For the Holy Spirit patiently awaits
    To be allowed to pass through the Church’s gates.


  • Anita Pollock

    I hear the hirearchy being bashed for their “weakness” and reluctance to take a stand for precepts that are being ingnored or abused. Vatican II broght many good changes but somehow it seemed to be the beginning of the attitude that the Faithful can pick and choose the teachings it likes and throw out others. In my view it isn’t the pope or the bishops who are power grabing. it’s the unfaithful nuns who really seem to believe that the good that they do is by their own power — not God’s. We need to humbly accept the direction of the clergly. If the proud nuns think they know better, they are better lost to the Church. I find this painful to say.

  • Joe Smith (yes, it is my real name)

    The role of women in the ministry of Christ was much different during the lifetime of Christ, and for a short time after His death. To bring women back into the role for women defined by Jesus would bring the Catholic Church closer to the teachings of Jesus. The choice that the Catholic church has made is to keep the role of women minimized in defiance of the example that Christ set for women. The Catholic Church is in decline around the world for a reason, and that reason is not the apostate activity of its flock, but rather the schismatic attitude of the Catholic Church’s leadership towards its flock.

  • Rev Pat Colwell

    I am grateful for the coverage I find here and seldom anywhere else. Thank you all for what you do. With this story, I must confess that I was rather disappointed that the only people discussing the issue concerning the nuns were male. I noticed that when contraception was discussed on the floor of Congress there was at least one collared cleric on the panel of men. Did anyone from the Lay Conference of Women Religious consent to an interview?

  • Clark McCain

    It is not obvious the “the bishops were on board with this.” Mr. Gibson might benefit from doing just a bit of gumshoe research. I’m just a simple lay person in Chicago and I know that not to be the case. Such a cavalier statement raises the question as to whether any of Mr. Gibson’s commentary has value.

    Mr. Gibson’s op-ed in today’s WSJ provides interesting insight on his views and places his PBS commentary in a much clearer light. It would be advisable for PBS to select a more credible commentator in the future as an association with Mr Gibson, at least on these topics, does not reflect a commitment to journalistic integrity.