Vatican-Nun Controversy


BOB ABERNETHY, host: Now a special report. Fifty years ago this fall, Pope John XXIII summoned church leaders to Rome for a series of meetings on how to make the church more relevant in the modern world. This Second Vatican Council, as it was known, produced some significant changes in Catholic life. Fifty years later, the legacy of Vatican II is still debated, and that debate has been evident in the current crisis between the Vatican and many US nuns. In April, the Vatican accused the umbrella group that represents the majority of American nuns of “doctrinal confusion.” But many of these sisters say they are just following the spirit of Vatican II. Kim Lawton reports.

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: In Washington, D.C., Sister Maureen Fiedler hosts the public radio program Interfaith Voices. She tries to broaden interreligious understanding in order to further justice and peace, values she says come straight from her Roman Catholic faith.

SISTER MAUREEN FIEDLER (Host, Interfaith Voices): This isn’t something peripheral. This is central to the preaching of the Gospel.

Sister Maureen Fiedler, Host, Interfaith VoicesLAWTON: Fiedler entered religious life 50 years ago, just before Vatican II got underway. She says the spirit of the Vatican meetings had a profound impact on how she viewed her calling.

FIEDLER: The Second Vatican Council had a marvelous document called “The Church in the Modern World,” which basically underlined the message of justice and peace in the Gospel.

LAWTON: Fiedler became involved in a series of social justice causes, including a 37-day fast in support of the Equal Rights Amendment and rallies in support of the ordination of female priests.

FIEDLER: It just all fit together as a piece for me, and it also fit together in my prayer as I tried to put this together with the Second Vatican Council. It simply made sense to try to alleviate the suffering of the poor, to end wars, to overcome discrimination. That for me was Christianity.

LAWTON: But some critics say many Catholic sisters have been using the Second Vatican Council to justify positions and activities that are in conflict with official church teachings. Colleen Carroll Campbell is a columnist and author.

Colleen Carroll CampbellCOLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL (Author, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir): This idea that having this Second Vatican Council and pronouncing that there’s this amorphous spirit that gives us license to pretty much throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, when it comes to Catholic doctrine—it’s simply wrong, and I think we’ve heard over and over from Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI that it’s wrong.

LAWTON: Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 in order, as he put it, to “open a window and let in a little fresh air.”

PROFESSOR COLLEEN MCDANNELL (Professor of History and Religious Studies, University of Utah and Author, The Spirit of Vatican II): Even though in the United States there were a lot of changes going on in the 40’s and 50’s after the Second World War, in worldwide Catholicism these changes really hadn’t occurred. And so in order to open up a window for the whole church, not just in modernized countries, this council was called.

LAWTON: Over the next three years, church leaders at the council produced 16 documents on a host of topics, from introducing local languages into the Mass to expanding lay involvement and promoting more interfaith dialogue. One of the documents focused on religious life. It encouraged Catholic sisters to reexamine their mission, their rules, even their style of dress.

FIEDLER: It called us to go back and look at our foundresses and the spirit in which they started the communities, and when you look at those women who were foundresses, none of them are pussycats, I’m here to tell you. They were strong women who did things and started ministries that were, in many ways, unheard of in their own day.

LAWTON: Many US sisters began modifying or even eliminating the traditional habit. The clothing changes for prioresses of the Dominican sisters in Amityville, New York, were dramatic.

SISTER MARY HUGHES (Dominican Sisters of Amityville): You’ll see in the early years it was very much the same, and then there were some modifications, and then right after Vatican II, immediately, Mother Francis Maureen Carlin is in the modified habit completely, Sister Irene Garvey is in a white suit, and then from Mary Ryan on you’ll see suits, you’ll see various forms of clothing.

LAWTON: Sister Mary Hughes is the current prioress. She says even more than clothing changes, Vatican II urged nuns to get out into the community.

HUGHES: I think that’s one of the great gifts of Vatican II—that it sent us back to study what the Gospels were saying, and over and over again it was about feed the hungry, visit those in prison, help the poor.

LAWTON: The Dominican sisters in Amityville have a variety of ministries designed to help those at the margins, such as literacy classes to teach new immigrant women English. There are homes to help women and children with nowhere else to live, and there’s even an organic garden, where about 20 percent of the produce is donated to an interfaith food network.

Under an umbrella organization called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, many communities of nuns began shifting their ministries in the wake of Vatican II. For some sisters, it was an exhilarating time. But others were concerned.

MCDANNELL: There was a minority of women who didn’t feel that the changes were appropriate, that the adaptations to modern life, the moving out of the parish into the world, that these movements had gone too far.

LAWTON: Some nuns became part of a separate organization that holds more traditional views.

Sister Mary Joseph HeislerSISTER MARY JOSEPH HEISLER (Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus): The Vatican II documents are a pretty straightforward read. I think the difficulty comes when you don’t read everything in context, perhaps. I would find it difficult to read the documents, then come up with them saying something more than what they say.

LAWTON: The LCWR still represents about 80 percent of the some 57,000 American nuns. The group has increasingly taken on advocacy positions, including some that are controversial.

MCDANNELL: These are the sisters that publicly stated to John Paul II that women should be ordained, that women should be allowed to work in all the ministries of the church. This is the same organization that signed the New York Times letter which said that there is a legitimate, diverse opinion on the question of abortion.

LAWTON: Sister Mary Hughes is immediate past president of the LCWR and still part of its leadership team.

HUGHES: Are there persons who have divergent opinions? I think that’s true in the whole church; it’s not just true in religious life. I think sometimes there’s a concern if we raise a question that means that we are in defiance, and that’s not at all what happens. But I think we’re going to continue to raise the questions, because there might be areas that we would hope the church would look at.

Sister Mary Hughes, Dominican Sisters of AmityvilleLAWTON: In 2008, Vatican officials began an investigation into the lives and doctrine of US women religious. This past April, the Vatican released a report accusing the LCWR of having “serious doctrinal problems.” The assessment specifically criticized the group for being largely silent on right-to-life issues, and it mandated that the group come under the authority of some US bishops.

HUGHES: We’re stuck with a situation that a mandate that we are not happy about, that we answered all the questions that we’re given to us in the doctrinal assessment honestly, carefully, prudently, and when we didn’t hear back, I guess we thought that we were believed. And I think there are aspects of the mandate that make us wonder if our materials were read.

LAWTON: For example, Hughes says she believes there is more than one way to promote the sanctity of human life. She says her community’s ministries against domestic violence and in support of homeless mothers and children is also prolife work.

HUGHES: That’s about the sanctity of human life. It’s about doing it differently. I think it’s complementary. I don’t think you can have one without the other.

LAWTON: Others say that’s not enough.

Professor Colleen McDannellCAMPBELL: We’re talking about defending the sanctity of every human life from the cradle to the grave, defending the sanctity of marriage as the church sees marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and just generally promoting church teaching, and upholding that teaching and witnessing with joy to that, and that’s not what many lay Catholics have seen.

LAWTON: Professor McDannell says since the death of John the XXIII church leaders have appeared to be consolidating authority.

MCDANNELL: The new generation of men want a Catholic Church which is more traditional, which is more devotional, which is more willing to be obedient to the authority.

LAWTON: Some wonder if there is any room for dialogue and debate.

FIEDLER: This is not just about the Vatican versus the nuns. This really is about the future of how we interpret the message of the Second Vatican Council, and what’s going on right now quite frankly makes me sad, because I see certain people in Rome, in the Vatican, who want retrenchment, who want to go back to the church the way it was before the Second Vatican Council, when the church was essentially the hierarchy, and they determined everything down to sometimes the minutia of Catholic life.

CAMPBELL: Women religious need to stand with the Church, and if they don’t feel that they can in good conscience do that anymore then I think it would take more integrity to simply step back and say, you know, maybe we’re not called to be Catholic women religious anymore. Maybe we want to be something else.

LAWTON: Many lay Catholics have been rallying in support of the sisters. Hughes says they been getting letters of encouragement from across the country. She says she remains hopeful that, in the spirit of Vatican II, healing can prevail.

HUGHES: There’s always a blessing that comes with every conflict. Perhaps the blessing is that we continue to open up within the Church avenues for true dialogue and true dialogue isn’t about winners and losers. It’s about people truly being able to listen to understand the other perspective before making any judgments.

LAWTON: LCWR members will be meeting in St. Louis in early August to discuss their official response to the Vatican assessment.

I’m Kim Lawton reporting.

  • Eymard Mc Coll

    While I am one of those who don’t march or go to Washington on pro-life rallies, I can assure you my 45 years as a religious has been spent promoting life. My work with young people, college students, homeless woman and children, supporting the dying, and I could go on. My Phila. Catholic school training was not limited to any one aspect of pro-life but rather the sisters taught us to care for all aspects of life. I often wonder what Jesus will say when we save a child only to walk away for the, to be abused, neglected and scarred for the rest of their life. Will I have been true to the call for,life then. For every 5 children who is not aborted what if 3 either die of abuse, child molestation or are sold for drugs have we really done all we could or did we pat ourselves on the back and tell God what a great job we did?
    Respect life is womb to the tomb and I hear much about abortion but little about the rest of the challenges these young lives face. I know I am proud of my religious community like so many others who heeded Vatican ll.

  • Paulita Bernuy

    Regarding Vatican Two,
    I received a lot of new insights about Vatican ll when I read “What Happened at Vatican ll”
    I personally called it ‘What REALLY happened at Vatican ll’ It is by a good Jesuit whose name I regret not remembering. It is VERY readable and fascinating. Comes in soft cover.

  • John Chuchman

    Teachings of the Church

    Surely if there ever was a perfect catch-all phrase,
    it is “teachings-of-the-Church”.
    It includes everything from defined dogmas,
    items in the Apostle’s Creed,
    1752 Canon laws,
    opinions of the Pope (like steam locomotives are the work of the devil), every one of the 2865 items in the Catechism,
    to the thoughts of cranky old bishops like Burke and Molino.

    It has become a universal cliché of the hierarchy to discourage dissent.
    Falling into the same catch-all basket of against
    “The Teachings of the Church”
    are those who disagree with pre-Vatican II liturgical norms and language, contraception,
    mandatory celibacy for priests,
    collective bargaining,
    just war and torture,
    women’s ordination,
    same sex unions,
    the resurrection of Jesus,
    the nature of the Trinity,
    and if God really exists.
    Note that some “Teachings of the Church” are slippery,
    time-bound, and culturally-colored.

    At stake here is the power and authority,
    originating from the community of the Church
    and appropriated by unelected leaders to set the rules
    for who is in and who is out.
    By voting a certain way,
    you could be considered “out”
    according to “The Teachings of the Church”.
    By not behaving/believing according to the bishop’s instruction,
    you are obviously against the Teaching of the Church.

    Some (bishops?) believe good teaching is the attempt to influence,
    even coerce,
    the faithful into believing what is being taught.
    But the criteria for effective teaching
    involves rather if the teaching makes sense
    and is received by the faithful.

    If you do not accept that all contraception is sinful,
    or legalizing same-sex unions are wrong,
    or only men can be ordained,
    or contributors should have a say in how their money is spent
    and who should be responsible,
    or the language of prayer should be strange or contorted,
    or bishops should tell us how to vote,
    you are dissenting against “the teachings of the Church”.

    Without careful and intelligent scrutiny,
    accepting every “teaching of the Church”
    is similar to checking the box
    “I agree” to observe every privacy/usage rule
    for downloading new software/ upgrades.

    Study the reasoning behind Church teachings,
    consult and observe how your Catholic community receives them,
    and judge for yourself.

    Follow your own well-formed conscience,
    as fallible as it may be.

    Who is going to save the church? Not the bishops, not the priest and religious. It is up to you the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save Her.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

  • Richard Bresden

    Remarkable journalism. A case study in how to report and communicate ideological divergence.

  • Mary Faye Hellman

    I am a religious woman from USA living and working in Guatemala for the last 24 years.
    I feel that the Roman Church is very much out of touch with the real lives and struggles of the majority poor of this country. Even though some Roman Catholic Bishops do try to lead in social struggles, the negative approach of the official Roman Church makes progress in human development very difficult when not impossible. The children of the majority poor pay for the unwillingness of the Roman Church to become a true member of the People of God living in the 21st century ,The children are the ones who are suffering on the real Cross of Jesus Christ and the Roman heirarchy, like the Roman soldiers, stands there with sword in hand ready and willing to re-open everyday the side of Christ and let the blood flow again and again. That blood will wash the Church clean and we will see the Holy Spirit moving among us bringing about the redemption of the entire creation.
    Mary Faye Hellman

  • Marcia Sims

    Campbell (above) narrowly defines the Catholic Church. Her perspective may represent conservatives with little understanding or respect for the breakthrough that the Second Vatican Council represents. To suggest that any Sisters leave the Church for whatever reasons is small minded. The Catholic Church must reform. Of that there can be no doubt. For those who disagree: Fasten your seat belts. You’re in for the ride of your life. The Sisters are not leaving for they help to comprise the membership of the Church: People of God. The Roman Curia alone, do not represent the entire membership and yes, the men are outnumbered by the women. Fortunately, many men and women in the membership today agree with and support the Sisters. That is a blessing.

  • Humanist

    I totally support the sisters in their fight for justice and I do not believe in God or any religion. I wish them well.

  • Mary Russell

    How sad Ms. Campbells statements are. Do we want to go back to the times when people did not have a voice.or if they used it were condemned ?.I think not .I think Jesus in his teachings listened to the people, he interpreted his Father’s message and he used real people as examples of goodness both women and men. I think he would want an ever expanding role for all in the Church, not unfeeling robots but true Christians.Some of us still need to learn what it means to be a true Christian. We all need to be role models.

  • Walter G Sandell Jr

    Link to “What happened at Vatican II:”

  • Karyn Citti

    God bless the sisters, who have always been the backbone of the church. We lay people can take a lesson from them. Get with it, people. Vatican II says we ARE the church, the Body of Christ. The nuns are showing us how to be Christ’s eye, ears, arms, legs, and loving heart in the world. They are my heroes and have my utmost respect. Thank you for your example, noble women.

  • Hermano Cheo

    I am part of a lay religious missionary congregation of men and women who have the gift of preaching and were authorized by the Church to preach prior to Vatican II. We are the Church but not the voice of the Church we are part of that voice as the U.S. Church.

    It is sad that it all focuses on the sister’s (our universal Church is bigger than that). The “liberals” criticizing the “conservatives”, are we so blind. We have forgotten that Jesus didn’t leave a Church of just one group. He did establish his Church on one foundation that of the Apostles. The Roman Catholic Church was founded by Jesus himself and as it has been guided by the Holy Spirit and still is guided by the Holy Spirit it adjusts to the “signs of the times.” I keep reading the Vatican as if the Holy See is separate from the Church of the U.S. The media will always try to give the truth a different spin to create sensationalism, that’s how they sell newspapers and we buy into that.

    Now good or bad (which ever might be your view) it is the Church of Jesus. Its leaders are flawed human beings, but none the less they are the leaders. We as U.S. Catholics are making assumptions and statements about the Church leadership, which does not all come from the U.S. Church (which is a small part of the Universal Church). It is unfair and arrogant to assume that the rest of the Church thinks like us. I pray that the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary help enlighten all the involved in this situation. My hope rests on the words of our Lord “And so I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my Church, and not even the gates of Hades will ever be able to overcome it.” (Mt 16: 18) This is the Church of Jesus which I love and am totally devout to, and even though its leaders take a long time to make changes its decisions are always guided by the Holy Spirit.

    I remember a famous non-Catholic preacher that was asked, what had been the most amazing thing he had seen in his world travels. He said, “The Catholic Church.” When he was asked why, he said, “In the Catholic Church one man speaks and the Church obeys.” That’s the Church that for some two thousand years has followed the teachings of Jesus and tried to adjust to the changing times.

    I call on the faithful hearts of all involved that we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit. My prayers go out to all those involved in this difficult situation (Church leaders in Rome and religious leadership in the US) to let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit will guide the decision.

    God bless you and may the Virgin Mary be your guide.

  • B Schulte

    I think the Church needs to return to its more traditional roots. A total set back to pre- Vatican II isn’t necessary, but certain bodies of the Church have become too protestant in their practices. These sisters devoted their talents and their lives to Mother Church, and now some wish to change Her infallible doctrine.Women cannot become priests. It is not sexist, its not inequality, its a dogma of the Church which cannot be changed, not even by the pope or bother council. Too many people, religious and laity, have gotten away from traditions of the Holy Church, and wish to conform the Church to themselves. The Church needs to reinstate her traditions, and traditional values.
    P.s. Glad to see some orders with the traditional habit, they are a glimmer of hope.

  • Marty Whalen

    Its all a coverup by the vatican, blame the nuns for not falling in line with the good old boys, so the priest scandel will be put in the back room and forgotten. The nuns are only trying to do what Jesus did when he walked the earth, help the poor, heal the sick, denounce wrong doers and speakup about social problems.