Following Pope Francis’ election, many American nuns had hoped that the Jesuit pope, who was devoted to the poor, would relieve the tough crackdown targeted at American nuns and would stress the message of mercy rather than condemnation. Their hopes were in vain, however, as the Vatican said on Monday that Pope Francis was in support of the Holy See’s crackdown on U.S. nuns for focusing on social justice too much, and letting other church issues such as abortion fall to the wayside.
Last year, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict had led an overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a large umbrella group that represents over 80% of the Catholic nuns in the U.S., decreeing that they must change their ways to truly teach Catholic values. They were accused of undermining Catholic teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality by taking soft stances on the issues while also promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The sister’s group was put under a “doctrinal assessment,” and the congregation was placed the under the control of Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was given a 5-year mandate to oversee reforms as he saw fit.
The nuns held that the accusations were unsubstantiated and came from a flawed process that has caused “scandal and pain throughout the church.” They also received widespread support among American Catholics, especially from liberals.
They have been criticized for many things by the Vatican, including being “silent on the right to life” and not making the Biblical view of family and human sexuality a central plank of their agenda. They have also been criticized for supporting President Obama’s health care reform which makes insurance coverage of birth control mandatory while U.S. bishops still vehemently oppose it.
On Monday, the group’s leaders met with Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, who is in charge of the crackdown, for the first time since he was appointed in July.
According to the Vatican, Mueller had “expressed his gratitude for the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years,” however, he also had discussed the issue with Pope Francis and had “reaffirmed the findings of the Assessment and the program of reform for this Conference of Major Superiors.”
The LCWR also released a statement, reaffirming most of the Vatican’s statement but also concluding that “The conversation was open and frank. We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church.”
As the Vatican further sees the LCWR’s crackdown, what they fail to recognize is that the group had managed to uplift the image of the Church within the U.S., through their social justice work, especially at a time when it was embroiled in scandals over sexual abuse of minors. And while the Vatican has expressed gratitude for the nuns’ contributions, their actions and criticism have undermined the work they’ve done for social justice.