For the past three years, Mother Mary Clare Millea has been scouring convents, on the lookout for deviant nuns. The matronly American, who has a doctorate in canon law from Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, was given this mandate as part of a Vatican-ordered investigation called Apostolic Visitation. She has had no trouble finding sisters on the edge, but the nuns’ main infractions weren’t sins of the flesh or succumbing to vices. Instead, the offending nuns were simply speaking their minds.
Based on a summary of her findings, which she submitted to Cardinal William Levada, head of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a final, yet-unpublished, report approved by Pope Benedict XVI, the vast majority of American nuns are pushing “radical-feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” But rather than preaching against church doctrine, the sisters are often just staying silent on the hot-button issues of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. Their silence is interpreted as endorsement, so by not speaking out against such “evils,” the report says the sisters are effectively showing their approval.
As part of her survey, Mother Millea visited scores of religious houses and convents and interviewed hundreds of mothers superior who oversee the nearly 400 religious congregations in the United States. She excluded nuns living in cloistered or contemplative convents and instead focused on the 57,000 religious women who work in schools, agencies for the poor, universities, and churches. Aside from the fact that only a small fraction of the American nuns wore a religious habit to distinguish them from other women, she found that most were doing little to spread the key social doctrines of the church. In particular, Mother Millea says that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious or LCWR, an umbrella group of American nuns that represents around 55,000 sisters—over 80 percent of the entire population of nuns in the United States—is most at fault. “The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern,” she concluded, according to a summary of the report. “While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.”
Millea’s report also blasted the LCWR for its lack of guidance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. “Further, issues of crucial importance in the life of the church and society, such as the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.”
The Vatican concludes that the fact that some LCWR leaders question church doctrine in the context of the modern world is of primary concern, but so is their silence on other issues. “The second level of the problem concerns the silence and inaction of the LCWR … given its responsibility to support a vision of religious life in harmony with that of the church and to promote a solid doctrinal basis for religious life.”
The Vatican’s investigation was launched in 2009 as part of an overall study into the reason behind the dwindling number of American nuns. The number of Catholic women choosing religious life in the United States has declined steadily since 1965, down from 180,000 to fewer than 60,000 today. When the investigation was launched, many American nuns were skeptical that they were being targeted. Sister Beth Rindler of Detroit, who is part of the National Coalition of American Nuns as well as a member of the LCWR, says she is shocked by the report. She believes it is a gender issue between the Vatican men and the American nuns. “The church in Rome believes in the patrimony of God. But we believe that God created men and women equally,” she told The Daily Beast. “That’s where we clash.”
Sister Rindler believes the Vatican is focused on the American sisters because they tend to be more independent than their European, Latin American, and African colleagues. While nuns in the rest of the world still wear conservative habits and head covers, the majority of American nuns stopped the practice shortly after the Second Vatican Council reforms. Many American nuns also live independently and reach high education levels—all while still serving the church. Rindler says she believes that the hierarchy in Rome is really worried that the American nuns will influence other sisters around the world. “That’s why the men in the Vatican want control, what they see as influence, we see as enlightenment,” she says, adding that some nuns are brainwashed into thinking they are lesser beings than their male counterparts. “What woman truly believes she is not equal to a man?”
The Vatican has given the LCWR five years to clean up their sister act or face harsh consequences. Among the suggestions rumored in Rome is that the American nuns must rewrite some of the basic tenets of their organization, considering everything from a more appropriate dress code that distinguishes them from other women to incorporating the church’s teachings on homosexuality, abortion, and the ordination of women into all of their religious activities—even those that are not directly affiliated with a Catholic church. The archbishop of Seattle Peter Sartain has been assigned by Rome to offer guidance, and when necessary, approval, of the work of the LCWR.
The American nuns are not pleased. A statement on their website says, “The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” They plan to huddle next month to formulate a response.
Sister Rindler believes that without real dialogue, the two entities—the men at the Vatican and the nuns in America—will stay in a stalemate. “I hope we can continue prayerfully and that somehow the priests will have true dialogue with us,” she says. “Otherwise it will just continue to be ‘we’ and ‘them’. But I think ultimately that’s going to be up to God, not Rome.”