When the Vatican announced last week that it had abruptly concluded its crackdown on a group that represents more than 41,000 American nuns for allegedly promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” a familiar hero emerged: Pope Francis, liberal reformer of the Catholic Church. "What a difference a papacy makes," wrote Jason Berry, Global Post's Catholicism correspondent, citing praise for how Francis values "the role of women in the church."
But feminist theologians and advocates for women’s rights in the church say the pontiff has done little to challenge the status quo on matters of sex and gender, keeping U.S. Catholic nuns firmly under the control of the Church’s male leadership. Under an agreement reached on April 16 between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents 80 percent of American nuns, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the LCWR will not be sanctioned, but advocates for women's equality say it must still allow the Vatican to approve its statutes, speakers and publications.
“The big good news is LCWR is still in business,” said Mary Hunt, a feminist theologian and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, Maryland. “The big bad news is the Vatican is still in charge.”
A spokesperson for the LCWR declined to comment on the agreement, in response to a request from Al Jazeera. Both the Vatican and the LCWR are restricted from speaking about the matter for 30 days, according to the terms of the agreement. “We are honoring that request,” the spokesperson said.
The investigation of the nuns has its roots in the papacy of Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI. In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican’s arm for maintaining theological and doctrinal purity — launched a “doctrinal assessment” of LCWR, citing "serious doctrinal problems." In the Catholic Church, nuns are laity, not clergy, meaning they do not have the same doctrinal or theological authority as the male clergy.
By 2012, the CDF announced a “mandate,” as a result of the “doctrinal assessment” that gave the CDF bishops oversight to approve LCWR’s statutes, publications and speakers. The mandate condemned "a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" and alleged “serious theological, even doctrinal errors” in its work and publications.
When he assumed the papacy in 2013, Francis initially gave the go-ahead to continue the mandate. But that decision proved wildly unpopular with American Catholics, for whom the nuns are tireless advocates for the poor and vulnerable.
“Unfortunately the movement against mandate was more about oh, the poor sisters,” said Jamie Manson, an editor at the National Catholic Reporter who has written extensively about the Vatican’s crackdown on the nuns. While many rank and file Catholics opposed the crackdown on the nuns out of respect for their role in charitable works, women's equality advocates used the incident to highlight the Vatican's ongoing unequal treatment of women and the effort to silence feminist theology. “The truth is, a lot of women religious are feminists, and they were taking risks. A lot of people didn’t want to talk about that.”
Francis is believed to have had little patience for the crackdown, not because he is advocating for radical changes in the way the church treats women, but because it was a distraction from his focus on poverty and inequality.
But even as some of the nuns’ supporters declared victory, feminists are disappointed that the Vatican took no responsibility for subjecting the LCWR to nearly six years of scrutiny. The Nun Justice Project, a coalition of women’s rights groups, including the Women’s Ordination Conference, wanted an apology from Rome to the nuns, although it considered the resolution of the investigation “a major step in itself.”
And nothing in the agreement precludes a future investigation. “It’s in the record of treating women as suspect, and particularly the idea, which was never really repudiated, that somehow feminism is a bad idea,” said Rosemary Radford Ruether, a leading Catholic feminist theologian. “I think that remains a bad precedent.”
Erin Saiz Hanna, co-executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for ordination of women as priests, deacons and bishops in the Catholic Church, notes that the Joint Final Report, which spells out the terms of the agreement, suggests that male clerics will retain oversight on the LCWR’s conference speakers and newsletters. “Measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy” in LCWR publications, the report notes. Manuscripts “will be reviewed by competent theologians,” and speakers are expected to show “due regard for the Church’s faith.”
That language, Manson said, is “church-speak” for “the men are still in control.”
The Vatican will even retain oversight over whom the LCWR honors at its annual meeting. Last year, the confrontation with the Vatican escalated after the LCWR announced its decision to confer its Outstanding Leadership Award on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a highly regarded Fordham University feminist theologian. Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, called it “a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the doctrinal assessment” because of the “gravity of the doctrinal errors” in Johnson’s writing. Liberal Catholics consider her work to be mainstream and, in the words of Thomas Fox, the publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, “faithful to mainstream post-Vatican II theology.”
Under the agreement reached last week between the LCWR and the Vatican, according to the joint report, “a revised process for the selection of the Outstanding Leadership Award recipient has been articulated.” Few expect the LCWR to give the award to anyone who would trigger the CDF’s ire.
More troubling, Hanna said, is that even with the end of the LCWR mandate, investigations of smaller orders of nuns or of individual nuns can continue. These investigations are far less public than the LCWR investigation was, she said, so less is known about them.
Advocates for equality within the Catholic Church worry that, with this agreement in place, the LCWR will have little influence on reforming church doctrine on matters relating to women, gender or sexuality. “I don’t expect the LCWR to have any impact on those issues,” Manson said.
But some supporters say they're hopeful that the nuns will find ways to work within the Vatican’s constraints. “The sisters are very creative,” Hanna said. “I hope they can continue their spirit and passion without too much oversight.” Others, though, remain doubtful that the mechanisms put in place last week will result in real intellectual freedom for the LCWR and the sisters it represents.