Awaiting the Vatican
Catholic sisters gather for a national meeting in St. Louis this week as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns, faces a sweeping overhaul from the Vatican. The organization has been scolded for promoting “radical feminist themes” and focusing on social justice ministries at the expense of speaking out against same-sex marriage and abortion.
The Vatican’s decision to pick a high-profile fight with nuns is a curious move. The Catholic Church still is reeling from clergy abuse scandals and faces a disquieting exodus of those baptized into the faith. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics — a figure that would make lapsed Catholics the second-largest U.S. denomination.
It’s hard to see how Catholic leaders restore a tarnished image and appeal to a new generation of spiritual seekers by cracking down on nuns who care for the sick, feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant. “Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words,” St. Francis of Assisi instructed. These courageous women embody what it means to put faith into action. You can find them advocating for ethical business practices in corporate boardrooms, running Catholic hospitals and lobbying for the most vulnerable on Capitol Hill. Catholic nuns’ tireless support for health care reform, living-wage jobs and effective programs that help struggling families underscores that being “pro-life” doesn’t stop with defending life in the womb.
Catholic sisters in St. Louis are bringing light to dark places. In a blighted area of north St. Louis, Sister Carol Ann Callahan and other nuns have made St. Augustine Wellston Center a refuge of hope in a tough neighborhood. Along with committed volunteers, the center provides food, job skills training and legal assistance to people struggling to overcome poverty, drugs and the legacy of incarceration. Sister Sharon Neumeister directs Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, which connects vulnerable immigrant families to community health agencies and other vital social services. Sister Ann Crouse founded McAuley Counseling services to help a low-income population access mental health care. These stories are echoed across the country as Catholic sisters exemplify moral leadership that is earned by walking with the least, the last and the lonely in our society.
The Vatican’s crackdown on nuns is the latest sign that the Catholic hierarchy is in danger of alienating even faithful Catholics like us who are troubled that our religious tradition’s centuries-old commitment to the common good is being crowded out by a narrow culture war agenda. When Catholic bishops held a national meeting last fall issues of poverty and growing income inequality were not even on the agenda. Bishops have instead prioritized fighting same-sex marriage initiatives and battling the Obama administration over contraception coverage provided to women under the Affordable Care Act. A committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops even launched an investigation of the Girl Scouts last spring over concerns that some parish-sponsored troops could be using material from respected advocacy groups like Doctors Without Borders that take different positions from Catholic teaching on some issues. In a flashback to the McCarthy era, the Diocese of Arlington, Va., drew national attention last month for requiring Sunday school teachers to sign loyalty oaths. [More]