Presumed Guilty by the Sin of Silence: U.S. Nuns, Network, and The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Cynthia Garrity-Bond

In 1965, the Council document Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, encouraged women religious to situate themselves and their vocations in the social milieu to which they belonged.  Each religious community adjusted rules and customs to accommodate the needs and demands of particular ministerial vocations. For those communities that embraced Perfectae Caritatis entered into a complete paradigm shift in thinking that changed forever how they understood themselves and their chosen vocations. I recall vividly the morning, when, in 1968, Sister Mary DePatzie entered our classroom clad in a shorter habit and dress revealing the startling fact she 1) indeed had brilliant, beautiful red hair; and 2) rather shapely legs even in her sensible shoes.  For  Sandra Schneider, communities of women religious and priest read Perfectae Caritatis through the lenses of Guadium et Spes and Lumen Gentium, which is to say their way of viewing and being in the world no longer took the form of a medieval monastic paradigm. And now, forty years later, those sweeping changes of Vatican II are going under the knife by Pope Benedict and his desire to turn back the hands of time to a medieval paradigm of control over women religious.

Beginning in 2008, the Vatican began its controversial four-part investigation of American nuns that has since taken on the form of a doctrinal inquisition. This apostolic visitation, led by Mother Mary Clare Millea, general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,has since become nothing short of a witch-hunt of U.S. nuns. According to recently released findings by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or the protector/enforcer of orthodoxy (think here the rubrics of a medieval inquisition) the 59,000 Roman Catholic nuns in the US have been called out for abandoning church doctrine and promoting “radical feminist themes,” such as failure to speak out on same-sex marriage, abortion and the just-won’t-let-it-go American obsession with an all-male priesthood, or women’s ordination. All of which is a classic smoke screen for the Vatican’s attempt of putting the genie back in the bottle, the genie being of course women religious who no longer wear habits, live in convents, and more importantly, entered into academia and other professions that allow them to live out the core gospel values of service to the poor through work in healthcare, religious education and social services.

Singled out by the CDF are the nuns from NETWORK, a women-religious led group of lobbyist in Washington D.C., promoting the common good through public policy advocacy from the perspective of the poor.  According to theologian and ethicist Kristin E. Heyer,  author of Prophetic & Public: The Social Witness of U.S. Catholicism, “NETWORK views itself as uniquely representing those at the bottom of the economic ladder (women in particular, because they comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor; immigrants; or those who fall between the cracks) as well as the middle class or those concerned about justice issues” (121). Focusing on Catholic social teachings its lobbying work focuses on five areas of housing: the federal budget (military spending, taxes, campaign finance reform), health care, global trade, aid and debt and economic justice. NETWORK’s approach to how it supports legislation consist of three lenses, 1) Catholic principles with gospel values of supporting the common good; 2) speaking with the poor not for the poor by incorporating their own life experiences; and, drum role please 3) “a ‘feminist/womanist/mujerista perspective’ that ‘promotes mutuality, equality and collaboration’ and values women as contributing members of society; respects ‘the diversity of women’s experience in moving from oppression to liberation,’ and that recognized that the majority of people worldwide living in poverty are women” (122). NETWORK takes seriously its commitment of “radical feminist themes” through its self-understanding of equity among its employees.  All employees earn the same salary, “regardless of length of service, education or experience, or position, in an effort to emphasize that the work that everyone does enhances the achievement of the mission.” (Note 26, page 159)  This counter-culture stance seeks a horizontal relationship whereby the hierarchical model of management with its top-down style is replaced by a collaborative, dialogical even feminist model that envisions the kind of kinship Jesus demonstrated. So, yes, the Vatican is correct when it asserts women religious are guilty of promoting and living out “radical feminist themes” if those themes include solidarity and kinship with the disenfranchised by speaking “with and not for the poor.”

While completing my MA in theological studies I visited NETWORK as part of a larger research project.  In my encounters and interviews I recall asking why NETWORK did not involve itself with issue related to reproductive justice.  While important, NETWORK did not want to entangle itself with issues of a theology below the waist, drawing undue attention from the U.S. bishops or the Vatican that would hinder its legislative endeavors.    Ironic, right?  Because here they are caught in the firestorm of the very controversy they sought to escape.   Stephanie Niedinghaus, spokeswoman for NETWORK speaks about their current scrutiny, “We are so shocked by this action that we’re still putting our thoughts together.  We never expected this and we are deeply grieved for the tens of thousands of sisters who dedicate themselves to social justice work.”

According to the statement of Cardinal William Levada from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the intent of the CDF’s findings will bring together the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) representing some 59,000 U.S. nuns, with  the CDF.  This Kumbaya fest will “allow for the opportunity to review the document together in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration, hopefully thereby avoiding possible misunderstandings of the document’s intent and scope.” The surprise factor here is due to the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith’s withholding of its findings to the LCWR leadership until its scheduled visit to Rome regarding the doctrinal assessment on April 18 of this year.  According to the National Catholic Reporter, when the leaders came to the meeting, the CDF had already communicated with the U.S. bishops’ conference the appointment of Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee findings of the apostolic visitation in order to “ implement a process of review and conformity to the teachings and discipline of the church.”  Which is to say, leaders of LCWR were not included in the larger structural arrangement assembled by the Vatican with U.S. bishops to over see and interpret the findings.  Instead Sartain will be in charge of:

  • Revising LCWR statutes;
  • Reviewing LCWR plans and programs;
  • Creating new programs for the organization;
  • Reviewing and offering guidance on the application of liturgical texts

In Levada and CDF’s attempt to extend an olive branch to women religious by recognizing their commitment and work to the enactment of the common good through work in communities that included “schools, hospitals and institutions in support of the poor,” they instead stumbled, revealing their own agenda of control and hypocrisy in its deflection away from their own sins of sexual abuse of minors. By focusing on NETWORK and those women religious who live out the gospel values of Jesus, the CDF reveals its own failures and lack of creditability to engage in “mutual respect and collaboration” with those outside its tight testosterone circle. They would do well to inhabit those “radical feminist themes” engaged by U.S. women religious by enacting the Reign of God in real time.

Cynthie Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

Author: Cynthia Garrity-Bond

Cynthie Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, transnational feminism and ecofeminism. Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

12 thoughts on “Presumed Guilty by the Sin of Silence: U.S. Nuns, Network, and The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Cynthia Garrity-Bond”

  1. I was reading about this yesterday and i tried to go back and find the link but was unable to so I don’t remember what publication it was. The writer of the article did add another ironic little note about the cost of the visiting men who will be doing the interviewing and evaluating of the nuns. The nuns are expected to accomodate and pay the expenses of the univited guests. A nice little flourish I thought.


  2. Thank you for articulating so beautifully what so many of us feel. I pray the Sidters will continue the wonderful work they do. This whole situation pains me deeply.


  3. Sr. Joan’s comments were about the group disbanding and forming an unofficial new group, which is what I was thinking could be a good idea!! Do the nuns now have to resort to going ‘underground’? This is a sad day! But we will find a way to prevail and come out winners!! We always do!
    Silence and control are no longer in our vocabulary, nor complicity in abuse disguised as co-dependency. The volume of women’s voices just got raised again by this action by the CDF.
    Yes, the investigations originally were paid on the nuns’ dime as well!! Paying for one’s own abuse, think about that for a minute!


  4. Thank you all for your insightful comments. This entire action by the CDF reminds me of the greater than 400 IHM’s who were released from their vows in 1968 by LA Cardinal McIntyre. The episode is beautifully detailed in Anita Caspary’s text Witness to Integrity. I have not read Sr. Joan’s comments. She and her order have gone up against the Vatican before. It’s all so pointless.


  5. Just checked and found this response from Sr. Joan: “Although LCWR officers did not immediately return requests for comment on this story, a former leader of the group told NCR that the appointment and the order for the group to revise itself was ‘actually immoral.’

    ” ‘Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this,’ said Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, who has served as president of the group as well as in various leadership positions. (Chittister also writes a column for NCR.) ‘They would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.

    ” ‘That would be the only way to maintain growth and nourish their congregational charisms and the charism of the LCWR, which is to help religious communities assess the signs of the time. If everything you do has to be approved by somebody outside, then you’re giving your charism away, and you’re certainly demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions.’’ Here is the link:


  6. This reminds me of a story. In the 1980s I was invited by nuns to speak at a RC college. I was a little apprehensive since I was speaking about female God language and would not focus on but end with Goddess. I told this to one of the nuns, and she said no problem with that, Sister x has been teaching about Goddesses for years. However, what did cause a stir was when one of the other speakers spoke about her decision to have an abortion. One of the Sisters got up and said the college administration did not support the speech and did not know this was going to be its subject. Later I was told that the nuns privately helped women to choose, but publicly they had to keep quiet.

    Radical nuns have been great supporters of my work over the years. More power to them. And down with the Vatican.


  7. Thank you Cynthie,
    As a former Catholic, who still embraces Bhakti for Mother Mary and Jesus, I am thrilled to read your essay. Sure NCR will not support LCWR sister’s compassion and loving mercy. NCR’s alliances with the fascist state are threatened by the sister’s integrity and adherence to the true teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Listening to the needs of the poor for them it too uncomfortably close to a US Liberation Theology movement. It is sad that Vatican expects the nun’s sense of spiritual ethics to bow to patriarchal arrogance. Another version of the emperor’s new clothes. Not only they are corrupt, they are hopelessly intoxicated with self-destructive power.

    Carol, thank you for the insider’s note!

    How inspiring LCWR’s sister solidarity. I pray more women learn about this and join forces with the sisters.

    Cynthie, I look forward to reading your other essays and connecting with you.


  8. Response from Ivonne Gebara on the CDF:
    The Inquisition of Today and U.S. Women Religious
    Ivone Gebara ~ Writer, philosopher and theologian
    Translated from Portuguese
    Once again, we watch dumbfounded as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith directs a “doctrinal assessment of” or a “calling attention to” or the “punishment of” those who, according to the CDF, break away from the proper observance of Catholic doctrine. Only this time, the CDF is not pointing an accusatory finger at a person, but rather at an institution that brings together and represents more than 55,000 women religious in the United States – namely, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, known by its acronym LCWR.
    Throughout their long history, these women religious developed and continue to develop a broad educational mission which advances the dignity of many people and groups both within and beyond the United States. Most of these women belong to diverse national and international congregations.
    In addition to their Christian and humanistic formation, they are intellectuals and professionals in various fields of knowledge. They are writers, philosophers, biologists, sociologists, lawyers and theologians. They have broad backgrounds and their expertise is recognized nationally and internationally. They also are educators, catechists and human rights activists. In many situations, they set their lives at the service of those affected by injustice or set themselves in opposition to the grave actions taken by the government of the United States. I had the honor of meeting some of them who were arrested and imprisoned because they put themselves at the forefront of demonstrations to close the School of the Americas, an institution of the United States government that prepares soldiers from our countries to act in repressive and cruel ways.
    These religious are women of reflection and action with a long history of service not only in their country, but in many others. Today they are under suspicion and under the supervision of the Vatican. They are being criticized for disagreeing with the bishops who are considered to be the “authentic teachers of faith and morals.” In addition, they are accused of being supporters of radical feminism, of deviating from Roman Catholic doctrine, of complicity in the approval of homosexual unions and other charges which are surprising given their anachronistic nature.
    Exactly what would constitute radical feminism? And what might be its real manifestations in the lives of congregations of women religious? Exactly what kinds of theological deviations are affecting the lives of women religious? And might it be that we are being scrutinized and punished as women because we can no longer be true to ourselves and to the tradition of the Gospel by means of blind submission to a male hierarchical order? Might it be that those responsible for Vatican Congregations are out of touch with the vast worldwide feminist revolution that has touched every continent and even religious congregations?
    Many women religious in the United States and other countries are indeed the heirs, teachers and disciples of one of the most interesting expressions of worldwide feminism, specifically feminist theology which developed in the United States during the late 1960s. Its original ideas, critical analyses and liberating stances made possible a new way of doing theology which in turn continues to accompany movements of women’s emancipation. As a consequence, women religious have contributed to a rethinking of our Christian religious tradition by taking us beyond the invisibility and oppression of women. They also created alternative venues for education and formation. They wrote theological and inspirational texts so that the tradition of the Jesus Movement could continue to nurture our present and would not be abandoned by thousands of persons made weary by the weight of patriarchal religious structures and rules.
    What actions can be taken given these curial and administrative examples of anachronism and symbolic violence on the part of the Roman Catholic Church? What are we to think of these rigid philosophical referents that ascribe to the masculine what is considered best in the human being? What can be said about a unilateral and misogynistic anthropological vision out of which the tradition of Jesus is interpreted? What are we to think about this administrative/ punitive treatment from which an archbishop is appointed to review, guide and approve decisions taken by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as if we were incapable of insight and lucidity?
    Are we simply a multinational capitalist enterprise the “products” of which should be in conformity with the dictates of a single line of production? And to maintain this enterprise, should we be controlled like robots by those who consider themselves the owners and guardians of the institution? Where is the freedom, the charity, the historical creativity, the fraternal and sisterly love? At the same time that indignation takes hold of us, a sense of fidelity to our dignity as women and to the Gospel as proclaimed to the poor and marginalized invites us to respond to this act of repugnant injustice.
    In today’s world, the prelates and church officials use a double standard. On the one hand, there are high-level examples of the Roman Catholic Church being able to welcome back into its bosom groups on the far-right whose harmful history, especially with regard to adolescents and children is widely known. I think especially of Marcial Maciel, founder of the in the Legionaries of Christ (Mexico) or the religious followers of Archbishop Lefevre (Switzerland) whose disobedience to the pope and coercive methods of making disciples is verified by many. The same institutional church welcomes men who are interested in it for power and repudiates women that it wants to keep submissive. By means of this attitude, it exposes women to ridiculous criticisms that are voiced in the Catholic religious media in bad faith. Among these women, the prelates seem to formally recognize the merits of those whose actions are among those traditionally exercised by women religious in schools and hospitals. But is this all that we are? We know of very few instances in the United States where women religious were involved in the abuse of young children, adolescents and elders. No public denunciation tarnished their image. No one ever spoke of them allying themselves with major international banks for their own benefit. No complaints are found of insider-trading or the exchange of favors so as to preserve the silence of impunity. And yet, in contrast to men of power, so few of them have been beatified or canonized by Church authorities. Still, the recognition of these women comes from so many communities and groups, Christian and otherwise, who shared in the lives and works of so many of them. And of course, these groups will not be silenced by this unjust “doctrinal assessment” that touches them directly as well.
    Plagiarizing Jesus in the Gospel, I dare to say, “I pity these men” who do not know the contradictions and beauties of life up close, who do not allow their hearts to be broken open by the joys and sufferings of the people, who do not love the present moment, who still prefer to enforce strict laws rather than to celebrate life. All they have learned are the fixed rules of a doctrine determined by an outdated rationality from which they judge the faith of others, especially women.
    Perhaps they think that God approves of them and submits to them and to their lucubrations, so distant from those who hunger for bread and for justice, the hungry, the abandoned, the prostituted, the abused and the forgotten. How long must we suffer under their yoke? What attitudes and stances will inspire us as “the Spirit that blows where it wills” so that we may continue to be faithful to the LIFE that is in us?
    To my dear sisters in the United States of LCWR, my gratitude, affection and solidarity. If you are being persecuted for the good that you do probably your work will produce good and abundant fruit. Know that with you, women religious from other continents will not allow them to silence our voice. But, if they silence us by a written decree, it will give us one more reason to continue in the struggle for human dignity and the freedom for which we have been created. We will continue to proclaim in countless ways the love of neighbor as the key to human and cosmic communion present in the tradition of Jesus of Nazareth and in many others, though in diverse ways. In this historical moment, we will continue to weave together one more part of the vast history of the affirmation of freedom, the right to be different and to think differently and in through all this endeavoring not to be afraid to be happy.
    27 April 2012


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