By Marian Ronan
Commentators offer a range of explanations for last week’s Vatican “assessment” charging a group that includes the largest number of US Catholic sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) with “serious doctrinal problems” and “radical feminism.”
One frequent explanation is that the report was issued in retaliation for support given the 2009 Affordable Care Act (ACA) by Network, a Catholic social justice lobby with close ties to the LCWR. For example, in a BBC News interview several days after the release of the assessment, Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, acknowledged “a strong connection” between Network’s challenge to the US bishops over the ACA and the Vatican accusations.
No doubt there is some truth to this analysis. But it’s worth noting that the Vatican launched the investigation that culminated in this document in January 2009, more than a year before Congress passed the ACA. Given the speed with which Rome does things, it’s more than likely that while the sisters’ support for the ACA contributed to the harshness of the statement, it by no means caused it. Indeed, Pope John Paul II mandated a previous investigation of US religious in 1983, though the outcome of that process was less brutal than the current one has proven to be.
In point of fact, throughout the history of the Church, bishops and popes have struggled mightily to keep committed celibate Catholic women under control. Already in the early Christian centuries male church leaders forced virgins to describe themselves as “brides of Christ” rather than use the male martial imagery they had come to use during the Roman persecutions. The early equality between male and female desert monastics was likewise undercut when eighth century bishops began taking control of women’s monasteries and ordained monks to the priesthood for the first time (but not nuns, of course.) And as, throughout the following centuries, groups of dedicated Christian women came together—canonesses, Beguines, beatas, recluses—popes, bishops, and male theologians went to great lengths to rein them in.
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