Vatican’s looming ‘Inquisition’ reveals a fractured Catholic Church

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Over the last half century, the place known as Holy Wisdom Monastery in Westport, Wisconsin, has changed as the Catholic Church has changed.

And today as history is made with Pope Benedict XVI resigning, the first pontiff to do so in 600 years, this simple, white building here with its modern architecture as a symbol of a global Catholic Church that is deeply polarized, and which some fear could even be fracturing.

But it wasn’t always that way.

In the early 1950s, Holy Wisdom Monastery was a Catholic girls’ school run by the Sisters of St. Benedict. In time, the school closed, and in 1966 the sisters, spurred on by the reformist ideals of the Second Vatican Council, transformed it into a retreat center, one that thrived in the confident spirit of a church opening its windows to the modern world — the metaphor used by Pope John XXIII in summoning the world’s bishops to the council in Rome.

In the 1990s, the nuns there established a strong interfaith spirit, they undertook a rigorous environmental effort toward “sustainability’ and they welcomed gay couples into the church and its services. By the year 2000, the nuns transformed the monastery into an ecumenical institution, welcoming a Presbyterian woman minister. And that was the point at which they crossed an irreversible line. Having a Protestant woman ministering in the community threw their identity as a Catholic women’s order into question.

The sisters decided to leave the diocese and end their formal affiliation with the Catholic Church. As they saw it, they were maintaining the monastic ideal of Benedictine spirituality by opening the place to others. In the process of leaving the Catholic Church, the nuns made their own power move, of sorts. They held onto the deed to the land with the position that their faith community was true to the interfaith spirit of Vatican II. Their message, though never formally stated, was sledgehammer blunt: the male hierarchy has gone backwards and we’re moving forward. They quite literally held their ground.

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