American Nuns Struggle with Vatican for Change

By Bob Simon
CBS News
March 17, 2013

The following is a script from "American Nuns" which aired on March 17, 2013. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Andrew Metz and Tanya Simon, producers.

When Pope Francis became the leader of the Catholic Church on Wednesday, people around the world were asking: what happens now? Can he restore confidence to a church struggling amid scandal to keeps its flock?

To understand just how troubled the church he's inheriting is, look no further than the power struggle going on between the Vatican and some of its most popular disciples: American nuns.

The Vatican launched what some Catholics call a "new Inquisition" when it accused the official group that represents most nuns in the United States of undermining the Church.

The crackdown last year on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has sparked outrage -- creating yet another rift between those who want the Church to reform, and those who do not.

The new pope of the Roman Catholic Church took his name from Francis of Assisi, the humble saint who inspired orders of priests and nuns devoted to the poor.

And when he stood on that balcony in Rome, few could have been watching him more carefully than the nuns there in St. Peter's Square and in the United States.

In his native Argentina, he showed compassion to the people but also urged Catholic sisters there to promote conservative social values -- very much like what the Vatican has been doing in the United States. That's drawn a lot of attention to sisters like Pat Farrell, who leads the group that represents 80 percent of American nuns.

Bob Simon: You became a nun, I would imagine, for a life of prayer and contemplation and good works.

Pat Farrell: That's correct.

Bob Simon: And all of a sudden you've become a rock star.

Pat Farrell: It's very strange, it's a very strange position to be in.

Bob Simon: Are you enjoying it?

Pat Farrell: No, I'm not someone who prefers to be in the limelight, truthfully.

She was thrust into the limelight last year when the Vatican accused her group of insubordination. After a 3-year investigation, it rebuked the sisters for undermining the Church by publicly disagreeing with the bishops.

[Pat Farrell: We weren't looking for this controversy.]

...And by not vigorously promoting the Church's positions on issues like same-sex marriage and male-only priesthood.

Bob Simon: When you heard that phrase, undermine the Church, were you surprised?

Pat Farrell: Absolutely because the experience we have of ourselves is of trying our best to stand in the middle of very complex situations and issues and to respond in a way that offers hope to people.

Sister Pat spent two decades in El Salvador, ministering to victims of the war -- working in the shadows like sisters everywhere, caring for the sick, as we saw in this inner city clinic, counseling women struggling with addiction and teaching generations of needy children in schools like the Sisters Academy in Baltimore.

But the Vatican says good works aren't the issue -- it's annual meetings like these that the group holds for its members where sisters have given speeches promoting what the Vatican calls "radical feminist themes" that are quote, "incompatible with the Catholic faith."

[Elizabeth Johnson: The Church itself continues to live by patriarchal values that by any objective measure relegate women to second-class status.]

Centuries ago, that kind of challenge could have been considered heresy. It's hard to imagine that wasn't on Pat Farrell's mind when she traveled to Rome last year. She met with the enforcers of church orthodoxy who ordered the investigation that found her group had undermined the Church - the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Bob Simon: This is the same group, is it not, that ran the Inquisition?

Pat Farrell: It is the same office, under a different name, that's right.

Bob Simon: What was your reaction, your visceral reaction, when you heard that you were being accused of radical feminism?

Pat Farrell: It reflects to me fear...

Bob Simon: What are they afraid of?

Pat Farrell: I don't know, but it feels to me like fear, "What would happen if women really were given a place of equality in the Church?

She says sisters want a place at the table - in their parishes and in the church hierarchy. In the past her group has gone on the record supporting the ordination of women as priests -- a topic so taboo the Church says it's not even up for discussion.

Bob Simon: You did take a vow of obedience, didn't you?

Pat Farrell: Absolutely.

Bob Simon: If you'll permit me sister, it doesn't sound like you're being terribly obedient right now.

Pat Farrell: Well I think there is one of the areas of misunderstanding and difference. Our first obedience is to God. What we obey is God and God's call to us as expressed in so many different sources, it's not just the teaching authority of the Church, although that is certainly a legitimate part of it.

Bob Simon: Would it be distorting your position to say that you just don't want the men to tell you what to do anymore?

Pat Farrell: We have never wanted the men to tell us what to do.

But the Vatican was so alarmed by what it saw that it called the situation a crisis - and last year, the archbishop of Seattle, Peter Sartain, was appointed to take command of the nuns group and bring them into compliance.

Peter Sartain: It doesn't make sense that a Conference of Women Religious would want to give a platform to somebody who would espouse ideas antithetical to what the Church teaches.

Bob Simon: I can understand that it's problematic for the Church, but you've called it a crisis. A bit hyperbolic?

Peter Sartain: I don't think so. And the reason I don't think so is because there comes to be a point at which we have to get a handle on this, so that it doesn't continue to evolve into something much more problematic.

Not that the Church didn't already have enough problems on its hands: the administration of Pope Benedict was under siege for not being tough enough on priests accused of sexual abuse.

Bob Simon: You don't think that the timing is a bit off, that when the Church is still really under condemnation for the pedophile scandal and the cover-up that it brings up another issue which is very contentious?

Peter Sartain: The Church is dealing at the same time always with a variety of issues. This issue although it's of a different nature in terms of its importance for the Church and for the future of religious life in the Church, is one that needed attention now also.

Pope Benedict gave the archbishop the power to review the sisters' publications, programs and speakers.

Bob Simon: Will you have veto power?

Peter Sartain: Ultimately I would.

Bob Simon: In the 21st century, in the United States, censorship is a very, very dirty word.

Peter Sartain: I understand that. And yet, in the context of the Church, we're always going to have the concern about being faithful to Christ. And all I can say to you, Bob, is I don't have any doubt about the reason why the Holy Father has asked me to do this. Which is his genuine love and concern for religious women.

Bob Simon: Archbishop, the sisters in the organization say that they do not feel that love coming from the Vatican right now. They feel something quite different from love. They're-- what they're hearing is "obey."

Peter Sartain: I understand. And they have said that to me as well.

And they are being heard by American nuns everywhere, who are sticking with their sisters.

[Judy Park: I got some special snacks today, not a lot but enough to keep us going.]

We met Sister Judy Park, one of a handful of nuns who work at this soup kitchen in a down and out section of Brooklyn. She says the people who matter to her, the people who strengthen her, are the people she serves.

Judy Park: People have said to us, "You taught us how to pray, you taught us how to read, you stood by my bedside when I was sick. You were the one who's never ashamed to be with me and now I'm surprised that this is happening to you."

Bob Simon: Isn't the Vatican's point that you should be emphasizing the role of the Church and what people should be doing and what is right and what is wrong instead of just serving soup?

Judy Park: My role is not to judge. My role is to accompany and I think the reason people do trust us is that we don't judge.

Catholics and non-Catholics from all over the country have swarmed out in their support. The sisters' resistance has developed into a populist movement -- complete with rallies, prayer meetings and, yes, even their own national road show, featuring slogans and groupies.

Sister Simone Campbell is the driving force behind "Nuns on the Bus" -- a movement she launched after her group of Catholic social activists called Network was singled out in the Vatican's investigation.

Sister Simone was given a starring role at the Democratic National Convention last year.

[Simone Campbell: We have nuns on the bus, and a nun on the podium.]

After she campaigned for President Obama's health care law --- which the U.S. Bishops opposed out of fear it would cover abortion. While her group doesn't promote or condone abortion rights, it does advocate for universal health care.

Bob Simon: Why did you embrace health care when the bishops were against it?

Simone Campbell: Well, because I read the bill. I mean the fact is, I'm a lawyer and I read the bill. I saw what it said, it made sense. I could see that it said no federal funding of abortion, which is what the bishops' staff was concerned about.

She rallied sisters to the health care cause, publishing a letter of support that was signed by dozens of nuns.

Simone Campbell: And one of the sisters who signed our letter said, "Oh, Simone, don't worry about this. The boys played the girls. And for once the girls won. And the boys are upset."

Bob Simon: Isn't that what it's all about?

Simone Campbell: Well, it's way more politics and culture than it is faith. I mean, we're a staff of nine full-time people and we make the Vatican nervous? Oh, give me a break.

Archbishop Peter Sartain says the Vatican's crackdown had nothing to do with politics - at least not over health care. But the Catholic Church in the United States is fighting an uphill battle against other hot button issues like same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion - and it criticized the group of American nuns for not joining the struggle.

Bob Simon: You just remain silent on these issues.

Pat Farrell: Well, yes and no. While we haven't made a lot of public statements on abortion, we have certainly spoken on right to life issues with our lives, with our commitments. We certainly defend the sacredness of life.

Bob Simon: Do you think that the Church's rigidity on these issues is one of the reasons why so many Catholics are leaving the Church?

Pat Farrell: There doesn't seem to be a safe place to talk about issues of difference. Where do people go? They're struggling in a divided Church. They're wondering where to go with some of their honest questions.

She says she is hopeful Pope Francis will begin to close that divide and create more openness in the Church. He has been an advocate for the poor, just like the sisters, and has already signaled changes in Rome. But nobody knows how he will handle the standoff with American nuns. Archbishop Sartain was given five years to get his job done and has begun what both sides call - a dialogue.

Peter Sartain: If dialogue means that the goal is to change the teaching of the Church, then that's not what we're about. If it's about a dialogue which leads to a better understanding of the Church's teaching, that kind of dialogue, I think has already begun in many ways.

Bob Simon: You have devoted your life to helping the poor and the underprivileged, devoted your life to prayer, to faith, and to following the gospels. Why can't you do this without the Church?

Pat Farrell: I think it's because I am Church that I have been doing those things. I have no interest in being separate from the Church. It's who I am.


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