The Vatican’s Crackdown on Renegade Nuns

Anybody can be pope; the proof of this is that I have become one.

— Pope John XXIII,  Letter to a young boy

He’s two for three.  Earlier appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there are things that can really upset Pope Benedict. Abuse of children isn’t one of them. Nuns and press commentary on perceived internecine warfare are.  Benedict’s indifference to tales of sexual abuse is well known.  Cardinal Bernard Law serves to make the point.

Cardinal Law was Archbishop of Boston from 1984 to 2002.  During his tenure many priests under his supervision engaged in inappropriate conduct with children. Although told of the abuse, he did not act on the information.   In December 2002 he tendered his resignation as Cardinal and moved out of the $20 million church-owned house in which he had been humbly living, as befitted a man of the cloth.  The house was sold to help pay for the judgments entered against his diocese because of the sexual abuse.

Two years later the Pope appointed him Archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica, one of the four most important basilicas in Rome where he was in charge of the administration of the priests and anything related to the basilica. As archpriest he reportedly receives a monthly stipend of about 4,000 Euros a month, an amount that permits him to walk humbly with his God yet live fairly well.

Upon learning of the transfer, Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who represented more than 130 victims of sexual abuse by priests under Cardinal Law’s supervision, said:  “The Vatican either doesn’t understand the problem of clergy sex abuse, or it doesn’t care.” No one will say that about the most recent events.  The Pope clearly cares.  One involves his administration and one involves nuns.

In January 2012 documents were leaked to the press (perhaps by the Pope’s butler) that disclose, among other things, power struggles over management of the Vatican Bank and corruption in the awarding of contracts that cost the Vatican millions of Euros. Responding to the leaks Benedict showed himself to be sufficiently concerned that he  appointed a commission of cardinals to investigate the leaks but also saw fit to blame the media for the scandal.

At the end of his general audience on May 31 he said:  “Nonetheless there has been increasing conjecture, amplified by the communications media, which is entirely gratuitous, goes beyond the facts and presents a completely unrealistic image of the Holy See.”  Even more upsetting to Benedict than the media’s portrayal of the Vatican corruption was the outlandish behavior of some renegade nuns in the United States.

In April 2012 it was announced that the Vatican had begun a crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) , an organization for nuns that represents about 80 per cent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States.  According to a  statement that was issued by the Vatican’s “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”(CDF) following a  two-year investigation,  nuns in the LCWR  have “focused their efforts on serving the poor and disenfranchised, while remaining virtually silent on issues the church considers great societal evils: abortion and same-sex marriage.” The nuns also  sponsored speakers who “often contradict or ignore” church teaching and never revoked a 1977 position statement that questioned the male-only priesthood.

LCWR’s shortcomings will be addressed by a group of men led by Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain who will spend five years overhauling  LCWR’s governance and will  review “its plans and programs and its relationship with certain groups that the Vatican finds suspect.” The men will revise the statutes of the organization, vet the speakers and publications and address the fact that LCWR has issued public statements that “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops [men], who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals. . . .”  Nuns in LCWR were not the only women whose shortcomings the  men in the CDF have identified.  Sister Margaret Farley and her writing is another.

Sister Farley is a past president of The Catholic Theological Society of America and an emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School.  In 2006 she wrote a book on sexuality that the Vatican’s doctrinal office got around to reading in 2010 at which point it let her know of its disapproval, saying her book had “been a cause of confusion among the faithful.”   It was so upsetting to the men in the CDF that they took two more  years to review the book, not out of prurient interest (although the New York Times says they quoted liberally from its racier passages)  but out of a desire to be thorough.   At the conclusion of their study in December 2011 they issued a report that said Sister Farley had a “defective understanding” of Catholic theology.  In March 2012 Benedict approved their report and on June 4, 2012 a formal censure of the book was delivered  saying it was “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology.”

One can be sure that the nuns are grateful for the enlightened guidance the men in the Vatican have given them.  The fact that they need the guidance is ample evidence, if evidence were needed, why women are not admitted to the priesthood.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at For political commentary see his web page at


Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at For political commentary see his web page at