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When Harvard divinity professor Harvey Cox arranged to meet with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Vatican in 1988, a group of nuns thought he was wasting his time.
"I was chatting and having dinner with a number of Dominican sisters who were staying there for a 30-day retreat," Cox says. "They were incredulous that I wanted to bother seeing Ratzinger. 'Why do you want to do that?' they asked. 'Who pays any attention to him?' "
Flash forward a few decades, and nuns are more than paying attention.
Two weeks ago, the Vatican issued a report declaring that the umbrella group representing most American nuns had strayed from church doctrine and adopted "radical feminist" views. Rome ordered Seattle's archbishop to begin monitoring all operations of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
It hit "like a sock in the stomach," Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, told NPR shortly after the word came down.
The reprimand might have come as a shock to many U.S. nuns, but observers say the confrontation has been brewing since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church's controversial liberalization in the 1960s.
Nuns Caught In The Middle
The Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, had asked religious orders to modernize, which for many nuns meant focusing more on social justice and other issues in their communities and less on promulgating church doctrine — including Rome's strict views on birth control and abortion.
Vatican II "asked them to respond to the needs of society," says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and culture editor for America magazine, a Catholic weekly.
But he says the changes ushered in nearly a half-century ago have largely fallen out of favor in Rome, and that has left many nuns caught in the middle.
"They have embraced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and they have thrown themselves into work for the poor and marginalized that other parts of the church wouldn't go near," says Martin, who refers to the nuns as "my heroes" and recently started the Twitter hashtag #WhatSistersMeantoMe.
Rome gets very worried when the chain of command appears to be challenged, either overtly or covertly.Harvey Cox, Harvard divinity professor
"Many sisters I know are quite saddened, because many of the reforms that happened in the last 50 years were the result of their following the instructions of the Second Vatican Council," he says.
Harvard's Cox, who calls himself a "sympathetic outside observer" of the current drama, says the Vatican crackdown is likely to chafe for many nuns from orders that have long relished their independence.
"My guess is that the real worry here with the American sisters is that they are slipping out of the chain of command," says Cox. "Rome gets very worried when the chain of command appears to be challenged, either overtly or covertly."
A Shift Toward Obedience And Order
Both Bishop Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, and then-Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, installed as Pope Benedict XVI after John Paul's death in 2005, took part in the opening session of the Second Vatican Council.
Known as the "pope's rottweiler" for his hard-line positions back when he led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the same Vatican office that issued last month's LCWR assessment — Ratzinger was considered a liberal at the council.
"But Ratzinger got very dismayed and distraught by what was going on in the late 1960s in the German universities," Cox says. "He thought it was time to tack [to the right] and emphasize authority and obedience and order because he thought things were getting out of hand."
Cox, author of the book The Future of Faith, says that during their "long talk" in 1988, one of Ratzinger's chief concerns was so-called liberation theology, a movement led by Latin American bishops that emphasizes working to end unjust economic, political and social conditions.
"The main objection was not really the theological content of the liberation theologians, but the fact that they seemed to be forming a kind of separate magisterium," Cox says. "They had these base communities all over the place that were not really answerable to the local bishop."
Essentially Two Options
Cox says that's the same concern with the nuns now. The Vatican's remedy? A five-year period in which Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, along with two other bishops, will provide "review [and] guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work of the LCWR," according to the CDF's doctrinal assessment.
"It means they'll review all policies, all speakers, all conferences, all publications and all letters of support," says Mary E. Hunt, a feminist theologian, writer and activist.
It's not clear what form the Vatican-mandated changes will eventually take. And the LCWR — made up of about 1,500 representatives who in turn represent the majority of the approximately 56,000 U.S. nuns — plans to meet later this month on how to respond.
An LCWR official told NPR this week that members have essentially two options: They can agree to work with Rome on making the mandated changes, or they can choose to form a new organization independent of the church's hierarchy.
"The conference plans to move slowly, not rushing to judgment. We will engage in dialogue where possible and be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit," the group said in a statement.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for Sartain, says all the parties involved constitute "a reasonable group of people, and the changes will be made in a reasonable way."
Waiting In The Wings?
Hunt wonders whether another factor is at play. She thinks the church would ultimately like to displace the LCWR in favor of a smaller and much more conservative order of nuns known as the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
"They are of course uniformly anti-choice, anti-gay — all the things that the hierarchical church stands for, those women agree with and abide by," she says, adding that with the crackdown on the LCWR, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious "is poised to become the new definitive group."
Walsh disagrees with that view. "I don't think it could be supplanted, because it is the main body," she says.
Donna Bethell, chairwoman of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., says the Vatican is simply fulfilling its responsibility to make sure the sisters reflect church doctrine.
"They're expected not only not to contradict what the church teaches, which is one of the complaints, but also to be very active in ... talking to people since more people see them than see bishops, talking to people about the fullness of the church's teaching," Bethell says.
The Vatican oversight may hurt recruitment of U.S. nuns, whose numbers already have shrunk by two-thirds in the years since Vatican II, according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
"Without a doubt, it makes it more difficult," Hunt says.
Cox, the divinity professor, says he doesn't understand the Vatican's approach given the way the clergy abuse scandal has played out.
"This is a bit humiliating and angering to have it played out in public this way," he says.
"Why couldn't they have done it much quieter? Why such a public thing over this?" Cox wonders. "They could have quietly met after they did their assessment of American nuns and found ways to counsel and negotiate with them."
Correction: May 4, 2012 12:00 am — Previous versions of this story misidentfied Mary E. Hunt and Donna Bethell as nuns.