Why is the Vatican launching an investigation into the leadership of its Catholic sisters?

Published April 16, 2009 9:00PM (EDT)

Ed. note: The following is a guest post from Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

At the end of 2006, the number of women who were Roman Catholic nuns had declined from the 1965 level of 180,000 to just 67,700. The average age for those nuns hovers around 70. In December 2008, the Vatican announced that it would study the quality of life for women religious in the U.S. as part of an effort to understand why so few women want to be nuns. Perhaps what the Vatican needs to study is how it treats nuns and whether the positions it takes on gender and sexuality might be an obstacle to the Vatican definition of sisterhood.

It might start with reviewing its own plan, revealed this week, that the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition) has decided to conduct a "doctrinal assessment" (formerly known as a "trial") into the efforts of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to initiate programs that would help the good sisters accept and teach church positions on homosexuality, the ordination of women and the primacy of Catholicism as the one true religion.

Apparently, the Vatican thinks the LCWR, which represents the leadership of women's religious communities in the U.S., has not done a good job enforcing church teaching in these areas. The Vatican pointed to speeches made at the annual meetings of the LCWR as indication that they have been bad girls.

Even the 60 and over crowd of nuns has probably had enough of this nunsense from Vatican officials. Nuns are among the best-educated employees of the church, with a much higher proportion of Ph.D.'s than bishops or priests. They are smart cookies, and when the Second Vatican Council freed them from habits and constrained lives, they embarked on open inquiry into women's lives in the church and society. Their intimate connections with people's daily lives as nurses, social workers, community organizers, poverty workers and college professors opened them to feminism. They have taken far more risks in pushing doctrinal envelopes than priests.

While LCWR itself beats a moderate path and tries to stay out of trouble with the Vatican, the sisters who are members believe they can ask questions. Like why can't I be a priest? Shouldn't LGBT folks have civil rights and be able to get married? What would Jesus want of us in these areas of life? And, finally, as these sisters traveled the world, they met Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and other Christians and came to believe that God was in all of us in ways that scare the skirts off the cardinals and popes.

What woman in her right mind would chose to be a nun under these circumstances? What hierarchy does not understand that? Let the games begin. They will end with a further decimated hierarchical sisterhood and a growing sisterhood of feminists in the church. Let us hope that along the way, no one is burned at the stake.

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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