Vatican Reprimand Of U.S. Nuns Divides Faithful

Guests

John Allen, senior correspondent, National Catholic Reporter
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director, NETWORK
Donna Bethell, chairman of the board of directors, Christendom College

The Vatican reprimanded America's largest organization of Catholic nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Holy See charged the LCWR with promoting programs with "radical feminist themes" that are incompatible with doctrine on issues ranging from homosexuality to women's ordination.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Last week, the Vatican reprimanded America's largest organization of Catholic nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. While praising what it called a great contribution in schools, hospitals and among the poor, the Holy See charged the group with promotion of radical feminist themes incompatible with the faith on issues like contraception and abortion, gay and lesbian rights and the ordination of women.

Leaders of the group expressed shock and outrage. Other Catholics supported the church's obligation to ensure that its organizations uphold its doctrine. And some pointed to this dispute as the latest example of a disconnect between the Vatican and large parts of its American congregation.

We want to hear from Catholics today: How does church doctrine inform your choices? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Washington Post columnist and dieter Michael Gerson on the temptations of both moral superiority and pasta. But first, National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen joins us from New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

JOHN ALLEN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And how big a deal is this?

ALLEN: Well, I think it's a fairly big deal. The - this is not unprecedented. There have been occasions in the past when the Vatican has decided to launch an investigation of a particular group - often within religious life - either for alleged deviation for church doctrine, or because of internal difficulties within a community.

But it certainly doesn't do it every day. And further, of course, this is coming in the context of broader tensions in the United States between the Catholic Church and some women's groups over issues like the proposed HHS mandates on contraception and private insurance. I think all of that creates a context in which this review is particularly explosive.

CONAN: And is this seen as the Vatican trying to bring those obstreperous Americans back into line?

ALLEN: Well, certainly, I think some undoubtedly are going to see it that way. Now, of course, the official line, both from the Vatican and the American bishop - that's Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, who's been put in charge of this process - the official line is that this is intended to create new avenues of communication and cooperation so that everyone is on the same page. Whether or not the nuns in the United States are actually going to experience it that way, of course, is another question.

CONAN: And what is that experience likely to be like? The archbishop, as you mentioned, has been put in charge of ensuring that this process is carried out. What is that going to mean?

ALLEN: Well, I think the short answer, Neal, is we don't know yet. I mean, essentially, what the Vatican has done has announced that there will be an overhaul, but exactly what the ways and means of that overhaul are going to be have yet to be ironed out. As it happens, Archbishop Sartain is in Rome at the moment for a regularly scheduled visit - along with a number of other American bishops - to offices in the Vatican.

And the leadership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious - that is, the officers of this organization - are also in Rome. So it's entirely possible that they may try to meet. Archbishop Sartain has said that he doesn't want to say too much publicly about what the process is going to be until he's had a conversation with those folks. But I imagine this is going to play out not in days or weeks, but rather in months.

It is designed to end with a new set of statutes - that is, sort of governing principles for this organization - and some new regulations about who they're going to invite to give speeches at their national meetings, and so on. But exactly how cooperative this is going to be or exactly how disciplinary the nuns will experience it, I think all that remains to be seen.

One thing that should be said is that the choice of Archbishop Sartain has been seen, in many quarters, by church insiders, as a choice for a fairly moderate and pastoral approach to this process, because he is not known as a hardliner or a head-knocker. He's known as a centrist who is able to build consensus. I think that's one thing people will have their eyes on as this process unfolds.

CONAN: You mentioned discipline. Is this likely to lead to what some might regard as a housecleaning, or others regard as a purge?

ALLEN: Well, I think, again, it is probably too early to speculate. I think there are some who are going to see this as the long arm of the law reaching over from Rome and trying to bring the nuns into line. And some may not be willing to put up with that, and may make a choice to walk away. But exactly how much of a cataclysm this is going to be remains to be seen.

One remembers, of course, that four years ago, the Vatican announced a broad-ranging review of all the 400-plus women's religious orders in the United States. At the time, there were predictions that was going to lead to an earthquake. Four years later, the process has reached conclusion, and I think most people would say it's going out with something of a whimper rather than a bang - that is, it didn't lead to the kind of cataclysm that some had predicted. So we're going to have to see if this overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a similar case.

CONAN: And it does come in the context, as you mentioned, the tactical-political context that we mentioned earlier, the dispute with the Obama administration's regulations on contraception, but more broadly in the context of a Catholic Church who's - well, I guess the dispute that some people have with it is: How much of a Catholic am I supposed to be? Can I have my own conscience within certain contexts? How much discipline is going to be imposed on my beliefs? And this - well, contraception has been a huge issue.

ALLEN: Yeah. And, of course, all the polls will tell you that majorities of American Catholics don't necessarily, in all the details, uphold official church teaching on contraception. But I think the broad picture is there is always this sort of balance in Catholic life between, on the one hand, needing to be faithful to certain core principals and, on the other hand, leaving room for people to sort of make their own life choices.

I think what is clear is that we are going through a period in which the leadership of the church, both in Rome and in the United States, is concerned that there has been - over the last 50 years - maybe too much slippage there, and that there is a certain process going on of sort of tightening up on core matters of Catholic identity - that is, insisting that Catholics, particularly those who are inside officialdom, that is who are official church personnel, that they are sort of responsible for walking the talk.

And I think this investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a piece of that broader picture, which is kind of an effort to sort of reaffirm a sort of strong sense of traditional Catholic identity.

CONAN: And as you pointed out, John, there's an important distinction between those who are in orders and lay Catholics.

ALLEN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, there are 1.2 billion Catholics in every nook and cranny of the planet, but the vast majority of them would be laity, who aren't, so to speak, on the church's dime. But I think there's a higher set of expectations from officialdom for people who have some kind of official capacity in the church - that is bishops, priests, sisters and lay people who officially work for the church and officially represent the church.

I think there, the circle is drawn a bit tighter in terms of what kind of dissent is going to be seen by officialdom as acceptable.

CONAN: John Allen, I know you're off to Rome. We'll look forward to stories to see if anything comes out of that meeting you speculated about that might happen between the leaders of this organization and the archbishop who's been put in charge of this process.

ALLEN: Thanks, Neal, always a pleasure.

CONAN: John Allen, a senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is "A People of Hope." He joined us on the phone from New York. Now we turn to two women who will have some reactions to these announced assessments. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious has decided not to do interviews until they consult their board and members.

Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic lobbying group referenced in the Vatican's report. She said the reprimand was like a sock in the stomach. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

SIMONE CAMPBELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Also with us here in Studio 3A is Donna Bethell, chairman of the board of directors for Christendom College. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

DONNA BETHELL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder, what's the conversation been like since this decision came out last week?

BETHELL: Well, it's been very active. I was out all day last Wednesday. I came home late in the evening, and my email inbox was full. So I sat right down and read the document, which was fortunate because the next day I was getting questions about it.

So I think this is something that is of great interest to Catholics who care about what happens in the church.

CONAN: And what would you say is the nub of the issue? Is it the deviations of this particular group? Is it the great praise for their work in other contexts? Is it this broader context of the church and what it means to be a Catholic?

BETHELL: I think John Allen made that last point very well in his usual thoughtful and informed analysis. He said that the church expects a great deal from people who are officially, publicly consecrated in its service, and it - the first paragraph of the doctrinal assessment makes that point, quoting Pope John Paul II, that it is very important that those people be fully supportive of and committed to the church's doctrine in their life and work.

And that, I think, is the nub of the issue. The other point is that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is an entity that is official established by the Vatican and approved by the Vatican to help the women religious in the United States to carry out their consecrated life. And so the Vatican has a responsibility to assess whether that is being done effectively. And that is the entire theme of this doctrinal assessment.

CONAN: Sister Simone Campbell, what's the discussion been like from your corner?

CAMPBELL: Well, first of all, at NETWORK, an organization that works in politics, the application of our faith in the political realm, was totally stunned and shocked that we were mentioned by the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith. I had no idea they even knew we existed. And I think that pointed up to me that more of the issue is not so much a question about our faithfulness to doctrine, because it is one faith. We share one faith.

And I've been to many OCWR meetings, and it's very clear that we share the fullness of Catholic social teaching of the Catholic Church, of the beauty of our faith. Where there's a difference is that we apply that faith, because of our experience in realms of where - with the poor and marginalized. And because we apply it to a different set of experience, we may end up with different political results.

And it's the political results that I think are rancoring at this point. We don't speak for the Catholic Church. Catholic sisters don't speak for the Catholic Church.

CONAN: They don't?

CAMPBELL: No. We speak for ourselves. We may speak for our organizations. We don't speak for the whole church. The bishops do that, and we say that all the time. But the issue is, is that I believe that our lives speak volumes to people who know sisters.

A lot more - I've been told a lot more people know sisters than know bishops, and so they know about the giving of our lives with people are the margins of our society. And it's that witness value of our lives that has so touched the American people.

CONAN: We're talking about the reprimand that was issued to American Catholic nuns - the largest group of them, in any case. And we'd like to hear about your experiences. How does - Catholics, how does church doctrine shape your choices in your life? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking today about the Catholic Church and last week's Vatican reprimand to the largest group of nuns in the United States. The admonishment came from what's called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a division of the Vatican founded in 1542, originally known as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition.

It took its current name in 1965 with a mandate to, according to its website, promote and safeguard the doctrine of the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world. We want to hear from Catholics today. How does church doctrine inform your choices? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, one of the groups identified in the Vatican reprimand; and Donna Bethell, chairman of the board of directors for Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Mary(ph), Mary with us from Olympia in Washington.

MARY: Hi, thank you. What I just wanted to say was I've been Catholic all my life, I'm 42 now, and when I was in my 20s, I was young and could get angry about the ridiculous things that the church would say, you know, no contraception, and it just seemed very unfair to women. And I was in college, and it just - I didn't have room or time for it, and it was really easy to turn away from the church.

And I think as far as doctrinally how it affected my life, when I grew up and saw more of the world and came back to the church, I came - my philosophy was you stay in this faith when the reasons to stay outweigh the reasons to go. And the reasons to stay for me would be, you know, the sacraments, confession and Eucharist and the children, you know, being baptized and being brought up in the faith because Catholicism is a really hard faith to stay in if you've got - this is, I know I'm not right to say, but if you've got a good conscience about what's right and what's wrong for women and for men.

And I work probably 20 hours a week with St. Vincent De Paul bringing food to the poor. I mean, really homeless people, like, doing the real work. And our church, there's - I'm in the archdiocese of Archbishop Peter Sartain, and he has referendums at the back of the church that we are encouraged to sign on the way out, you know, again, about marriage being between a man and a woman.

And it's just frustrating and infuriating, but still I stay because the reasons to stay outweigh the reasons to go, and I just, you know, this church is 2,000 years old, and we just keep waiting for change. If you look back at all the mistakes that were made 1,000 years ago, the church finally got around and changed it. And this group of nuns, you know, speaking out publicly, it's so brave and so courageous, and I'm so proud of them, but I'm afraid they're going to be silenced or excommunicated.

But it's - push is coming to shove. It's coming to a head now.

CONAN: So you don't think that your disagreements on doctrine make you any less of a Catholic?

MARY: No, I think I'm a good Catholic. In fact, when I go to confession, I sit there, and I say: You know, I really don't have a whole lot to say because I think I do a pretty good job. Maybe pride is my biggest sin. But no, I think I'm a good Catholic. I think our social doctrine, social justice doctrine is ignored, and we're focusing on this contraception.

And when I'm out feeding people and helping women with three or four kids, they could probably do without all these kids with no family support. And to be pushing against contraception and pushing against, you know - and I get so - what was your question?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARY: No, I don't think it makes me worse of a Catholic. I think I'm a good Catholic if I pay attention to the doctrines that are important: Eucharist and social justice. I think our social - and taking care of the poor. That's - that is what we're supposed to be doing, and so few do.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, Donna Bethell, that's somebody who people would - some would uphold as a model, and others would say, well, that's an a la carte Catholic.

BETHELL: Well, in effect she said she was an a la carte Catholic. She said that she was going to accept the things that were important to her. And I think she sounds like a wonderful lady, a very generous lady, a very warm and caring lady, and that's just the sort of person that you would like to have as a Catholic.

I think she has not been presented, probably, with the fullness of Catholic doctrine. She probably has not been - had a full explanation to her of why contraception is a problem. And if she understood it and especially understood it in the context of the church's teaching on marriage and human sexuality, perhaps she would be more welcoming of it, and perhaps she would be able to help the people that she's - at the soup kitchen.

So I think that what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is trying to do here is get some clarity. They see that an official voice of the church - and the sisters do speak for the church, at least the leadership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is established as an entity to help religious women. 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 about, to the people since more people see them than see bishops, talking to people about the fullness of the church's teaching.

CONAN: I wanted to get a response from Sister Simone Campbell.

CAMPBELL: Well, it's very ironic to me that we women who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, who don't have families, we don't have babies, that we should become embroiled in an argument over contraception when our basic commitment is to a celibate life.

The church's obsession, at times, with the sexual relationships is a serious problem, and I know we've struggled with the pedophilia scandals, we've struggled with all kinds of sexual aberration with priests and bishops, and that makes it really hard for us as a church to speak with any sort of authenticity about what does it mean to be people of the Gospel.

And so we as Catholic sisters, we live this every day with people who are suffering at the margins of our society, and we are laity. It's very interesting, in canon law, religious are seen as laity because there's only two states: There's the ordained cleric, and there's laity. We're laity with vows, where we've committed our lives to service.

CONAN: And some would say that vow, as you mentioned, includes obedience.

CAMPBELL: It includes obedience to God and to the whole orientation of the Gospel. Living a life of obedience requires listening deeply to the needs of the people around us and not turning our backs, listening deeply to the spirit, living in the hungry and not turning our backs. It's responding day in, day out to the call of Christ in the poor. That's what we do.

CONAN: Let's go next to Michelle(ph), Michelle with us from Green Bay.

MICHELLE: Good afternoon, and thank you for taking my phone call.

CONAN: Sure.

MICHELLE: I noted at the beginning of the show that you had commented that this was a disconnect between the Vatican and the American people. And I'd actually reverse that. I see it as a disconnect between my fellow American Catholics and the Vatican. A lot of my conversations with fellow Catholics indicate that they really don't understand church teaching and the doctrine and the reason behind the doctrine.

And I keep thinking, well, if they understood what the church was teaching, they'd make better choices in their own personal lives, and they could keep that between them and their priests. But I do expect my church leaders to - how would you phrase it - toe the party line. If they're going to officially represent the church, they need to represent the official church teaching, and they need to be able to understand it well enough to be able to explain it when people question them why the church teaches what it does.

CONAN: Is that a failure of leadership, of the teachers?

MICHELLE: It's a failure of the teachers, it's a failure of the parents as to bring their children up in the church. I accidentally attended an RCIE class when I didn't need to, that's a class for adults coming into the church, because I'm a cradle Catholic, I was born and raised in the Catholic Church. And that particular class is very well-done, but the other classes I've heard of, they didn't pose some of the questions that my class had, and so they didn't get answers to them.

And I know in the child level, as you're bringing them up through the tweens and the teenage years, when you could be expected to be imparting this type of information or old enough to understand it, when it comes to contraception and marriage and obedience to the church teaching, I just don't see it happening at all.

CONAN: And do you believe that this reprimand from the Vatican is timely and a good thing?

MICHELLE: I think it generates good conversation. I don't know the situation, and I haven't read the reprimand myself so I don't know exactly what it says, but I think it generates a badly needed conversation in the American Catholic Church about what we're teaching, why we're teaching it, and if we're going to claim the name of Catholic, can we actually uphold that name.

CONAN: That's an interesting point, Sister Simone Campbell.

CAMPBELL: I think that is an excellent point, and actually that's my prayer, that this will lead to dialogue for everyone because it is true we're all human, and none of us are perfect, and we can all learn. And one of the surprises from the visitation that we - that John Allen referred to that we were so upset about, do you know the blessing that came out of that is that American sisters are much closer to each other than we ever were.

We have a greater sense of solidarity. We have a much greater sense of the commitment and the different charisms, the different orientations that we have as different organizations within the church. And that solidarity has been very life giving.

So I would applaud further conversation. I think one of the things that's been hard is that there's been so little conversation in advance. And one of our worries is will it be conversation, or, as John Allen pointed out, is it top-down? That's the question.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Donna Bethell, is this just - is this conversation, the ongoing conversation that's been going on for 2,000 years, what does it mean to be a Catholic?

BETHELL: Well, yes, of course. That conversation will continue because there are fundamental things in the church that haven't changed for 2,000 years, and there are things that are - that have changed because they were not unchangeable and because we had to respond to changing social and historical needs.

So the conversation that has begun or continued with this document will, I'm sure, be very fruitful for sisters in the United States and throughout the world. The document pointed out how much influence the United States Women Religious have on the rest of the world. And that's another reason why their example is so important.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Michelle.

MICHELLE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Jack, and Jack is on the line with us from Louisville.

JACK: Thank you very much. My compliments to you all. I'm a 67-year-old man. I devoted my life to some form of ministry in the church since I was an altar boy. I gave up quite a bit. I felt called to be involved in various ministries over the years, even was in seminary a couple of times, although I was never ordained. But I've continued to work very actively in leadership and different forms of ministry. To that end, I felt I could not act on my sexuality. I'm gay, and I (unintelligible) of that until two years go.

One of the things that I want to comment on and I'd like the sisters to comment on; people talk about loyalty to the church. One of the problems that's gotten us - one of the things that has given us problems in terms of that, like pedophilia, is I believe that people need to be, first, loyal to the Lord Jesus and to the Gospel. After that, the church comes as an instrument of spreading the good news. When the church is no longer being, in some form or another, faithful to the Gospel and to the lordship of Jesus Christ, then you need to deal with that. And...

CONAN: And, Jack, I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to give our guests a chance to respond.

JACK: You can do a follow-up if you don't mind. OK.

CONAN: All right. Well, Donna Bethell, is there - are these organizations required to, as somebody said, toe the line? Or are they - should they answer to - individuals and groups answer to, as our caller suggests, a higher law, if you will?

BETHELL: Well, yes, of course, we all answer to a higher law, and the church is not simply an organization, an instrument for disciplining people or even for - just for teaching. The church is the mystical body of Christ. The church is established by Christ. He who hears you, hears me. You are - I am a vine. You are the branches. We are one with - I am the way, the truth and the life.

So it isn't just a matter that the church is a news agency. The church is Christ here on Earth, and the authorities in the church who speak authentically for the church are the voice of Christ. We call the pope the vicar of Christ. So it's not that you can - that's why we say you cannot simply pick and choose among the essential teachings of the church. You have to - if you accept one, rationally, you have to accept all of them because they all have the same source.

CONAN: Donna Bethell, chairman of the board of directors for Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. Also with us, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Sister Simone Campbell.

CAMPBELL: I think that there are teachings within the church, but at the core of our faith is Jesus, and our belief that our way is to walk with Jesus, and that we are one body. The whole of creation is one body. And that walking as Jesus walked, when you look at what Jesus did, it's to be in relationship with those at the margins of society.

There's a story - and one of my favorites is the Samaritan woman at the well. Jewish men did not talk to Samaritans, especially a woman, and yet he not - Jesus not only talked to her, Jesus asked for help, and gave her a life that was beyond her imagining. And that being at the margins is how we as Women Religious live.

We are in relationship with the folks that are cast out, with the folks that are not talked to, with the folks that are shunned, the homeless, the hungry, the folks who we would like to turn our backs on. That's who we commit our lives to. And that influences how we see Jesus, and then, therefore, also how we then live vibrantly in the church.

Our mission in the church as Women Religious is to the people of God. The bishops are doing their work and their mission as a church, which is to protect the institution and the institution of the church. Those two missions are often historically in conflict, and that's what we have here right now, is a small, little dustup around the different of - difference of mission.

CONAN: Donna Bethell, a small, little dustup?

BETHELL: No, I don't think so. The Samaritan woman story is one of my favorites as well. And it's interesting that Jesus did talk to her against the cultural norms of the day. He did ask her for help, and then he called her to account for her life. He asked her - he said, come back. Go get your husband and bring him back here.

And she said, well, I don't have a husband. And he said, yes. The man you're living with is not your husband, or the four before that. So he's - he didn't mince words with her. And she was so taken aback that she tried to change the subject, and he wouldn't let her change the subject. And then she finally saw. She said, I see that you are a prophet, and you are speaking the truth. And she went off to tell the villagers, come and see what this - come and see this man. He's told me everything I've ever done. Well, they knew what kind of a woman she was. They rushed right out to hear the whole, you know, every bit of (unintelligible). But at any rate, the bishops are the authority in the church.

The bishops are not simply restricted to some kind of an administrative role. They are responsible for everything that goes on in the church; that you cannot bifurcate them and say that there are other things that go on that don't concern them and that they're not answerable for.

CONAN: Well, thank you so much. Again, it's a conversation been going on for 2,000 years, only the past 70 years or so on the radio. But we appreciate you joining us today. You just heard Donna Bethell, chairman of the board of directors of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. Our thanks also to Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, and she joined us - they both joined us here in Studio 3A.

Coming up, dieter Michael Gerson on the risks of healthy eating, craving peanut butter, sheer boredom and the temptations of moral superiority. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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