Four years ago, a Vatican group called "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" began an assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a member organization founded in 1956 that represents 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States. The assessment was designed to take a careful look at whether the nuns were acting in accordance with the teachings of the church.
In the assessment, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the leadership conference is undermining Roman Catholic teachings on homosexuality and birth control and promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." It also reprimanded the nuns for hosting speakers who "often contradict or ignore" church teachings and for making public statements that "disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, is the bishop who assessed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Along with Archbishop Peter Sartain and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, he will be working with the nuns of the LCRW to make sure the group is aligned with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The bishops and the nuns' group leaders were also told to develop material "that provides a deepened understanding of the church's doctrine of the faith."
Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the LCWR, talked with Fresh Air's Terry Gross on July 17. Farrell addressed the major criticisms of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, including the LCWR's decision to abstain from taking a public position on abortion, contraception and women's ordination.
Blair tells Fresh Air that the LCWR is "promoting unilaterally new understandings, a new kind of theology, that is not in accordance with the faith of the church." He says he would like to have a dialogue with the LCWR to "educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching and to implement it in their discussions, and try to heal some of the questions or concerns they have about these issues."
On the LCWR not taking a hard-line stance on abortion
"I recall something that Pope John Paul II said: He said that all other human rights are false and illusory. If the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and condition of all personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination ... to relativize or say, well the right to life of an unborn child is a preoccupation with fetuses or [it is] relative in its importance, I cannot agree with that, and I don't think that represents the church's teaching and the focus of our energies in trying to deal with this great moral issue."
On the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church
"I think that the sexual abuse scandal is a great shadow over the church and over the hierarchy that we have to live with. But we also have to keep going on as a church with integrity. ... We certainly have cracked down on sexual abuse and made great strides to understand it and prevent it."
On the dialogue that the LCWR would like to have with the Vatican
"If by dialogue, they mean that the doctrines of the church are negotiable, and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR represents another position and somehow we find a middle ground about basic church teaching on faith and morals, then no, I don't think that's the dialogue the Holy See would envision. But if it's a dialogue about how to have the LCWR really educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching and to implement it in their discussions, and try to heal some of the questions or concerns they have about these issues, that would be the dialogue."
"We do recognize the validity of natural family planning but not artificial contraception. And admittedly, that involves more of a personal investment as a couple or individual, but that would be based on the moral grounds of what church teaches about marriage and human sexuality."
On the ordination of women
"The church doesn't say that the ordination of women is not possible because somehow women are unfit to carry out functions of the priest, but because on the level of sacramental signs, it's not the choice that our Lord made when it comes to those who act in his very person, as the church's bridegroom. And you can say that sounds like a lot of poetry or you know, how do we know that's true, but if you're a Catholic, this is part of our sacraments and practice for two millennia, and it's not just an arbitrary decision of male oppression over women."
On the importance of women in the church
"It's very important for me to say that the history of religious women in the United States is absolutely outstanding, and that one of the most disconcerting things about recent reports is to suggest that somehow that the bishops or the Holy See are not grateful or supportive for the work of religious women. They have done tremendous work in our country and throughout the world. If anything, part of our concern is precisely for their diminished numbers and their aging population. ... We hope there would be revitalization of religious life for women."