Pope Francis Will Follow Through on Benedict's Crackdown on "Feminist" American Nuns

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 15 2013 1:13 PM

Pope Francis Will Follow Through on Benedict's Crackdown on "Feminist" American Nuns

Nuns worship during a Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in February in New York City.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

New pope, same story—at least when it comes to America's nuns.

Pope Francis announced Monday morning that he will stick to his predecessor's hard-line approach to reforming an umbrella group representing about 80 percent of U.S. nuns, an organization that Benedict XVI believed was promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."


Given Francis' Jesuit background, some had speculated that he might take a softer approach to dealing with the more liberal wings of the church. But the new pope, like his predecessor, leans theologically conservative, so his commitment to Benedict's hard line shouldn't come as a shock. In the case of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), that means the continuation of a five-year plan that Benedict set into motion last year aimed at pushing the group back in line with the Vatican's positions on social issues like homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and women in the priesthood.

Leaders of the nun's group were informed of Francis' decision at a morning meeting with church officials, according to the Vatican. As part of the ongoing plan, the Vatican has given Archbishop of Seattle Peter Sartain the authority to take the steps he sees as necessary to ensure the group better toes the party line as laid out by the Vatican and echoed by the American contingent of Catholic bishops. Those steps including requiring the nuns to get approval from the archbishop for every speaker they invite to a public event, replace their handbook, and revise their statutes, along with generally ensuring that they don't publicly "disagree with or challenge positions taken by" American bishops or the Vatican.

The women's group, which was formed in 1956 at the Vatican's request, represents roughly 4 in 5 American nuns. The organization speaks out on policy issues, especially those pertaining to social justice and provides leadership training to the approximately 57,000 nuns it represents. The original religious disagreement between the Vatican and the LCWR focused largely on the end-of-life and abortion debates in the U.S., especially in the context of President Obama's health care reform law.

At the time the initial reforms were announced, the nuns were strongly opposed to the Vatican's intervention. Today, however, they took a softer tone (at least publicly), describing this morning's meeting as "open and frank" and adding: "We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church."

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.



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