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US Nuns Stunned, Angered by Vatican Reprimand

A group of U.S. Catholic nuns (file photo)
A group of U.S. Catholic nuns (file photo)

After a night on the street, dozens of homeless men and women file into a shelter in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring.

A walk down the hall takes them to the cafeteria, where they get a hot breakfast, and loving attention from a secularly-clothed nun, Sister Mary Mulholland.

"Lilly, how are you?" she asks one of them. "You don't look like you're too good today."


They are the down and out of this city. But their lives are a little better because after 20 years as a Catholic school religion teacher, Sister Mary left the job to help people who have nowhere else to go.

"This is how I get grounded in my life, this is what the Gospel means for me, to live out the gospel," says the 66-year-old sister.

There are many nuns in America living out their faith like Sister Mary Mulholland.  But the Vatican says they are not doing enough to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.

Last month, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the panel that enforces Catholic orthodoxy, issued a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization that represents the majority of the 55,000 nuns in the United States.  

The assessment said that "while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death."

The panel, headed by American Cardinal William Levada, appointed Seattle Bishop Peter Sartain to overhaul governance of the LCWR.

Sister Mary Mulholland belongs to the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, an LCWR congregation headed by Sister Pat McDermott.

"We are stunned, we are shocked," McDermott said. "I think the sense of being shocked has turned to a real deep sadness, and an anger, of the judgments that seemingly are being made about our lives."

One of the judgments in the doctrinal assessment was that nuns are flirting with "radical feminism."

McDermott says they are just living out the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which allowed nuns to shed the habit and called on them to live among the poor.

"And now we find ourselves being judged seemingly from another standard," she said.

Donna Bethel of Christendom College, a conservative Catholic liberal arts school in Front Royal, Virginia, says the problem is that sisters are pursuing social justice the wrong way.

"You can't say you're devoted to social justice, and ignore the problem of abortion," she said. "If you cannot respect life, what is the point of all the other rights?"

McDermott sees it differently. "The Catholic tradition has always been a 'both-and' tradition, so faith without good works, that is not our story.  Faith with good works is our story," she said.

For Sister Mary, that means trying to find someone a job and a place to live, and not trying to impose her beliefs on others.

"We all carry a piece of the truth.  That is the way I see it," she said.  "And when we put it all together, we get closer to the revelation that God wants to come to."

Critics say that while the Catholic Church's male hierarchy has avoided accountability for sex scandals, it is disciplining a dwindling group of American women who have consecrated their lives to their faith.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.
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by: Gab
May 07, 2012 4:32 AM
God is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction:
jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Is it any wonder the Church shows those qualities throughout the centuries?

by: Chaytahn
May 06, 2012 6:52 AM
Some American nuns violating their oath of obedience..need to support the teachings of the church or renounce their vows. I find it interesting that the traditional orders are growing in numbers and the liberal American orders are declining.

God did not implement a democracy when he created the Church with clear lines of authority which are apostolic in their succession. So why should the global church change due to these American radicals?

by: lember
May 05, 2012 8:17 AM
'US Nuns Stunned, Angered by Vatican Reprimand"

Stunned? Angered? Oh Please give me a break!
It all boils down to Live by your own vows or leave.

by: Popsiq
May 04, 2012 8:12 PM
The Heirachy need to become more Christlike. He was no great organzer, he didn't care much for the bureaucracy or the legalists of his time. His message was paired with a hands-on approach to the 'poor of spirit' as individuals not some philosophical construct.

Set the crook and mitre aside three days a week get on the workboots and labor, or go feed the poor.

Take a lesson from those sisters, Brothers, they're closer to God than you.

by: Voicebearer
May 04, 2012 6:07 PM
As long as the church will stand for the truth she will be the salt and the light of the world, the truth is to recognize Jesus the savior of every human being who obey God, who is life not death, love to every human being, love for every life God created, the way St. Francis did, beauty against aberrations of human nature, The spirit of God is strength to stand to death against the aberration in the name of love, freedom and justice. Silence in the name of love is coward and somtimes criminal.

by: Terrence Lo
May 04, 2012 5:49 PM
It is for reasons like this and many other is why I have revolked my membership with the Catholic Church and left organized religion as a whole. The nuns are following the spirit of true fellowship, compassion and love, and our former Nazi Jungen Pope has probably found the best way to break the Vatican's grip on US social life.

by: David
May 04, 2012 4:25 PM
Godwin in Nigeria: Religion is about obedience to God, agreed. Which commandment requires obedience to "those placed above you to oversee your activities?" Have we learnt nothing from the child abuse scandals of recent decades?

by: Godwin
May 04, 2012 11:25 AM
Religion is about obedience to God and to those placed above you to oversee your activities. These women should understand that the Vatican wants them to do more than just appear another Florence Nightingale. While you take care of the people's material needs, also attend to their spiritual needs by telling them how best to stand right in the faith - which is their relationship with God. If you will allow abortion and same sex marriage, then you are feeding the devil in them. BAD!

by: Religions greatest threat is Religion
May 04, 2012 8:18 AM
The Vatican must remember - Gods will and the faith are not on “condition” of “mans word” - the Vatican nor religion “define God”. When God lifts his rod against the church for their own aberrations and corruption? What is to be said? Some biblical laws set out are for the individual – transgression against those laws are not for a church, synagogue or mosque to decide -religion should relearn the bounds or they risk elevating themselves above God – thats not the purpose of faith.

by: Chaytahn
May 04, 2012 6:26 AM
The article ignores more then a hundred religious orders of nuns that have written on their web pages in support of the Vatican's position! Some of the nuns are out of line and not following church teaching. In this regard, they are in violation of their oath of obedience.

The good news is that the liberal orders are dying out and the traditional orders are growing. In 20 years the church will be much stronger and the liberal nuns will be a distant memory
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