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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: Francis Douglas
May 04, 2012 3:35 AM
All the best to the American women. You need GREAT COURAGE TO STAND UP TO BULLIES.
Stay strong and just go to the people like Aquino did in the Philliines.

by: NVO
May 03, 2012 5:47 PM
AGAIN, I SAY AGAIN....The RC church is a hideous CONFIRMED Amillennial/Replacement Theology church. Both doctrines based on and rooted in ANTISEMITISM. Catholic faith and practices are by and large NOT Biblical and open up a host of theological problems. Avoid this DEN OF LIES and run for your spiritual life if still in that so-called church!

by: Sophia
May 03, 2012 4:06 PM
There hasn't been a Pope worthy of the name sitting, ex cathedra or otherwise, since John XXIII. The current man knowingly shielded sexual predators from justice -- and their victims from mercy -- as have those before him. Attend to the log in your own eye, Benedict.

by: Kate Hammill
May 03, 2012 2:18 PM
Hang tough, Sisters! The whole world is on your side...

by: John C
May 03, 2012 10:17 AM
I was taught by siters, I have relatives who are sisters, I know their friensd, and I have old friends who are sisters. This new "doctrine" is absolutely wrong and an insult to the sisters who have done God's will and "...helped the least of my brethern...".

by: Karen
May 03, 2012 8:09 AM
The best way of diverting attention away from the sex scandal involving the males of my Church is to turn negative attention to the caring Sisters who truly carry out the teachings of our Lord. They should be humbly thanked and praised by the male hierarchy of the Church instead of castigated. Shame on them! I fully support the Sisters and my money is donated only to them.

by: (Rev.) David Dismas
May 03, 2012 8:02 AM
There are those who will say this is an internal matter of the Roman Church and that those of us outside should not comment; I disagree. To silence the prophetic voices of Roman Catholic women religious is to further impoverish the world, to sit idly by while their voices are muted is to conspire against a true preaching of the Gospel, to ignore the current assault on those serving the least and the neediest is to abandon the poor and needy that all of us called to serve God are called to serve.

by: FerialDay
May 03, 2012 6:32 AM
The male hierarchy has a responsibility to thank and to praise the Sisters for living the message of the Gospel and for being the witness to Christ's message working in the world.

by: laura
May 03, 2012 6:26 AM
instead of making annual donations to the bishops appeals each year, I am going to start sending this portion to the nuns who do all the work and who have taken a vow of poverty (unlike the priests). Rome will only hear when the money is not there and it will take years for them to feel it.

by: Chris
May 03, 2012 4:53 AM
If things continue this way, women will stop becoming nuns, as men have stopped entering the seminary. Then we will have even fewer nuns to help/feed the poor, OR address abortion and same-sex marriage. They have it all wrong. I fully support these wonderful nuns.
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