Nearly 900 Roman Catholic nuns will gather in St. Louis this week to discuss their future relationship with the Vatican.
Ordinarily, this annual assembly of the country's largest umbrella group for women's religious communities wouldn't draw the attention of the world's press. But in the spring, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog office issued a report that questioned the organization's fidelity to some church teachings, accused it of "serious doctrinal problems" and announced that three U.S. bishops would temporarily take the group's reins in order to reform it.
This week, the members of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious — which represents 80 percent of the country's 57,000 Catholic nuns — will discuss their options, which could range from accepting the reforms to severing their official connection to the Vatican.
"We're hopeful it will be a time of dialogue and increased understanding," said Sister Louise Gallahue, leader of the Daughters of Charity in the Province of St. Louise. "Everyone involved wants to see this as communication with church authorities and not in conflict with them."
Since the Vatican report was released in April, the rift has resonated with some American Catholics who feel bishops have become too focused on gay marriage and abortion. Many took issue with the Vatican report that denounced the sisters' group — which represents nuns who work with the poor and sick — for being 'silent on the right to life from conception to natural death" and for leaving "the Church's biblical view of family life and human sexuality" off its "agenda."
"You see a difference in the theology of the sisters who are on the margins, who live with the people, whose theology is informed by the work they do," said Jennifer Reyes Lay, program coordinator for the St. Louis-based Catholic Action Network. "And then the theology of people who hold positions in the hierarchy who aren't as connected to people and who can maintain black-and-white guidelines. It gets messier when you're on the ground."
Reyes Lay said her group, working with a national organization called the Nun Justice Project, had held weekly vigils in support of the nuns outside the Cathedral Basilica in the spring. The group plans to welcome the St. Louis-bound nuns today at five locations inside Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and outside the conference hotel.
One of the main problems the Vatican had with the Leadership Conference for Women Religious is its choice of speakers at their annual assemblies. Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who conducted the Vatican's assessment of the group, wrote in his diocesan newspaper in June that the group's speakers often "explore themes like global spirituality, the new cosmology, earth-justice and eco-feminism in ways that are frequently ambiguous, dubious or even erroneous with respect to Christian faith."
The Vatican's April report said the speakers "manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors."
This year's keynote speaker is Barbara Marx Hubbard, whom spiritual wellness author Deepak Chopra called "the voice for conscious evolution of our time," according to her website.
Hubbard defines conscious evolution as "a spiritually motivated endeavor," whose "precepts reside at the heart of every great faith, affirming that humans have the potential of being co-creators with Spirit, with the deeper patterns of nature and universal design."
"The promise of Conscious Evolution is nothing less than the emergence of a universal humanity capable of guiding its own evolution into a future of unimaginable co-creativity," according to Hubbard's website.
The Vatican's April report also noted "a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR ... ."
The nuns and their supporters say the act of questioning and debating church teaching is not the same as disobeying it.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson is scheduled to address the group today. He stressed his support for the Vatican's position in a statement this week and said he "played no role in the planning of this assembly, the selection of speakers, or its honorees."
His presence at the assembly, Carlson said, "only indicates my love for the Church ... my memory of the wonderful religious who helped me in my earliest days as a child" and his "gratitude for the extraordinary work of Sisters today, especially in the Archdiocese of St. Louis... ."
There are 1,425 sisters, in 53 orders — not all of them members of LCWR — in the St. Louis archdiocese.
Carlson is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, which includes contact with religious communities in the U.S.
Carlson told the archdiocese's newspaper, the St. Louis Review, that while he supports the Vatican's concerns about the LCWR, his 'style for 42 years as a priest and 28 years as a bishop has been one of dialogue. I find that an effective way to be a man of the Church and to live out the Gospel."
The archbishop has a warm relationship with religious sisters. In his previous diocese of Saginaw, Mich., the members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., helped nurse Carlson back to health after a cancer scare.
The leader of the Alma Sisters of Mercy, Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, is close with Carlson and a founding board member of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. That organization, which received formal recognition from the Vatican in 1992, is a more traditionalist version of the LCWR and adheres closely to official church teaching and obedience to the bishops.
In a statement on its website, the Alma Sisters of Mercy wrote of the LCWR debate: "The Sisters who use political language in their responses to the magisterial Church reflect the poverty of their education and formation in the faith."
This summer, St. Louis has become something of a rendezvous for Catholic dissent. In June, members of the Catholic Theological Society of America held their annual meeting downtown and rallied around one of their own.
Days before the theologians' meeting, the same Vatican office that issued the report on the Leadership Conference for Women Religious released a five-page "notification" about a book by Sister Margaret Farley, a professor emeritus at Yale Divinity School, saying her writing on sexual ethics did not conform to church teachings.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This version of the story corrects an error about which organization criticized "sisters who use political language..." in a statement on their website. It was the Alma Sisters of Mercy, whose order is a member of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, not the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious itself.