It’s been just over a month since Jose Mario Bergoglia was elected Pope Francis. He has already been hailed the ‘Pope of the Poor,” and has been commended for his down-to-earth, approachable nature.
But in a surprising turn of events, Francis has turned against American nuns, much like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI did one year ago, and asked them to proceed with a set of reforms the Vatican recommended last year.
These include the appointment of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee the functioning of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest group of Catholic women’s associations in the United States, to monitor the talks they give and the speakers they bring over the next five years, and to discourage their support of ‘liberal,’ issues such as abortion.
Nuns in Brooklyn are none too enthused about the latest developments.
“We experience a sense of surprise when this happens because we are simply trying to serve the people in the name of the Church in response to our call,” said Sister Tiziana Merletti, the congregational minister of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, one of the major Catholic women’s religious groups in Brooklyn. “We experience frustration when there is little or no dialogue — not to talk about ourselves — but to talk about the people and their stories and struggles.”
And it was this kind of dialogue that perhaps led the Vatican to label American nuns as being too progressive last year. The project to address the workings of American nuns was first undertaken by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, one of the major administrative bodies of the Vatican, in 2008. And the Vatican, under the leadership of Benedict, presented the results in April 2012.
Last week, leaders of the LCWR met with the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, Rev. Gerhard Ludwig Muller, to discuss the matter.
The meeting was unfruitful. Shortly afterward, the Vatican released a statement that said Francis had upheld Benedict’s assessment of American nuns from the year before, and that the proposed reforms should continue to be enforced.
The Vatican raised three major areas of concern: that the nuns that are part of the American religious organization are moving beyond the core teachings of the bible, that the group’s position on homosexuality goes against the church’s teachings, and finally that American nuns subvert the order set up by the Vatican.
“These sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality,” reads part of the statement. “Some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church,” it continues.
Shortly after the Vatican’s position was made public, the presidency of the women’s religious leadership conference countered with its own statement published on the group’s website.
“We were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate,” it said. “This is a moment of great import for religious life and the wider church.”
When Pope Francis took over in March, nuns in Brooklyn were initially hopeful of change.
“We are really pleased with the simple approach of Pope Francis, and his concern for the poor,” said Sister Mary Helene of the Sister of Mercy Convent in Brooklyn then. “We are certain he won’t be on the same wavelength as Pope Benedict.”
They seem to have gotten it wrong. The Franciscan Sisters of the Poor were perhaps the most perplexed because they too were inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, after whom the current Pope is named.
“I was hoping for a Pope from South America this time and the last time too,” said Sister Merletti when Francis was appointed in March. “I am excited about his style and concern and love for poor people.”
“Pope Francis is one of us; his actions and attitudes resonate with us. He does what we do as women religious every day and have been doing for centuries: going to prisons, feeding, blessing, washing and kissing the feet of the poor and helping women and children in vulnerable situations,” she added.
Despite Francis contradicting the nuns’ expectations, some in Brooklyn feel the Vatican’s word won’t have much of an impact, and others are hopeful that there is still time for change.
“We have little if any regular interaction with the Vatican,” said Sister Mary Helene. “The decision will have little impact on our day to day life.”
Sister Merletti feels American nuns could make an even stronger argument when they meet as a group again in May in Rome to discuss the statement.
“We are still hopeful and have expectations for a positive outcome,” she said. “Eight hundred global women religious leaders will be gathering and we anticipate fruitful conversations.”