The Vatican this week denied there were any internal divisions over its crackdown on the largest umbrella group of U.S. nuns after a top Vatican official complained that he had been sidelined by the reform project.
The head of the Vatican’s office for religious orders, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, was quoted as saying his office wasn’t consulted or even advised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about its decision to overhaul the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of American sisters. He said the crackdown had caused him “much pain.”
The Congregation last year placed the Leadership Conference under the authority of a U.S. bishop after determining that the sisters took positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Braz de Aviz was quoted by the National Catholic Reporter as telling an international gathering of sisters in Rome that he only learned of the Congregation’s crackdown after its report had been completed. He said he told the then-prefect of the Congregation, U.S. Cardinal William Levada, that the issue should have been discussed with his office but wasn’t.
Braz de Aviz was quoted as saying he hadn’t spoken out publicly before about the lack of consultation because he “didn’t have the courage to speak.”
Earlier this week, the Vatican said Braz de Aviz’s words were misinterpreted.
“The prefects of these two congregations work closely together according to their specific responsibilities and have collaborated throughout the process,” the statement said.
It said Braz de Aviz and the current prefect of the Congregation, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, met and reaffirmed their commitment to renewing religious life in the U.S. as well as to the Vatican’s reform plan for the Leadership Conference. It stressed that Pope Francis approved of the plan.
The Vatican’s crackdown unleashed a wave of popular support for the sisters, including a U.S. congressional resolution commending the sisters for their service to the country. It also cost Braz de Aviz’s deputy his job: Archbishop Joseph Tobin was removed after he spoke publicly about the need for the Vatican to mend fences with American sisters. Tobin is now archbishop of Indianapolis.
The sisters’ hopes for a change in approach with the arrival of Pope Francis – a Jesuit dedicated to the poor – were dashed last month when Mueller said he had discussed the crackdown with Francis and that the pontiff had reaffirmed the original findings and reform plan.
As part of its imposed reforms, the Vatican appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops to oversee a rewriting of the conference’s statutes, to review its plans and programs, approve speakers and ensure the group properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.
The conference represents about 57,000 sisters. It has argued that the Vatican reached “flawed” conclusions based on “unsubstantiated accusations.”
Late last week, the head of the nuns’ conference addressed the Rome meeting of the International Union of Superiors General – the gathering of all the heads of women’s religious orders – and provided the most extensive criticism to date about the three year process that led to the Vatican takeover.
Among other complaints, Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon said the Vatican took the conference to task for matters that were completely beyond its authority and purpose, such as criticizing it for not having programs dealing with homosexuality.
In a transcript of her speech posted on the National Catholic Reporter website, Deacon said the Vatican should have directed its concerns to individual religious orders, since they are responsible for such training programs, not the conference.
“LCWR has no authority over the formation programs of an individual congregation,” she said. “Our goal is not set up as an organization to teach church teaching.”
She concluded that the Vatican’s assessment showed “there is serious misunderstanding between officials of the Vatican and women religious, and the need for prayer, discernment and deep listening.”
While remarkably blunt and forthcoming, Braz de Aviz’s revelations about the internal divisions sown by the stealth nature of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are not new.
In 2009, the Congregation announced it had created a new church structure to make it easier for Anglicans upset over the progressive trends in their church to convert to Catholicism. The Vatican’s office for relations with Anglicans and other Christians wasn’t consulted, much less advised, about the initiative.
The retired head of that office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has since become one of the most vocal proponents for a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy so that its departments actually work together rather than against one another.