"A Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms." - Pope Francis
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious represents 80 percent of the 57,000 Catholic nuns in the United States. These women are teachers and social workers, advocates for the poor and homeless. The nuns have time and again helped the image of the church when it was engulfed in sexual scandals.
But in the last year, they have been under heavy condemnation by the Vatican. Why? In 2012 the doctrinal department criticized the group, saying that they promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
According to the Vatican, one of the central "radical feminist themes" is their "silence" on the right to life, saying the group failed to make the biblical view of family life central to its agenda. An example: the nuns backed President Obama's healthcare reform, part of which makes insurance coverage of birth control mandatory, which U.S. bishops opposed.
The Vatican also called for the organization's reform to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas of euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality.
Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA commends the women for their decision to engage in "open and honest dialogue" with Archbishop Peter Sartain, who was appointed to oversee a mandate for reform of the organization issued by the Vatican earlier this year.
Sister Pat Farrell, current president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said that a dialogue "may lead not only to increasing understanding between the church leadership and Women Religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church."
But she said one of her concerns is that the group's questioning appears to be treated as an act of defiance, which is not healthy for the church.
Pope Francis met with Sartain and Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller last Monday, the new head of the Vatican's doctrinal department. Muller simply said that the LCWR would "remain under the direction of the Holy See."
The LCWR have received wide support among many Catholics as they traveled around the country in a bus to defend themselves against the accusations, saying the Vatican misunderstood their intentions and undervalued their work for social justice.
It is clear that they want to continue to be part of the church. At the same time, the bishops are essentially picking a fight with a very respected and beloved part of their community. If these women are placed outside the tent, it's safe to assume that they'd take a large number of American Catholics (primarily women who don't want to be ordered what to say and think by a small group of men).
I'm not religious. I think of myself as spiritual. And as a spiritual person, I agree with many of Jesus' teachings. One being, "Love thy neighbor as yourself." How unfortunate that the demand for gender equity - acceptance - is considered a "radical" notion.
Justice for women in the church, and indeed, justice for every oppressed group in the world today, will only come about when women and men respectfully speak together and take action in order to change the structures that maintain and promote injustice. The LCWR has given the world a miraculous model to do so.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com