When Benedict XVI became the first pope in almost 600 years to resign earlier this month, most of the initial speculation had to do with obscure succession rules, and whether the next pope would be European, African, or even American. But the papal transition also opens up another question of great, if quieter, significance for Catholicism in this country. What will become of American nuns?
Under Benedict, the rapport between nuns and the Vatican has been strained, to say the least. Last spring a rare public rift opened between the Church hierarchy and the largest group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Vatican accused the sisters of insufficient orthodoxy and deference to bishops, openness to “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” and neglecting traditional social issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This “doctrinal assessment,” the result of an investigation begun in 2008, took the unprecedented step of placing the nuns’ group under the command of three US bishops for five years. The LCWR released a statement saying it was “stunned.”