Network bus tour illustrates Vatican’s objections, author says

Nuns on the bus Credit nunsonthebuscom CNA US Catholic News 6 11 12 The logo for the Nuns on the Bus tour.

An expert on women religious in the U.S. said that a bus tour announced by religious sisters who belonging to a "progressive" social justice organization demonstrates the Vatican's concerns about certain groups of women religious in the country.

Ann Carey, author of the 1997 book "Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities," said that the move is likely a "public relations ploy" aimed at "highlighting the fact that they disagree with the bishops" about religious freedom concerns in health care.

Network, a Catholic social justice lobby that describes itself as "a progressive voice within the Catholic community," has announced a bus tour across several politically significant states to protest suggested budget cuts to programs for the poor.

The dates of the tour – June 18 to July 2 – will overlap with the Fortnight for Freedom that the bishops have announced as a time of prayer, education and advocacy in the face of the Obama administration's contraception mandate.

Carey told CNA June 8 that the sisters, who are "very politically savvy," are trying to show that they are doing good works in order to "deflect the actual problems that the Vatican has pointed out."

The organization does perform good work, as do many members of the laity, she acknowledged. But there is a deeper problem with the group's understanding of the nature of religious life and its adherence to Church teaching.

Carey does believes it is appropriate for the sisters to voice concerns over budget cuts, about which some bishops have also voiced hesitations, but they need to go further in their advocacy.

The bishops, she said, are concerned that the sisters are taking one "very small part" of Catholic teaching and promoting it as the entirety of Catholic social justice.

"They've carved out a very, very small part of the Gospel message to proclaim," Carey remarked.

 "The Gospel is not just about helping poor people," but also includes admonitions to avoid sin and a focus on our redemption through the sacrifice of Christ, she explained.

While it is true that different orders have different areas of emphasis, it is incorrect to claim to represent Catholic social teaching while largely ignoring some of the most foundational and important elements of this teaching, such as a respect for life and sexuality, she said.

Network was recently mentioned in the Vatican's criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group of women religious leaders in the U.S. that has been called on to realign itself with Church teaching.

Although not formally affiliated, the close connection between the LCWR and Network was highlighted in a 2006 speech by Catherine Pinkerton, CSJ.

Upon receiving the LCWR Outstanding Leadership Award, Pinkerton explained that the callings of the two groups "are so very intertwined as to be inseparable."

"I have never doubted that for me Network was a natural progression from LCWR," she said. "In truth, we two entities are inextricably linked."

She added that the LCWR has always been part of Network's board, "helping to set its direction."

Carey said that the Network bus tour is "illustrative" of what has been happening with the women's leadership conference for several decades.

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On April 18, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith revealed the findings a four-year doctrinal assessment of the conference, which discovered "serious doctrinal problems" and a need for reform.

It cited letters from LCWR officers as well as presentations sponsored by the conference which exhibited "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" and dissent from Church teaching on topics including the sacramental male priesthood and homosexuality.

The assessment also found that while the group adamantly promotes social justice issues, it largely ignores matters of life, marriage and sexuality, which have played a large role in recent public debates.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle has been mandated to work with LCWR leadership to guide renewal efforts.

The archbishop will help the conference revise its statues and review its formation materials, speakers, presentations and affiliation with other organizations, as well as the application of liturgical norms and texts in its gatherings.

LCWR leaders said that they were "stunned" by the assessment and accused the Vatican of making "unsubstantiated accusations."

They also argued that "the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised" and could compromise the sisters' "ability to fulfill their mission."

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However, Carey noted that the LCWR's mission was redefined when the group re-wrote its statutes four decades ago. She asserted the group has no reason to be stunned because it has been disagreeing with the Vatican over doctrine and religious life for 40 years.

"They've been alluding to it for years in their own materials," she said. "They're just trying to play the victim."

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