06/06/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

Nuns' Response to Takeover: Hierarchy Must Tackle Elephants in the Room

It took nearly 12 hours for Archbishop Peter Sartain -- Vatican-appointed overseer of the nation's largest association of American nuns -- to issue his paltry retort to the strong and vigorous statement released on June 1 by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, their first public response to the Vatican's takeover plan. That could well be because he and the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issuer of the Doctrinal Assessment, were pretty much stunned by the response of LCWR.

Buoyed by the support of Catholics nationwide who came out for vigils, signed petitions and expressed outrage at the CDF's action, the LCWR declared that the CDF's Doctrinal Assessment was based on "unsubstantiated accusations," was "the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency" and -- borrowing a freighted word the Vatican and the bishops regularly lob at all manner of "errant" Catholics -- was "causing scandal" as well as "pain throughout the church community." The Assessment (for my take, see The Nation, "American Nuns: Guilty as Charged?") had lambasted the nuns for, among other things, their "radical feminism," focus on poverty instead of pelvic issues, their lack of fidelity to church teachings on those controversial matters, and their failure to submit "allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the Bishops."

While clearly conveying the message that they had no plans to roll over -- a message hailed in headlines from coast to coast -- what was most important about the position of the LCWR board was expressed very quietly in their statement, then made more explicit by LCWR president Sr. Pat Farrell in an exclusive interview she gave to the National Catholic Reporter on Friday.

The LCWR board interpreted the enormous support they received from Catholics as evidence that "the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world." Recognizing that both "the church and society face tumultuous times," they declared that "it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty and integrity."

Continuing in that vein in the NCR interview, Farrell called for that dreaded word, denigrated in the Assessment: "dialogue." While noting that the Assessment demanded renewal of LCWR, she said that the hope of LCWR was rather for renewal of the whole American church. Asked how Catholics could help the sisters, she said they should go back to their parishes, priests and bishops and begin an "open and honest dialogue" -- right now.

You could almost feel the hierarchs gritting their teeth as they pondered the sisters' message, which has the Second Vatican Council written all over it. It's hard to imagine today that, inspired by the Council's spirit of openness, the U.S. bishops in 1976 hosted the first national assembly of American Catholics, this after two years of hearings and parish discussions nationwide involving some 800,000 Catholics in more than 100 dioceses. More than 2,500 lay Catholics, nuns, priests and bishops attended that "Call to Action" conference in Detroit, where they discussed all manner of issues, from women's ordination to priestly celibacy, freedom of conscience on birth control to the election of local pastors and bishops, nuclear disarmament to workers' rights. Together, they moved toward what chair of the Assembly Cardinal John Dearden called "a new way of doing church."

That new way long ago fell by the wayside. In his terse, perfunctory statement, Archbishop Sartain made it clear that the hierarchy has no intention of following in the footsteps of Vatican II. "The CDF and I are wholeheartedly committed to dealing with the important issues raised by the Doctrinal Assessment and the LCWR board," his statement said, "in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity" and, he added -- in what could well be read as a dig at LCWR -- "fidelity to the Church's faith." He said not a word about "dialogue." He admitted no need for renewal of the whole Catholic Church.

And therein may lie the sisters' bargaining chip. While admitting in the NCR interview that the option is always there for LCWR to become a non-canonical organization, Farrell added a crucial caveat. She said it was "very important" for the sisters "to be at the table" and "in the conversations" that they believe have got to take place within the church.

So after LCWR takes the temperature of its full membership through regional meetings and its August Assembly, its message to the hierarchy may go something like this: "We'll stay. You can work with us. But only if you agree to stop throwing people out for what they think and feel; to address with us and the whole American Catholic community all of the elephants that are still in the room; and to find a compassionate, Christian way forward.

That demand, coming from a community of newly empowered American nuns, backed by passionate Catholic supporters nationwide, may be the one thing that the hierarchy never bargained for.