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What Lies Ahead For America's Nuns


Earlier this year, the Vatican accused the largest organization of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States of failing to follow church doctrine on a number of controversial issues. The church reprimanded the organization for challenging core Catholic beliefs and for promoting what it called radical feminist themes. Nuns with this organization, which is called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, met earlier this month in St. Louis to consider their response to the Vatican's demands and comments.

Sister Mary Hughes is the past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and she joins us here in Studio 3A in just a moment to discuss the conflict. But Catholic listeners, we want to hear from you. What is the conversation in your congregation about this? Call us and tell us your story, what's going on where you live. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And now I want to welcome Sister Mary Hughes to our program. Thanks very much for being here.

SISTER MARY HUGHES: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

DONVAN: So Sister, at this point, are you still looking for reconciliation, solution with the Vatican on this?

HUGHES: Absolutely, we are, and that is the direction that was affirmed by the assembly body last week when we met in St. Louis. We met from August 7th to the 10th, and there were more than 900 Women Religious there. And unanimously they affirmed that we would like to go forward. Our membership in the church is very important to us. We thrive on its sacramental life. We draw our strength from that. And so there is no question but that we're just seeking honest dialogue to see where the areas of misunderstanding are and to see what can be crafted that makes the whole church stronger.

DONVAN: So you're casting it in terms of there actually being misunderstandings as opposed to disagreement. Is that really your feeling, that there's not a clash, a basic clash of values and perceptions but actually just a misunderstanding and a communication problem?

HUGHES: Definitely there's a communication problem, and then inherent in that is a lot of misunderstanding, and then some values and so on might clash within that. But until we could get at the communication issues and find the place of honest dialogue as we go back and forth in a true effort to understand the perspective of the other, it will be hard to, I think, to arrive at anything further.

DONVAN: Some of the things that the Vatican singled out the organization for participating in, or positions holding, include the organization's, I guess, advocacy of radical feminist themes and the organization's failure to explicitly adhere to, vocally, to endorse Vatican positions on things such as gay marriage and homosexuality. Is that actually true or is that a misunderstanding? Did you - did those things happen and the Vatican doesn't like it, or did those thing not happen and only thinks it happened because there's a communication problem?

HUGHES: I think largely it's a communication problem. And if I've - if anyone thinks I'm a radical feminist, I have some women I'd like to introduce you to. They're - if radical feminist means, though, that women believe they can do many of the same things that men can do and have the capacity to do that, well, then I guess that's true.

In terms of abortion and gay marriage, first of all, we don't do marriages, so we've never had a discussion on gay marriage nor its import. I'm sure members have opinions, but it's never been a discussion topic at the conference. And in terms of abortion, I think there's more than one way to challenge the issue of abortion. I think the bishops do it beautifully politically. They are very strong. They can speak from the pulpit, something we're not able to do. They organize the rallies to Washington each year. They do a wonderful job at that politically.

But behind the scenes there's a whole other level of work that has to be done to support women in having their babies. And I know in my own community and in many others, we have women who work in birthright clinics and they - those do not have paying salaries attached to them, we support them to do that work. We have homes where women and their children can come. Countless sisters in the high schools and colleges have counseled young women and supported them in having a child as opposed to choosing abortion. It's a case of both, and I don't think either/or. And I believe the church needs both.

DONVAN: If this thing came to the point where the Vatican and the organization could not sort this out, and the Vatican - the Vatican actually established the organization.

HUGHES: That's correct.

DONVAN: So what would the Vatican's options be then? To withdraw its support for the organization, to expel its members? What would actually be the mechanics of a total collapse?

HUGHES: Well, only the Vatican could withdraw its support. The Leadership Conference itself cannot say to the Vatican, we no longer want to be recognized by you. We'll be just an organization, a leadership organization. The members have said clearly that's not the direction they wish to go in.

We're very hopeful that actually this crisis, this misunderstanding, this very public space that we find ourselves in might be the opportunity to really engage with one another in a way that we could each endeavor to try to understand the other's perspective, to speak honestly about that and find the areas of agreement on both sides.

DONVAN: I'm curious to hear about bringing this perspective into it, that you are all American women.

HUGHES: Mm-hmm.

DONVAN: This is the United States and the 21st century. Things have happened in the culture here over the last 40 or 50 years...

HUGHES: Right.

DONVAN: ...that potentially the Vatican is not satisfied with and is not happy with. And I think a lot of us in the lay world, let's say, perceive this as a - actually, as a feminist issue. That there's an organization that does - is under the guidance always of men at the top who are telling women what they can and can't do. And that narrative is out there, that it's about men and women.

HUGHES: Mm-hmm.

DONVAN: What about that? Is there some relevance to that, the fact that you actually are American women who are living in the 21st century, and you're not your mothers or your grandmothers.

HUGHES: No, and there is some element of truth to that, but I don't think that that's the whole issue. Certainly, it's a piece of it. I think there's a clash of cultures. It's just - if one travels to Rome, one cannot help but be impressed by the centuries' worth of tradition that are there. And clearly, in the United States, when we're asked to do something, we move very quickly. And the changes that have happened in contemporary religious life in this country have all happened in the past 50 years really in obedience to the Vatican.

So the call of Vatican II, the document Perfectae Caritatis that urged us to renew, to reform, and we took that very seriously, and not all of our members, at the time, were anxious to do that. They were - in religious communities, there were tensions about, we're moving too quickly. We're moving too slowly. We're too, you know, back and forth. It was a time that many discerned that religious life was not the place they were really called to stay.

And when I look back at what has happened over the past 50 years and how quickly, in a sense, compared with Vatican time, that happened, I think we probably should have expected that there might be more misunderstanding, which is just another illustration that we need stronger vehicles for communication.

DONVAN: So 50 years ago, the orders were asked, we're told to change, and then you change, and maybe you changed faster than - or farther than folks had in mind.

HUGHES: That could be.

DONVAN: Let's bring - we've asked our listeners who are in Catholic communities and congregations across the country to tell us how this conversation is going on in their communities. And I want to bring in Brandon, who's in the Kansas City. Brandon, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BRANDON: Yeah. I just wanted to say that as a member of the young Catholic generation, the talk at - in Kansas City, particularly at my church, is that the - this woman's' organization and the work they're doing and the light that they're shedding on these issues is a really great thing not only now, but to propel us forward as a congregation, as a religious sect. So that, you know, in future years - and even the issue that she said that they don't necessarily talk about in their meetings about gay marriage and abortion, things like that, those are things that are really important to the younger generation that will move us forward.

And, you know, it's no secret that the Catholic Church as a whole has taken a lot of hits, especially in these recent years for various reasons. And these things, you know, that we're - as we keep going forward and shedding some light on, they're going to help us with those numbers and not just that but getting our message out there, that we're not, you know, we're not the religion that we were, you know, 50 years ago. There's not this, you know, this cloud of, you know, of these bad things happening anymore. We want to move forward and get some positive feedback out there about the religion.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks, Brandon, very much for your call.

HUGHES: Thank you, Brandon. I appreciate that, and I appreciate your affirmation of the work of Women Religious. And I think some of the issues that you talk about, being walking with persons who have a different sexual orientation, walking with person who are struggling with decisions to keep or not keep their expected child are the margins that we walk on. And I think as we walk there and work with persons who are un-served, underserved, perhaps don't feel they have a voice they can talk to, we fall in love with all those people, and then we come back to the center and we do ask questions about how the church might be, perhaps, a bit more expansive in including more people. And I guess, whenever we raise questions, we could expect sometimes some pushback. But thank you.

DONVAN: Sister, again, putting in the modern American context and the changes that have taken place in the lives of women in this country over the last 35, 50 years, this question, why stay with the organization? Organization is such an odd word to use.


DONVAN: It's so much more than that to you, I know. Why stay with the church when it takes a step such as this? And as I understand it, your organization really didn't see this coming. It kind of came out of anywhere. Its response to its unhappiness with the organization is to put three bishops in a supervisory role over the head of any of the women in the organization to do things such as clear who your speakers will be, the things that are written, that it's quite a scolding. And I want to understand what's going on with your faith in the church that keeps you hanging in rather than saying, as many sisters have done through the changes of the last 30 years, have left instead. You're staying, but you're staying for what?

HUGHES: I'm staying because I believe it's the one true church. And when God has laid claim to your heart, you have to stay where your heart is. A number of years back, a Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, during the time of the council said, the church is holy in spite of those who inhabit it. And when something like this happened, it was very shaking for me. I felt humiliated through the experience. And I remember talking with my own bishop when I came home, and I was very upset. I was crying because I have been there to receive the mandate. And I remember saying to him, you know, sometimes, we have to pray to give our heart to the church. And that has really been my prayer since I've come home, to be able to give my heart to all the holiness that drew me to begin with in spite of the differences that we might have within it.

DONVAN: Let's bring in - I first want to say, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, and have Marcela(ph) join us from Austin, Texas. Marcela, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Marcela? Hi.


DONVAN: Hi, Marcela. I can finally hear. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. What's your comment or question?

MARCELA: Yes. You know, I'm just calling because I feel that people in my parish and my community in Austin that I've been involved with several groups very much in support of the bishops and the Vatican's teaching because what we're following is Jesus Christ and his teaching. And I think there are so much misunderstanding out there in the world about what the church is teaching. We're not against people that practice same-sex. We believe in helping and loving everybody. It's just about that there are certain behaviors that, you know, God expects us to live in, you know, just as the alcoholic has a problem...

DONVAN: But, Marcela, how do you see that figuring into the reprimand that the nuns recently received?

MARCELA: Well, because I think sometimes, a lot of the women religious forget that they're religious first. They're not social workers. That the first thing they must remember is to be in touch with our lord and his teaching, and that's what the church is about. It's not about moving with the times or staying behind in the times. It's about the teachings of Jesus Christ...

DONVAN: Let me...

MARCELA: ...and how we work the people in the...

DONVAN: Let's Sister Mary Hughes' respond to that.

HUGHES: Yeah. I don't know that we really differ. First of all, the - it was the Vatican that urged us to come into - to harmony with the signs of the times. So the changes that occurred in contemporary religious life were in response to the mandate of the Vatican itself. And I don't believe that there's, you know, I think that the sisters are very conscious of supporting church teaching. I don't believe there's ever been a time in my life that I've encountered anything different.

And I would also say that the women that I know in religious life are very prayerful people. I don't think they have forgotten at all that their first allegiance is to Jesus Christ. I think they very much - the women that I know spend hours and hours in prayer each week, even at the LCWR assembly. We began with long periods of contemplative prayer, contemplative quiet. And I think that's the only way you ever got 900 women to come out with the same direction.

DONVAN: I want to read you a tweet that has come in from Kimberley(ph), who says: On the positive side, this has sparked a debate that before was too taboo to have. However, this debate is polarizing the community.

And Ashley(ph) has tweeted that the conversation has - she's supportive of the LCWR, and she says: The Vatican seems out of touch. And she praises how fantastic the nuns and sisters we know are. But what's common in both of these tweets is the theme that an internal argument has broken out into the open, that this is happening in a rather public way. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

HUGHES: Well, initially, I did not think it was a good thing. On the other hand, there's a - there is a blessing that comes with everything. And recently, I was involved in an interview and I said that, actually, the conversation about sisters has really changed over the course of times since this has been out. We used to bemoan the number of nun jokes that would be told or the caricatures of sisters that we would see all over. And I do believe that the attention the press has paid to this, the probing and insightful dialogue and writing that has occurred on this has really raised the level of the conversation, and we're grateful for that.

DONVAN: That people see you now more as you are than they ever have before?

HUGHES: Yes, I believe that.

DONVAN: Well, that's something to come out of it so...

HUGHES: Yeah, it is. It's something good.

DONVAN: Yeah, you have a long way to go. I want to thank Sister Mary Hughes, past president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious and prioress of the Sisters of St. Dominic. She joined us today right here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for joining us, Sister.

HUGHES: Thank you very much.

DONVAN: Tomorrow, it is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.