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Who are the women behind the latest Vatican reprimands?

By Carole Garibaldi Rogers


The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church could have selected any number of unifying actions to mark the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). They have chosen instead a divisive path: to reprimand the leadership of American Catholic nuns.

On 18 April 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which had been under investigation since early 2009, has been found guilty of “positive error” by making doctrinally problematic statements and also of “silence and inaction” in promoting the church’s teaching, specifically as it concerns the ordination of women and ministry to the gay and lesbian community. The Vatican has ordered the organization, whose 1,500 members represent more than 80% of American Catholic nuns, to submit to the authority of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle. He will have authority over the group’s statutes, programs, liturgical texts, publications, and affiliations with other organizations for at least five years.

In the days since the controversial document was released, public gratitude and recognition has cascaded toward the Sisters. On the editorial pages of Catholic and secular newspapers, on blogs, in pulpits and pews of parish churches, the outrage has been vocal and sustained. The National Catholic Reporter established a centralized source for informed updates at Sisters Under Scrutiny and a petition Support The Sisters on Change.org.

This most recent controversy should not surprise observers of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. Two divergent paths have led from the Council documents. The hierarchy, during the papacies of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has chosen to emphasize doctrinal correctness and continuity with centuries-old pre-Council values, bring back earlier liturgies and pieties, and shut down any discussion of change in disciplines like the celibate male priesthood. To theologians, church historians, and other Catholics who believe that Vatican II called the Church to respond to “the signs of the times,” such a return to the past is not what the spirit of the Council intended.

Women religious in the United States have found themselves once again on the front lines as the struggle between the differing interpretations of Vatican II intensifies. The controversy between the Sisters and the US bishops that emerged in the 60s erupted over and over again during the ensuing decades. The current and very public reprimand of the LCWR is the latest and potentially most ominous of a long strand of such actions against individual Sisters and/or their communities.

Although I encountered Sisters in the classroom at every level of my education, my real understanding of their lives and their contributions to all our lives began in the early 1990s when, as an oral historian, I conducted interviews with 94 women religious in 14 states and from more than 40 different communities. In 2009-2010, I had an opportunity to re-connect with the nuns and do follow-up oral histories with many of them.

So who are these women who stand in the eye of the storm?

Meet Sister Rosemarie Milazzo, a Maryknoll Sister whom I first interviewed in 1992. She had just come home from 20 years in the missions of rural Kenya. Eighteen years later, when I returned to the Maryknoll motherhouse, Sister Rosemarie, then 77, had been again to Africa — Tanzania and most recently Congo, serving on a Christian Peacemaker Team:

“It was my first time in a war zone. And I’m with a peace team, whose goal is to get in the way of the violence with nonviolent methods. That was very new for me. The first thing I saw were the United Nations tanks and huge, huge truckloads of armed soldiers. The weapon of war there is rape, definitely the weapon is rape. There’s a whole lot of shooting and killing but wherever we went, women told a story of rape. Every place we went, we talked to the people. The women can’t go fetch firewood. They can’t go to fetch water. They are in danger whenever they leave.

“We worked with Synergie in Eastern Congo, which is a women’s group that works with rape victims. They were finally able to convince one woman to go to court to tell what happened to her. She needed a place to stay because she lived way out in the village, and two women said, ‘We have room in our house. You can stay with us.’ Shortly after that, the two women were killed.

“I can’t just be a stranger doing a job in a place. In Congo, I got to know my neighbors very well. I found myself going to visit families. [The militia groups] started to target university students, and so at one of our neighbors, a young man was home studying, and he was shot in front of his family. It was a terrible time. I got there, and I looked at this child on the floor, and I thought, ‘What is this that our children can’t grow up?’ Well, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I could not say one word to those people. And then I left. A few days later they came to get me, and they said, ‘Come here, come here. We want to tell these people who you are.’ And I said, ‘For what?’ And they said, ‘This is the one who cried with us.’

“That’s the cost of relationships. You’re into their lives. They’re into your life. We enter into the pain of people, and I guess for me it’s become more the pain of the world. It’s so deep. There are so many trouble spots and there are so many people who don’t get a share at the table. I hope my prayers are deeper. I hope my walking on this earth is gentler and more caring and more compassionate. I also feel that I have met the people and they’ve told me their story. So what is now my responsibility?”

Sister Rosemarie Milazzo, as a member of a Christian Peacemaker Team, visits a camp for internally displaced persons in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in early 2009. Source: Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Carole Garibaldi Rogers has been an independent oral historian for more than 20 years. Her research and writing focus on the intersection of women and religion. She is the author of seven books, including her most recent Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns. Look for her next post on the controversy tomorrow.

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Recent Comments

  1. Beth

    Thank you for keeping this dispicable treatment of God’s special ladies in the front page news. May the forever remain front page news

  2. [...] women religious in the US once again stand accused of misdeeds by the hierarchy, it is worth asking: What have these women done? They have demonstrated with their lives that they [...]

  3. [...] Who are the women behind the latest Vatican reprimands? by Carole Garibaldi Rogers on OUP at Oxford University [...]

  4. Louise

    Truly, the Sisters are the face of Christ, and it appears that the hierarchy are modern day Pharisees.

    Thanks so much for sharing your insights.

  5. Virginia Johnson, RCD

    Thank you Carole for teling the stories and for being a witness to our truth and mission. This really is what our lives are all about and and the answer to Why we are called and do wihat we do..

  6. Marge

    One has to hope that the hierarchy reads and reacts.

  7. catherine Ewan

    Carole, Thanks so much for your well thought out and research information about the work of the the Catholic Nuns. You are so dedicated to seeing that the truth about the work of the nuns is known. Is is so hard to comprehend why the Vatican would question the dedicated work of the women religious who have taken on the task to work in the most difficult situations with the suffering and needy members of the church. Thank you for continuing your interest and being a truth finding voice. Catheine Ewan

  8. Ronnie Brunnock

    Carole, Thanks for speaking out on the dedicated work of these beautiful women all over the world and for your oral histories of their personal stories. We pray that Archbishop Peter Sartain and his committee will also see their work in the same light as so many of us do. They are truly doing the work of Jesus.

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