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U.S. Nuns Face Vatican Rebuke for “Radical Feminism” in Stances on Church Teachings, Social Justice

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The Vatican has reprimanded the largest group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying they have focused too heavily on issues of social justice, while failing to speak out enough on “issues of crucial importance,” such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In a report issued last week, church leaders accused the nuns of promoting “radical feminist” ideas and challenging key teachings on homosexuality and male-only priesthood. An archbishop and two bishops — all of them male — have been appointed to oversee the nuns. “To me, it’s quite puzzling that our work with the poor, which Jesus told us to do in the gospels, would be the source of such a criticism,” says Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic social justice group NETWORK, which was harshly criticized in last week’s report. The rebuke comes as the so-called “war on women” has become a key issue in the 2012 presidential race. Some Catholic nuns have opposed the bishops by supporting Obama’s healthcare reform law and contraceptive mandate. Campbell says she believes the Vatican targeted her group because of their support for healthcare reform. “They like it when we just do service, but don’t have thoughts, don’t have questions, don’t have criticism,” Campbell says. “That is a real challenge in a political society, when we have to do a deep, nuanced analysis in order to know the way forward for this, for the common good.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Vatican has reprimanded the largest group of Catholic nuns in the United States, accusing them of promoting “radical feminist themes” and challenging church teachings on homosexuality and male-only priesthood. In a report issued last week, the Vatican criticized the nuns for focusing too heavily on “promoting issues of social justice,” while failing to speak out enough about, quote, “issues of crucial importance to the life of the church and society,” such as abortion and same-sex marriage. An archbishop and two bishops have been appointed to oversee the nuns and ensure their obedience to church doctrine.

This is not the first time a U.S. nun has been targeted for social justice activities. Sister Margaret McBride, an administrator at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, was excommunicated for permitting an abortion to be performed in order to save a woman’s life in 2009. She was later reinstated. Critics have drawn a contrast between the church’s harsh treatment of nuns and past attempts to cover up the widespread sexual abuse of children by male clergy members.

AMY GOODMAN: Some believe the nuns were targeted because they supported President Obama’s healthcare overhaul two years ago, while U.S. bishops opposed the law. Healthcare and the so-called “war on women” have become key issues in the 2012 presidential race. The Catholic Church has strongly opposed Obama’s rule requiring health insurance coverage for contraception, accusing Obama of infringing on religious liberty, despite an exemption for religious institutions. But some nuns have supported the rule.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most Catholic nuns in the United States, declined to join us on the program, but they did release a statement last week saying they were “stunned” by the Vatican’s report. On Wednesday, they issued a second statement saying their national board would meet to discuss implementation of the Vatican’s plan in, quote, “an atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue.”

We’re joined from Washington, D.C., by Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic social justice group NETWORK, which was also heavily criticized in last week’s report.

Sister Simone Campbell, welcome to Democracy Now! What did the Vatican say, and what is your response?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, the Vatican said that they found our intensive work with people who live in poverty, our speaking out for the poor, to be insufficient for their lights. They were concerned that we, as celibate women, were not focusing enough on some of the issues around abortion or gay marriage. To me, it’s quite puzzling that our work with the poor, which Jesus told us to do in the gospels, would be the source of such a criticism. I actually find it quite a badge of honor to be thought to be working so much for those who live at the margins of our society. That’s what we’re about. That’s who we are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Do you see this as somewhat of a shift in church policy? Obviously, Pope John Paul, who was—who had very conservative views on a number of issues, similar to the current pope, also urged constant attention to social justice issues by the members of the church.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: I think it evidences some divisions within the leadership of the church, because also this pope, Pope Benedict XVI, has this fabulous encyclical—that’s a letter to the church—called “Charity in Truth,” where he talks about all of the basic principles of social justice. And it’s very interesting. He says there in that encyclical that while you might have individual sense of justice—and he links the life issues there—there’s also the demand for engagement in social justice, which is the communitarian approach. He calls for both. And so, I’m totally puzzled that the Vatican, when we’re working on one piece of it—because you can’t do everything—why the Vatican would then criticize us for doing the communitarian justice piece that the Pope was calling for.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Father Roy Bourgeois. He organized the annual protest against the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, for many years. He has come under criticism from the Vatican for ordaining women. This is a comment he made in which he compares the Vatican’s silence on priest sexual abuse to its outcry over the ordination of women.

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Less than three months after I attended the ordination of a woman in Lexington, Kentucky, less than three months, I received a letter from the Vatican demanding that I recant within 30 days or I will be excommunicated. The severity, the swiftness of the Vatican’s letter, I think it calls into question, you know, just what’s going on here. What really is the problem? I do believe that I did not commit a crime. I am following my conscience. Women—you know, it’s amazing, the thousands of priests and the many bishops were aware of these crimes of their priests, they remained silent. These priests committing the crimes and the bishops who remained silent have not been excommunicated. Yet, the many women who have been ordained to the priesthood and the priests and bishops who support their ordination are excommunicated. I do believe that there is a problem here. This is also a grave injustice.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Roy Bourgeois went on to explain why he thinks women priests are so important to have in the church.

FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Any institution, organization that’s controlled where the power is in the hands of any particular group, whether they be men or women, is not healthy. Our church, the Catholic Church, is going through a real crisis. There are thousands of churches that are being shut down because there is a lack of priests. The sexual abuse crisis has really rocked the church to its roots. I am convinced, of course, that if we had women priests and women bishops, that sexual abuse and the silence during those years would not have been possible. Women simply would not have been silent. I’m also convinced, if we had women priests and women bishops, there would not be such silence about this war in Iraq. I’m convinced, too, that there would be, if we had women priests and women bishops, they would have called for the closing of this School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. We need women priests in our church for it to be healthy, for it to be complete.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Father Roy Bourgeois. Sister Simone Campbell, your response?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: I think Father Roy has some really good points. In terms of women in the church, especially Catholic sisters, we were encouraged in the 1950s by Pope Pius XII, and then in our renewal program in the 1960s, to get educated, to get advanced degrees and to enter into engaging the world. We have done that. And I think that’s part of what some of the challenge is, is that many of our hierarchy who have grown up in an all-male clergy don’t really know how to engage women who are thoughtful, prayerful, questioning and willing to stand up for beliefs, even if it’s not popular. I think they’re not used to dealing with that level of candor.

And I also believe that a lot of the tension that’s currently being experienced within the Catholic Church is a tension around culture, because if you’ll notice, none of the criticism—while it’s the doctrine of the faith that’s criticizing us, they’re not criticizing the core teachings of Jesus. I mean, we follow the gospel. What they are criticizing, though, is the engagement in culture. We come from a democratic culture. My community lives in a democratic culture. We elect our leadership. We nurture each other. We’re communitarian. We discern together. We follow the rule of Saint Benedict from the 500 A.D., where Benedict says, “When you’re making a decision, listen to every member of the community, and the truth will emerge.” This is compared to, really, a culture of monarchy, where the Vatican comes out of the European experience, where the monarch is always right, where dissidence or questioning—questioning is seen as dissidence, and where there is not room for a plurality of thought. The United States has an amazing pluralism that is really our gift, because it creates such diversity, like biodiversity. It creates a vibrant society. And I think that vibrant society really is running headlong into the culture of monarchy at this point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Sister Simone Campbell, the issue that Father Roy Bourgeois also raised about the sexual abuse scandal in the church. Do you believe that if there has been—had been more women in leadership roles throughout the church worldwide, that there would have been over the past half-century somewhat of a different response by the elders of the church to this whole issue of sexual abuse, which really has created—it’s unbelievable, the extent of it, from country after country?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: It’s horrifying. It’s horrifying. And the anguish that this has caused to the victims, to their families, but also to the whole church, to the whole body of the church, it is serious anguish. I guess—I mean, we’ll never know whether or not women would have made a difference. I’m a lawyer, and I practiced family law for many years, for 18 years, in California. And I know that some of the cases that I was most vigilant about, most protective about, that, you know, I really rose up sort of like that mama lion to protect her cub, were the cases where there was abuse and when I was representing children. So I have a hunch that maybe it would have made a difference.

I think the thing is that, going forward, the piece that is missing in, I think, the institutional response is sorrow and repentance. And while there’s been apologies, they seem more paper apologies than engaged in the process. When you repent, you don’t just create a new structure. You have to be sad. You have to sorrow. You have to mourn. And it’s those who mourn that will be comforted. The fact that my church is not able to mourn this horrible sin together, I think, is a serious problem. And women often are looked to in our society as being able to express grief more easily. Guys sort of seem to think they have to look tough, and if they show weakness, you know, it’s a problem. But women know that it’s the integrated full human person and that we can only break open the sin if we weep and mourn. And that’s something that our church needs to do, both with regards to the censure of the women religious to the scandal of the sexual abuse, and to all the other ways that the church is a very limited human organization started by Christ. And, oh, man, it really need some help at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Simone Campbell, I want to turn quickly to a clip of you on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly’s show. In this clip, you express support for President Obama’s healthcare plan.

BILL O’REILLY: So you are—you believe that Jesus, if He were alive today, would be saying, “Look, the government of the United States has an obligation to ensure, at taxpayer expense to every American, to make sure that they get quality healthcare, and that’s that”?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: I think what Jesus says, over and over, both in our lives and in the scriptures, is that it’s our response to make sure that the least are cared for and that it is a societal responsibility. Therefore, we must, as a nation, make sure that everyone has access to healthcare.


AMY GOODMAN: Simone Campbell, how much of the Vatican’s criticism of your group, NETWORK, do you think has to do with your position on Obama’s healthcare plan? And overall, what has been the Catholic Church’s position, not just on the issue of reproductive rights, the most recent controversy, federal support for reproductive healthcare, but overall for Obama’s healthcare plan?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, basically, Catholic Health Association, which is the association of all the Catholic healthcare providers in the United States, and NETWORK stood together in favor of the Senate bill, which was the one that eventually passed, the Affordable Care Act. Not perfect. It’s got a long way to go, but—to be—to get everybody healthcare, but we saw it as a significant step forward.

I think this leadership is a direct contrast to what the bishops did. The bishops’ office, the staff there, did an analysis of the bill, and they were afraid that there was maybe a dime that might go from federal money to fund abortion, and because of their fear, they said that they could not support the healthcare bill. The fact is that the—at least one federal court in Cincinnati—and I think there are a couple of others who have looked at the issue—has said, as a matter of law, there is no federal funding of abortion in the healthcare bill. In addition, it is also very clear that the Pregnant Women Support Act is to give women alternatives, to provide them with the economic options that they need in order to make a conscience choice. So, from our perspective, this was a significant step forward. The bishops, for reasons I don’t understand, the bishops’ office, continues to maintain that they worry that there might be some federal funding of abortion.

I think this a—this difference is a direct, I think—it appears to me to be directly related to why we got named. I mean, we’re a political organization. We don’t even have formal ties with Rome. Many of our members are Catholic sisters and priests, but we have 18,000 people across the country who are activists. And a lot of them are lay folks, a lot of them are non-Catholic. But they named us, I think, because we had a different position from the bishops on this. We took our one faith. It’s not a faith fight; it’s a political fight. I’m a lawyer. I read the bill. I applied my faith to the bill. But they—their staff applied it in a different way. And they seem to be saying that they like our work, they like—I mean, they like it when we just do service, but don’t have thoughts, don’t have questions, don’t have criticism. And that is a real challenge in a political society, when we have to do a deep, nuanced analysis in order to know the way forward for this, for the common good.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Simone Campbell—

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: That’s what we’re about, is the common good.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice group. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Minneapolis. Stay with us.

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