The National Catholic Review

About 18 months ago a Vatican official told me he had asked a U.S.  philanthropist for advice on how to deal with controversy with American nuns. The philanthropist advised: "Just say 'thank you.'"

The conversation came to mind as I read comments Sept. 18 in The New York Times by Vice President Biden in which he said he advised Pope Francis to lighten up and not be be so hard on the nuns.

The latest controversy between the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) may be the most ill-fated controversy ever launched across the Tiber. For sure, the Vatican is in an awkward position.

In political history, one of the worst statements ever uttered was Richard Nixon's infamous "I am not a crook." Cardinal Gerhard Mueller has now offered the church's equivalent when he said of Vatican officials, "We are not misogynists." The man who heads the venerable CDF topped that off with another turkey line when he added: "We don't want to gobble up a woman a day!"

Cardinal Mueller stated that the LCWR does not "represent all U.S. nuns, but just a group of North American nuns who form part of an association.” In other words, the CDF isn't talking to the approximately 45,000 American nuns whose leaders belong to LCWR,  but just the organization's members. But those members are not some crowd at a hot dog roast—they are the canonically elected leaders of their religious orders. 

The Vatican stands on the losing side of this fiasco given that virtually every Catholic has been the beneficiary of some sister's generosity or knows someone else who has, perhaps in a school, hospital, parish, soup kitchen, used clothes center or inner city clinic.

The nuns' works continue even as the Vatican criticizes the sisters, who object that they have to spend time on this contretemps when there are other needs to meet. Right now, for example, the sisters have agreed to take on heroic work as part of Solidarity With South Sudan, an enterprise begun in 2008 to rebuild that war-torn nation. This effort of men and women religious worldwide is supported by the LCWR in the United States. So far, they have built two training colleges and trained 2,500 teachers, rehabilitated a health training institute that has graduated 65 registered nurses and 35 midwives,  and initiated training of farmers and pastoral teams to aid the suffering people there. 

A couple weeks ago, Mercy Sister Karen Schneider, M.D., an emergency department physician from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, returned from rural Nigeria, where, despite the Ebola threat, she and other sisters provided surgery and other health services to children. They offered what is routine care in our affluent country but generally out of reach in rural Nigeria and other third world nations.

The LCWR has been criticized by some, including, the National Catholic Reporter, for playing their cards close to the vest and not engaging in public battle with the CDF. A wounding verbal scrimmage of ecclesial boys and girls would be any newspaper's dream but would cause harm to church unity, something the nuns are loath to do.

Cardinal Mueller reportedly will be on the east coast in November. It would be well for him to meet some of the sisters involved in these and other works. It also may be time for the Vatican to draw this controversy to an end. It's time to follow the philanthropist's advice and just say "Thank you."

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is U.S. church correspondent for America.  


Tim Reidy | 9/24/2014 - 5:15pm

Our apologies, but since some commenters are not using a real name, we are temporarily closing comments on this discussion.

Helen Smith | 9/24/2014 - 3:38pm

I find to difficult to understand how Cardinal Mueller, who is considered to be a friend and admirer of Gustavo Gutierrez, seems not to appreciate what the U.S. sisters, who have leadership in the LCWR, e.g. Pat Farrell, have being doing in their ministries.

William Rydberg | 9/24/2014 - 12:16pm

Nobody likes it when they come under the full focus of the Church. Awkward replies to questions that were previously sloughed off as "that can't be what Sister meant, or maybe I am misunderstanding, or they are only trying to find their 'way" - have begun to be analyzed in full sight (daylight) of the Deposit of Faith. Shadows become pronounced and people simply don't like it. Pray for all concerned. ...Being a religious doesn't yield an automatic "pass" for unsophisticated behavior anymore. the Sisters have to start eating the "solid meat" of the Faith and put away the milk. Eyes are on them going forward...

Vince Killoran | 9/24/2014 - 2:40pm

This is almost menacing in its tone, and hyper masculine in language ("solid meat" versus "milk"?!)

As for "eyes on them" I would argue that women religious have been much more public and forthright in living their vocation than many in the hierarchy. I wouldn't mind more "eyes" on the guys up on the cushioned chairs.

Vince Killoran | 9/23/2014 - 3:09pm

I agree with Sr. Walsh's approach. My only problem is with the notion that we should thank someone for living out their vocation. I guess I'm a curmudgeon: I don't even clap at Mass!

Helen Smith | 9/23/2014 - 2:33pm

The appointment of Sr. Prudence Allen to the International Theological Commission should please Cardinal Mueller but does not look good for LCWR.

Tim O'Leary | 9/23/2014 - 10:29am

Don't forget to thank Sister Campbell for President Obama as well. Oh, and ISIS.

Sandi Sinor | 9/23/2014 - 1:15pm

Hi, Tim. Not commenting on your comment. Not because I've suddenly gotten shy, but because I can't begin to figure out what you are trying to say.

Tim O'Leary | 9/23/2014 - 5:15pm

Sandi - I thought you were trying to keep your promise not to respond. Glad your're still trying to understand it all, though.

Douglas Fang | 9/23/2014 - 12:23pm

Thanks Obama for ISIS? Are you kidding? Are you in total denial? Where did ISIS come from? From the FAILED intervention of Bush/Dick in the Iraq war. We spent trillion of dollars (trillion – how much it can help us and the other poor humans on this planet???), and lost thousands of lives, and many, many more with physical and psychological wounds… What was the legacy of this illegal intervention that was denounced by the Vatican? The whole Middle East is now in a very,very unstable condition.

Last year, when Obama asked for authorization to strike Syria, what was the response from the Congress and the public? Obviously, someone seems to have very short memory!

Tim O'Leary | 9/23/2014 - 5:04pm

No doubt the Bush team had responsibility for what they did before 2008. But, only a few diehards would blame Bush after six years of mismanagement by Obama's team. Obama's failures with Syrian red lines, Libyan embassies and Russian adventurers are only par for the (golf) course.

ISIS is a direct result of a premature withdrawal from Iraq (listen to his Defense Secretary Panetta on 60 minutes last week), an underestimation of their brutality and influence (recall Obama called them an insignificant JV team), and general dithering between golf games.

By the way, I was jesting about the nuns naively supporting Obama. Sureley, they thought they were supporting pro-life health care.

Douglas Fang | 9/23/2014 - 6:38pm

“Premature withdrawal” from Iraq?? Please – who made this decision? The decision to withdraw from Iraq was done under Bush/Dick when they failed to secure the immunity guarantee for American forces from the Iraqi government. And you know about the state of this government. In hindsight, anyone can say anything.

Until the recent brutal murders of the 2 American journalists, American public paid little attention to the conflict in Iraq. I guess the public are very much gun-shy after the two long and costly wars. What did Obama did during the last 6 years? At least, he had killed Bin Laden, our public enemy # 1, and he had decimated the leadership of Al Qaeda via drone attacks (I see that a lot of critics for this drone program on this magazine). Again, everyone one knows that he is very reluctant to commit any major combat role for America until it is absolute necessary. Does it align more with the Catholic teaching about “just” war or do you think we can just attack and kill someone casually without some careful consideration? After all, he is the Commander in Chief, someone who has the power to send our young men and women to their deaths or permanent disability.

Tim O'Leary | 9/23/2014 - 9:58pm

Douglas - The Bush Admin planned a partial withdrawal with a residual force to ensure the hard-won gains in Iraq would not be lost. It was the Great Communicator who failed to negotiate an agreement on the residual force and so left none. The same will probably happen in Afghanistan. Whatever you think about Bush, the world's terrorists and bad actors feared him. They have no fear of Obama. He has drawn several lines in the sand and not defended them, not just Syria. So, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are stronger than when Bush left. But, even worse, we have new groups - ISIS and now Khorasan - who just taunt the US president. Ignoring small groups doesn't fix the problem because, left alone, they become big groups. The evil of ISIS is the worst in my lifetime. If they are not fully dealt with now, then a much bigger war is on the horizon for American youth.

It is amazing that nearly every major adviser of the President (Gates, Panetta, CIA, Military, possibly even Clinton) all say now they warned him against leaving Iraq without a residual force in place, all advised addressing the ISIS threat over a year ago, and Obama over-ruled them all, if he actually made a decision at all. He still doesn't seem to realize what is going on. He has very poor judgment. Even a fan such as Kristof at the NYT calls him painfully passive ( and the Washington Post ( and WSJ ( He seems to have very poor instincts - to go directly to the golf course right after denouncing the beheading of Foley was egregious - why can't he show more gravitas? Many are wondering if there is any there, there? We need a new Commander in Chief, but I am afraid we do not have two years to spare. Maybe, the mid-terms can bring some relief from Congress.

Douglas Fang | 9/23/2014 - 11:33pm

Now, everyone is talking that we should have some “residual” force in Iraq. As I said before, actions in hindsight always seemed obvious. But at the time of the negotiation, nobody was able to articulate how to do that- How many troops? For how long? At what cost? Immunity protection secured?

In addition to that, do we want to continue to support the Malachi government? A government that is very divisive, especially with their maltreatment of the Sunni minority.

May be there is some hope to the ISIS crisis after all – “The rise of the Islamic State, also known and ISIS, is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst.”

I can only hope and pray that this mess will be handled in a right and just way.

As a common practice here, I leave the last words to you, Tim.

Anne Danielson | 9/23/2014 - 9:41am

"Man does not live on bread alone, but every Word that comes forth from The Word of God." - Jesus The Christ

We, who have been ransomed for a cost, are called to Holiness; how does denying the personhood of the son or daughter residing in their mother's womb, and desiring to reorder man as an object of sexual desire/orientation, in direct violation of God's Commandments regarding The Sanctity of Human Life, and The Sanctity of Marriage and The Family, merit a thank you from any person who desires Salvation for themselves and their beloved? Let us go forth and proclaim The Good News. God's Salvational Love, God's Gift of Grace and Mercy, exists for all persons; do not let your hearts be hardened like a pillar of salt, repent and believe in The Communion of Perfect Love that Is The Blessed Trinity.

Can. 750 §1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

§2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firm-ly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

According to Canon Code 750, one cannot validly elect any person who is of opposed to The Doctrine of The Catholic Church; one cannot be for Christ and anti Christ simultaneously.

Sandi Sinor | 9/23/2014 - 1:14pm

Hmmm. Not at all sure what this comment has to do with the article by Sr. Walsh. But, we can all agree with this -

"Man does not live on bread alone, but every Word that comes forth from The Word of God."

But, there is nothing in this post that comes from the Word of God.

Not a single word of the gospel. Just a whole lot of quotes from the man-made code of Canon Law.

That's the problem with too many Catholics - they think that the church is God. It's not.

Believing that the church is God and that every word that comes from the mouths of the men who run the Catholic church is the same thing as coming from the mouth of God is dangerously close to violating the commandment against "putting strange gods before Me".

STEPHANIE SIPE | 9/23/2014 - 6:36am

In its persecution of the LCWR, the CDF has brought to light all that the Sisters have done and continue to do. Perhaps it is the CDF to which we should say "thank you."

Helen Smith | 9/23/2014 - 4:12pm

Well said.

Tim O'Leary | 9/23/2014 - 10:02pm

I second the motion to thank the CDF for bringing the work of the LCWR to light.

Roberta Lavin | 9/22/2014 - 10:27pm

The Virgin Mary was one woman and only one. Showing respect for one does not equate to showing respect for all. And yes I would prefer people or human beings or women and men. What I don't care foe is sexist.language that leaves half of the world population out of salvation. Wors matter. God created the world with words and men are enslaving the souls of women with words.

Sue Hayes | 9/22/2014 - 10:47pm

Roberta - you are so right... and maybe men are so myopic they will never get it... they sometimes want to pat us on the head and say "good girl, good girl", as if that would make us crawl back in our plastic bags and not ask that we be treated as God intended...EQUAL...I guess it frightens them!

Helen Smith | 9/24/2014 - 11:16am

You are reminding me of the New Yorker cartoon:

Two dogs talking. One says to the other: "Good dog, good dog, always good dog, never GREAT dog."

Abigail Woods-Ferreira | 9/22/2014 - 8:07pm

Speaking of Mary:

...He has shown the strength of his arm
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty...

What is more Marian than the work of justice for the poor?

Thank you, Sisters.

Sue Hayes | 9/22/2014 - 7:56pm

Walter, thank you for being a voice of male sanity... I, too, am flummoxed every time a male uses Mary as a model of meekness and "humility" to which ALL women should aspire - no presumption for her... except what she really is is "the first member of the church" which is pretty awesome when you think about it. Every single woman religious I know, members all of the LCWR, is prayerful, faithful and ON FIRE in the service of God's people... take a look at the Dominicans in Mosul, or those referred to in Sr. Mary Anne's article and their work in South Sudan and rural Nigeria... this is the church on the ground, and not the hierarchical drones safely in Rome with their $36,000 vestments (Cardinal Burke) busy celebrating a Tridentine Mass amidst liturgical bric a brac and the niceties of a privileged group of clerics, legends in their own minds!

Jacob Stein | 9/23/2014 - 5:57pm

Cardinal Burke offers the Mass understanding his role as priest! Please do not speak poorly of the priests of Holy Mother Church! A good examination would show how this is blasphemous.

Cardinal Burke is on the streets in Rome fighting for Life

That is just one example of the Church on the Streets...witnessed by Cardinal Burke himself! A holy, humble Prince of the Church!

Sue Hayes | 9/24/2014 - 3:54pm

"Please do not speak poorly of the priests of Holy Mother Church... this is blasphemous." Are you freakin' kidding me? Definition of blasphemy: profane or contemptuous writing concerning God or anything held as Divine.. Priests are NOT divine, no matter what earthly honors they may receive, such as bishop. This is pathetic. This is the 21st century and it's impossible to hide some of the shockingly immoral behavior of hierarchical types that used to go unnoticed. So, by your lights, the pedophilia and the power-brokering and the involvement in homosexual sex we ALL know about (unless you're like Jacob here, in complete denial and in love with a crumbling patriarchal structure rotting from within, although I have some hope that our beautiful Papa Francesco will continue to speak and act boldly to clean up the Augean stables the Curia has become, thus restoring the Church to what Christ intended, His Body.) Cardinal Burke and others like him are so far from the servant life they should be living... $36,000 for the vestments for ONE Tridentine Mass... and when was the last time you saw Cardinals openly trashing the Pope for speaking the Truth? It is astonishing to me that you would somehow want to make the institutional church Divine and the priests who should be serving are instead elevated to some kind of divinity as well... Jacob, you really need to get over your worship and aggressive protection of an institution that is SO badly in need of reform... but, hey, that probably won't happen. "Law and order, rules and regulations, priesthood divinizing" Catholics never get it that it's not about rules, it's about Relationship and when that Relationship is at the center of who you are and how you live AT ALL TIMES, then it's as St. Paul says, "If you are guided by the Spirit, you are no longer under the law". And please, before you start screeching, he didn't mean you can go out and do anything you want because you are "guided by the Spirit", it means that you will respond, speak and act "rightly" ie in complete conformity with the Gospel, doing what is right because it's right, and not because there's a rule about it. That's a challenging place to go, and lots of folks just find it easier to obey the rules and Divinize the institution - boy, are you missing the Joys Christ intended us to have in Relationship with Him!

Walter Sandell | 9/22/2014 - 7:37pm

I have a tough time trying to see any semblance of reality in you comments. It has been clear, from the beginning of this 'debate,' that the CDF is interested in its own power and privilege There is no issue of Faith on which the LCWR can be criticized. Only the question of ordaining women comes close.
The facade of Marian titles distracts from the fact of discrimination against women by the hierarchy.

Sue Hayes | 9/22/2014 - 7:32pm

Jacob - your defensiveness is showing... how about "for us and for our salvation"... do you honestly believe that if all the prayers in the liturgy actually said "for us women" that you as a male person would not be just a tiny bit irritated? I'm not a ranter at all, but you cannot honestly tell me that you believe that the Church is not now, and never has been Patriarchal and in some ways horribly condescending to the "little women"... generally speaking, in my way more than fifty years of life, I've seen amazing social and ecclesiastical changes, having come of age at the end of Vatican II AND coming into the Catholic church at that time. There are more contradictions than you can shake a stick at, and it has been my experience that men in the Church do not like to have those pointed out. But, but, but is usually the order of the day. Then you make the astonishing remark that Mary would never PRESUME any desire to be a priest. Wow, that speaks volumes, doesn't it? We lowly women show presumption if we ask how the Church knows that women could never be called by God to priesthood or the deaconate. The infamous excuse for women not being allowed priesthood or even the permanent deaconate is that Jesus only chose men as Apostles... so, explain to me why Mary Magdalene is called "the apostle to the apostles" and the Acts of the Apostles and both the proto- and deutero-Pauline letters mention many women as deacons. Jacob, you can hang on to your remarkable assertion that the Church is not our "jailor" (sic), but as long as women are considered subservient, subordinate and unworthy, it is a kind of Jail, not for women, but rather for the Holy Spirit, Who may have ideas of Her own... as it says in Acts 1, "Lord, show us whom YOU have chosen."

Jacob Stein | 9/23/2014 - 5:54pm

Well, the Holy Spirit is no she...So clearly, there is not discussing matters with you. It is opinions like yours that place women lower than men.

Yes the Church is Patriarchal, because God is our Father. And it is the Patriarchal Church that has the most fond respect and love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and for St. Mary Magdalene. You didn't seem to notice my comment about compounding the roles of men and women in the Church. We are different and thus our roles in the Church are different - and yes, of different dignity in their office - but the we all share the dignity as human persons. (St Paul details this perfectly in speaking of subservient nature of the bride to the bridegroom - i.e. NOT degrading, it is Holy Writ).

Another note, 'man' is inclusive and always has been. Otherwise it gets a bit confusing. If we would stick to Latin in the Liturgy this would all make more sense - the inclusivity is even more evident in Latin. So yes, if it said women I would raise a brow - because that is clearly indicating one sex of mankind. Go to the Latin Mass and you will see women flourishing in their vocation as mothers and women of the Church being obedient to Her Teachings which Our Lord has given us!

Sue Hayes | 9/24/2014 - 3:36pm

Of course 'man' is inclusive... but men is not, thus for us men and our salvation is gender specific... and just saying us would be quite sufficient. I've "been" to Latin Mass many times... back before Vatican II. Tell me, Jacob, do you read and write Latin? I do, but I don't want to pray in it... and if you don't, why on earth would you want to use it for something as intimate as prayer? I must take issue at that whole sentence... "go to Latin mass and you will see women flourishing in their vocation as mothers" I have absolutely no idea what you mean by that, but if it is that women are here to decorate the place and make babies... All females are not called to marriage or parenthood... would you hold that a woman who does not have children is not obedient to Our Lord through the church? You will find quite a lot, if you care to step into the 21st century, on the Holy Spirit as "she" and the fact that God is both Mother and Father, as in "male and female, in God's own image, God created them" and that would be in God's IMAGE which is male and female... got that? And please, can we not haul out the old chestnut about how much respect The Church has for women because of the role of Mary?? Please don't go there... we respect women so much we give them no place in leadership or decision-making... Christ called his mother to her role as first member of the church and saw Mary Magdalene as such a good friend He appeared to her first and gave her the role of apostle to the apostles... now the church slaps thinking, independent, faithful, prayerful women on the nose with the proverbial newspaper for actually thinking they had a voice in today's Church... you know what would probably help you a lot? Try getting in touch with YOUR feminine side (all men have one, most don't want to acknowledge it)... you might approach the world AND The Church a little differently... can't hurt!

Walter Sandell | 9/22/2014 - 7:40pm

Well said, Sue.

Sue Hayes | 9/22/2014 - 7:51pm

Thank you!

Jacob Stein | 9/22/2014 - 5:33pm

Sister, this is about unity and the integrity of the Faith, the One True Faith which Christ gave us! I pray Father that they may be one as You and I are One!

When Catholics, religious as well, play the victims of the big ol' mean Vatican, the Kingdom of God is not advanced. And Roberta, really?! Do you want us to say for us people and our salvation.....? Do you honestly think that the Church Christ founded holds women in contempt? Hm, the Blessed Virgin Mary, a woman, being the Queen of all Saints and the Mother of the Church, that doesn't sound like contempt to me. Also, Our Lady would never dare presume any desire to be a priest or cleric of the Church. Her sacrifice was different, BUT she offered everything in union with Christ, the High Priest, in His Priestly Sacrifice on the Cross.

We all need to pray for humility! The Church is our Mother, not our jailor.

Roberta Lavin | 9/22/2014 - 4:30pm

When people find it necessary to protest so loudly it always makes me wonder; Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Ollie North are among those that insisted on their innocence and we all knew they were guilty. No non misogynists would ever insert into the mass a phrase that says, "for us men and our salvation" without at least subconsciously thinking salvation is not for women thus neither is the church. Sexism is rampant in the Church and it needs to be address, but so long as the hierarchy is all male it is going to be hard to change.

Helen Smith | 9/22/2014 - 4:10pm

Brava, Sister. You are so fair and balanced. I have been taught by and have taught with sisters for many years and I am most unhappy with the way the Vatican has pursued this investigation.

My husband and I attended a rally on Religious Freedom a few years ago here in Philadelphia when the issue was really heating up. We wore signs saying; "We Support our Sisters."