Religion
8:54 am
Tue July 17, 2012

An American Nun Responds To Vatican Criticism

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 12:18 pm

In April, the Vatican announced that three American bishops (one archbishop and two bishops) would be sent to oversee the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a member organization founded in 1956 that represents 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the United States, to get them to conform with the teachings of the Church.

In its assessment of the group, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the leadership conference is undermining Roman Catholic teachings on homosexuality and birth control and promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." It also reprimanded the nuns for hosting speakers who "often contradict or ignore" church teachings and for making public statements that "disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."

In their own statement, the nuns said the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the group was based on "unsubstantiated accusations" and may "compromise" the ability of female nuns to "fulfill their mission."

"I would say the mandate is more critical of positions we haven't taken than those we have taken," says Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference. "As I read that document, the concern is the issues we tend to be more silent about when the bishops are speaking out very clearly about some things. There are issues about which we think there's a need for a genuine dialogue, and there doesn't seem to be a climate of that in the church right now."

Farrell tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the leadership organization is currently gathering the perspectives of all of its members in preparation for its national assembly in August.

"We're hoping to come out of that assembly with a much clearer direction about [the Vatican's decision], and that's when the national board and presidency can proceed," she says.

Among the options on the table, she says, are fully complying with the mandate, not complying with the mandate or seeing if the Vatican will negotiate with them.

"In my mind, [I want] to see if we can somehow, in a spirited, nonviolent strategizing, look for maybe a third way that refuses to define the mandate and the issues in such black and white terms," she says.


Interview Highlights

On questioning doctrine within the Catholic Church

"The question is, 'Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?' That's what we're asking. ... I think one of our deepest hopes is that in the way we manage the balancing beam in the position we're in, if we can make any headways in helping to create a safe and respectful environment where church leaders along with rank-and-file members can raise questions openly and search for truth freely, with very complex and swiftly changing issues in our day, that would be our hope. But the climate is not there. And this mandate coming from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops, that is not a dialogue. If anything, it appears to be shutting down dialogue."

On their options

"We're not talking about the risk of excommunication or leaving the church. That's not our intent. We're talking about the Vatican's dealing with a national organization, not with specific religious congregations or individual religious. The one and only underlying option for us is to respond with integrity with however we proceed. That is our absolute bottom line in this. Some of the options would be to just comply with the mandate that's been given to us. Or to say we can't comply with this and see what the Vatican does with that. Or to remove ourselves and form a separate organization."

On the criticism from the Vatican regarding human sexuality

"We have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the church's teachings on sexuality. The problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can't remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in. And new questions and new realities [need to be addressed] as they arise. And if those issues become points of conflict, it's because Women Religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church. Our gift to the church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. Questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. That's where we spend our days."

On roles within the church

"A bishop, for instance, can't be on the street working with the homeless. He has other tasks. But we can be. So if there is a climate of open and trusting and adequate dialogue among us, we can bring together some of those conversations, and that's what I hope we can help develop in a deeper way."

On women's ordination

"The position we took in favor of women's ordination in 1977 was before there was a Vatican letter saying that there is a definitive church position against the ordination of women. So it's interesting to me that the document [just released by the church] goes back 30 years to talk about our position on the ordination of women. There has, in fact, been an official opinion from the church that that topic should not be discussed. When that declaration came out, the response of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was to call for a nationwide time of prayer and fasting for all Women Religious in response to that. Because our deep desire for places of leadership of women in the church be open. It remains a desire. Since then, the Leadership Conference has not spoken publicly about the ordination of women. Imposing a silence doesn't necessarily change people's thinking, but we are in a position to continue to be very concerned that the position of women in the church be recognized."

On the phrase "radical feminist themes"

"Sincerely, what I hear in the phrasing ... is fear — a fear of women's positions in the church. Now, that's just my interpretation. I have no idea what was in the mind of the congregation, of the doctrine of the faith, when they wrote that. But women theologians around the world have been seriously looking at the question of: How have the church's interpretations of how we talk about God, interpret Scripture, organize life in the church — how have they been tainted by a culture that minimizes the value and the place of women?"

On abortion

"I think the criticism of what we're not talking about seems to me to be unfair. Because [Women] Religious have clearly given our lives to supporting life, to supporting the dignity of human persons. Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. If the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion, too — if there's such an emphasis on that. However, we have sisters who work in right-to-life issues. We also have many, many ministries that support life. We dedicate to our lives to those on the margins of society, many of whom are considered throwaway people: the impaired, the chronically mentally ill, the elderly, the incarcerated, to the people on death row. We have strongly spoken out against the death penalty, against war, hunger. All of those are right-to-life issues. There's so much being said about abortion that is often phrased in such extreme and such polarizing terms that to choose not to enter into a debate that is so widely covered by other sectors of the Catholic Church — and we have been giving voice to other issues that are less covered but are equally as important.

"Our concern is that right-to-life issues be seen across a whole spectrum and are not narrowly defined. ... To single out one right-to-life issue and to say that that's the only issue that defines Catholic identity, I think, is really a distortion."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Catholic Church is at a turning point in an ongoing conflict between the Vatican and the group that represents 80 percent of the nuns in America, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the LCWR.

Four years ago, the Vatican group responsible for enforcing doctrine, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, began an assessment of the LCWR, motivated by the Vatican's concerns that the group expressed radical feminist views and challenged core Catholic positions on contraception, homosexuality and the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The final assessment was released in April, and it orders the group to conform to the teachings of the church. The archbishop of Seattle, assisted by two American bishops, have been appointed to oversee the group and work with it over the next five years to revise its statutes and review its programs.

Next week we'll talk with Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, the Vatican's delegate for the assessment, who will work directly with the LCWR to carry out these reforms. My guest today is the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Pat Farrell. Last month she met in Rome with officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss the assessment of her group.

Sister Pat Farrell, welcome to FRESH AIR, and thank you so much for being here.

SISTER PAT FARRELL: Thank you, Terry, and thank you for welcoming me to your program.

GROSS: Is the fact that you're here on our show, on the radio, a sign that you're ready to speak about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious' decision on how to proceed from here?

FARRELL: You know, we're ready to speak about where we are right now, and that's all we can say.

GROSS: Where are you right now?

FARRELL: Well, we're in process of gathering the perspective of all of our members. And being a member organization, we don't make decisions without that. We have had a national board meeting, and now we are in the process of having meetings in our 15 geographical regions across the country to begin to process what has been going on, and in August we will have a national assembly, at which there will be a great deal of open participation by all the members, and we're hoping to come out of that assembly with a much clearer direction about then where the national board and presidency can proceed.

GROSS: Do you know what the options are? I mean, it seems to me some of the options include agreeing to the terms of the Vatican, changing the positions of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, changing some of the language it uses, or risk being perhaps excommunicated or leaving the church. Are those all options?

FARRELL: No, not exactly. We're not talking about the risk of excommunication or leaving the church. That's not our intent. We're talking about the Vatican's dealing with a national organization, not with specific religious congregations or individual religious.

So first of all, the one and only underlying option for us is to respond with integrity in however we proceed. That is our absolute bottom line in this. And some of the options I think would be to just comply with the mandate that's been given to us or to, you know, to say we can't comply with this and to see what the Vatican does with that or to remove ourselves, form a separate organization, or hopefully, in my mind, to see if we can somehow, in a spirit of nonviolent strategizing, look for some maybe third way that refuses to just define the mandate and the issues in such black and white terms.

I don't know to what degree that could be an option.

GROSS: Let's take a step back and talk about the context that this issue is in. Let's start with what is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It was founded in 1956.

FARRELL: Right. It's a member organization, and it has really been an educational center for the superiors, the leaders of Catholic women's religious orders. It was actually founded at the encouragement of the Vatican, and it's been a place where we have been invited as leaders of women's congregations over the years to consider together the role and the place of women religious in the church, in our congregations, in the issues of our time.

So it's been a place where leaders are formed and mentored for religious congregations, and I would say it's an organization that tries to do anticipatory leadership. It tries to help all of us anticipate the issues that are ones that we are coming to face and to discern and think together about how to meet those needs.

GROSS: The doctrinal assessment is critical of things that your group has said regarding contraception and gay rights. What positions has your group taken on gay rights and contraception?

FARRELL: You know, I would say really the mandate is more critical of positions we haven't taken.

GROSS: Meaning you haven't stood against gay rights, you haven't stood against contraception?

FARRELL: Right. Right. And as I read that document, the concern is the issues we tend to be more silent about when the bishops are speaking out very clearly about some things.

GROSS: Right, and I presume that's intentional on your part, that you're not speaking out against contraception or against homosexuality?

FARRELL: Well, there are issues about which we think there's a need for genuine dialogue, and there doesn't seem to be a climate of that in the church right now.

GROSS: So let me quote or paraphrase a few things from the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It addresses several areas of major concern. One is that your group's assemblies talked about things like some religious, quote, moving beyond the church or even beyond Jesus.

And the statement says: This is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs, such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life. Such unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which should provide resources for member congregations to foster an ecclesial vision of religious life.

So your reaction to that criticism - what do you think the criticism means when it says that your group has talked about things like moving beyond the church?

FARRELL: Well, that particular quote is of serious concern to us, and I would just like to say that when the executive director and I returned to Rome and initiated a conversation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that was one of the major issues we brought to their attention.

And we didn't ever want to speak about that publicly without having first spoken directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about that. We thought that was only fair, to bring that to them first, and we did. So I feel a little freer to talk about that openly now.

I think that is a very distorted quotation. First of all, it's quoted very much out of context from the presentation that was given, and in the context the person giving that was talking about how do we deal with conflicts within the church, with differences that we have with hierarchy. How do we deal with that in a way that's faithful to the following of Jesus?

And so she outlined several scenarios of possible ways to respond. And one of them was, well, we could move beyond Jesus, we could move beyond the church. And at the end of her comments, at the end of that presentation, she said: After I presented all of these possible scenarios, I just want to say that my preferred approach would be that we continually seek dialogue and reconciliation with the hierarchy.

GROSS: So she mentioned that as an option and then rejected it?

FARRELL: Well, she gave her preference, saying that - yes, and - but then the doctrine - Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith talks about that statement as a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today. And I have to say that is a very serious distortion. And to somehow suggest that the majority of women religious in the United States are beyond Jesus and beyond the church is a very egregious comment and a very serious distortion.

And we talked at length about that when we went back to Rome because that does not represent our life.

GROSS: My guest is Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. We'll talk more about her response to the Vatican's assessment of the group after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal assessment of the group criticizing it for not following the church's teachings on human sexuality and other issues, and has appointed bishops to oversee the group.

Let me get to another criticism that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that their assessment has of your group, and this is policies of corporate dissent. The CDF received letters from leadership teams, leadership teams from your group, protesting the Holy See's actions regarding the question of women's ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons.

The terms of the letter suggest that these sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the church's teaching on human sexuality. And I was quoting there. And the assessment also criticized your group for placing itself outside the church's teaching. So what's your response to the assessment saying that people in your group have taken a position not in agreement with the church's teaching on human sexuality?

FARRELL: Well, what the document says is that individual congregations or leadership teams may have taken certain positions; the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has not. So I think that's an important distinction to make.

And I would say that we are - we have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the church's teaching on sexuality, human sexuality, the problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can't remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in and new questions, new realities as they arise.

And if those issues become points of conflict, it's because women religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church.

Our gift to the church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. And questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. So that's - that's where we spend our days.

And so the questions we bring to the church, the questions that come to us, are from the real-life situations of real-life people.

GROSS: Do you feel like the church is removed from those real-life situations?

FARRELL: I think elements in the church are. And of course we all - within the church there are different roles. And a bishop, for instance, can't be on the streets working with the homeless. He has other tasks. But we can be. So if there is a climate of open and adequate and trusting dialogue among us, we can bring together some of those conversations.

And that's what I hope we can help develop in a deeper way, the kind of relationships and climate of dialogue that will make it possible for the different perspectives and roles and positions in the church to be in greater interaction and dialogue with one another, really for the good of the whole church.

GROSS: So I don't mean to put words in your mouth. So correct me if I'm being presumptuous here. But what I think I'm hearing you say is that you think nuns are in a position to actually educate bishops, to educate some of the church hierarchy about what life is like for women today, about what family life is like, what sexual life is like, because you work with women - and that the bishops don't want to listen; they want to tell you what to do.

FARRELL: I think that teaching and listening and discerning together is something that belongs to the whole church. The bishops and the hierarchy have a more specific role as teachers and defenders of the faith, but that can't happen in a vacuum, nor can our lives with people on the margins happen in a vacuum. We are one church. We are the church.

So the dialogue for us is critically important.

GROSS: So the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith's doctrinal assessment of your group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, also questions the group's position on women's ordination. What has your group had to say about women's ordination?

FARRELL: Well, it's interesting because the document quotes the leadership conference as having taken a position in favor of women's ordination in 1977. That's a very long time ago. And of course as women in the church we have very strongly taken positions about the rightful place of women in society and in the church and the impoverishment of both church and society when the voice and the participation of women are minimized.

But the position that we took in favor of women's ordination in 1977 was before there was a Vatican letter saying that there is a definitive church position against the ordination of women.

So it's interesting to me that the document goes back some 30 years to talk about our position on the ordination of women. There has, in fact, been an official position by the church that that topic should not be discussed.

When that declaration came out, the response of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was to call for a nationwide time of prayer and fasting for all women religious in response to that because our deep desire for places of leadership for women in the church be open remains a desire.

Since then the leadership conference has not spoken publicly about the ordination of women. Imposing a silence, however, doesn't necessarily change people's thinking. But, you know, we are in a position to continue to be very concerned that the role of women in the church be recognized and accepted as equals and that the church can be rightfully enriched by the gifts that women bring.

GROSS: So let me get to another criticism of the group in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's doctrinal assessment of your group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. And it criticizes the group for radical feminism and for, quote, a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the church faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the group, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving father.

Moreover, some commentaries on, quote, patriarchy, distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the church. What do you hear when you hear the criticism "radical feminist themes"? What does that say to you, "radical feminist," and how does that compare to how you see the women in your group?

FARRELL: Well, sincerely what I hear in phrasing it in that way is fear, a fear of women's position in the church. Now, that's just my interpretation. That - of course I have no idea what was in the mind of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith when they wrote that.

But women theologians around the world, Catholic women theologians, have been seriously looking at the question of how have the church's interpretations of how we talk about God, about how we interpret Scripture, about how we organize our life in the church, how have those formulations been tainted by a culture, a religious culture, a secular culture, that minimizes the value and the place of women?

So of course there have been questionings. We've had speakers who've talked about the more feminine dimensions in God. God has no gender. But traditionally all of our language about God has been in masculine terms. And so I think when - if the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith calls that kind of sincere investigation into our church formulation with a masculine bias, if it calls that radical feminism, I find that a polarizing way of talking about it, which sounds a little fear-based to me.

I think that in our day all of the mainstream religions around the world have been facing the issue of what is women's rightful place in church, in society, in religion, and how have our teachings embodied that? How have churches really passed on a bias against women? I think those are very fair and important questions to ask.

GROSS: So you said that God has no gender. Do you think the church hierarchy would agree with you on that - because, you know, the church refers to God the father, you know, Jesus was a man.

FARRELL: Oh, I think official church teaching, talking about God as spirit, of course would say there is no gender. Jesus was clearly a man. But that God is neither male nor female in essence I think is a clear teaching of the church. However, the language we've used for God has traditionally been masculine.

GROSS: Sister Pat Farrell is the president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She'll talk more about the Vatican's assessment of the group in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the conflict between the Vatican and the group the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the LCWR, which represents 80 percent of the nuns in the U.S. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an assessment of the group, motivated by concerns the group expressed radical feminist positions and challenged the church's teachings on human sexuality. The Vatican has ordered an archbishop and two bishops to work with the LCWR to bring the group into conformity with the church's teachings. The LCWR is in the process of deciding how to respond. My guest is the president of the LCWR, Sister Pat Farrell.

So, you know, along - in the same category of radical feminism, the doctrinal assessment says this about your group: While there has been a great deal of work on the part of this group promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church's social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death. And there, they are referring both to abortion and euthanasia, which the doctrinal assessment describes as issues of crucial importance to the life of church and society.

It goes on to say that issues of crucial importance to the life of church and society, such as the church's Biblical view of family life and human sexuality are not part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious' agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.

So there, it's saying that you're silent on the right to life, abortion and euthanasia, and that you're not promoting the church's teaching on human sexuality and family life. So what's your response to those criticisms within the doctrinal assessment?

FARRELL: I would say that all of us have a limited repertoire of what we're capable of talking about, and I think it's absolutely valid that we choose to emphasize certain things over another. The bishop's conference itself selects certain issues to talk about and, understandably, would have to not be talking about everything.

So I think the criticism of what we're not talking about seems to me, again, unfair, because religious have clearly given our lives to supporting life, to supporting the dignity of human persons. Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. You know, if the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion too, if there's such an emphasis on that.

However, we have sisters who work - all of our congregations have sisters who work in right-to-life issues. We also have many, many ministries that support life, who - we dedicate our efforts to those on the margins of society, many of whom are considered kind of throwaway people: the cognitively impaired, the chronically mentally ill, the elderly, the incarcerated, the people on death row. We have strongly spoken out against the death penalty, against war, hunger. All of those are right-to-life issues.

And there's so much being said about abortion that is often phrased in such extreme and such polarizing terms, that to choose not to enter into a debate that is so widely covered by other sectors of the Catholic Church - and we have been giving voice to other issues that are less covered, but are equally as important.

GROSS: So, correct me if I'm wrong, but what I think I'm hearing you say is that you're not going to take a stand in support of abortion, but you're not going to participate in a black-and-white discussion of it, in which the rights of the living woman and her health are ignored in favor of a fetus.

FARRELL: I think our concern is that right-to-life issues be seen across a whole spectrum, and not narrowly defined. And Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago talked about right-to-life issues in terms of the seamless garment. That would be our approach, that to single out one right-to-life issue and to say that's the only issue that defines Catholic identity I think is really a distortion.

GROSS: And what about contraception? What has your group had to say about that?

FARRELL: We've not said anything about that.

GROSS: Because you don't want to disagree with the church, but on the other hand, you're not going to agree, like, agree with its stand, that contraception in any form is a violation of the church's teachings.

FARRELL: Well, again, I think it's pretty clear to many of us - certainly to a wide spectrum of the laity and to many priests and bishops in the church, as well - that there is a need to relook at the whole topic of human sexuality and to give interpretations that fit the situation of our time and real-life people.

So it's, again, it's an issue that I think just deserves a whole lot more open conversation. It's no secret that the vast majority of Catholics practice contraception, that that teaching has really never been fully embraced anywhere in the world by Catholics. So I wouldn't put that as one of the urgent issues of our time, contraception. I think there are many more issues that deserve wide public debate, but that certainly is not one that I would give the highest priority to.

GROSS: I think I hear you being in a lot of pain in how to discuss this. Because you so much want to be a part of the church and speak within the church's, you know, rules or beliefs or whatever, and at the same time you have a questioning mind and you want - I just hear this kind of conflict within you, and pain.

FARRELL: Well, I think you're naming the question. The question is: Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?

GROSS: Uh-huh.

FARRELL: That's what we're asking. And the church has always taught that the primacy of conscience and freedom of conscience and, in effect, we need to relook at that issue, too: Is freedom of conscience within the church genuinely honored? One of our deepest hopes is that in the way we manage the balancing beam of this position we're in, if we can make any headways in helping to create a safe and respectful environment where church leaders, together with rank-and-file Catholics, can raise questions openly and search for truth freely, with the very complex and swiftly changing issues that we face in our day, that would be our hope. But the climate is not there.

And certainly, this mandate coming from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops, that is not an invitation to dialogue. I can't see anyone who would interpret it that way. If anything, it's - it appears to be shutting down dialogue. And of course that's a cause of pain for us. And I think it's a cause of pain for a much wider church than for women religious, which is attested to by this overwhelming outpouring of support from the laity, which I really believe is more about them than about us. And it's more about - they're also feeling, as we said in our first statement, that the issues of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world.

GROSS: So...

FARRELL: And we are in a balancing act, difficult position of how to speak about that in a way that remains respectful and open to church authority, and at the same time preserves our integrity as thinking, educated women of integrity who cannot ignore questions that are of serious concern to the church and the world.

GROSS: The doctrinal assessment by the church looked into your group's stand on issues that relate to women: women's ordination, contraception, you know, abortion. Homosexuality is in there, too. Radical feminism is the way some views were described by, you know, by the church hierarchy. And now three bishops have been assigned to oversee your group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and to help revise your group's plans and programs and create new programs for the organization.

And it just seems like, while your group is kind of questioning the role of women in the church and asking for more of a role and to be able to speak more openly about what women are thinking and the answer is, OK. There are three men from the church hierarchy who are now going to revise your group's statutes and review its plans and create new programs and basically try to overhaul the group. So how does that make you feel?

FARRELL: Deeply saddened and angered, and I think that's just offensive. And I think it reflects a serious misunderstanding and misinterpretation of who we are. And I think it reflects the impoverishment of the church that has not held the leadership and the voice of women in a place of equal prominence. I think that's what we're seeing reflected there. And to call that concern radical feminism I think just reflects the fear of women in the church and the fear of what could happen if women were really listened to and taken seriously.

GROSS: What is that fear? What do you think they fear could happen?

FARRELL: I'm not sure.

GROSS: OK.

FARRELL: I think that the church has been structured with all-male leadership, which I think has serious disadvantages, and that the church has been structured with a hierarchical, unquestioned structure that has little mechanism for accountability.

That's so different from our reality within women's congregations, because for one thing, we elect all our own leaderships, and we have forever - in the history of women religious life - have experienced the leadership of strong women. Women have been leaders in our ministries. We're a very educated group of women within the Catholic Church. We have women who are CEOs of hospitals, of hospital systems, who are presidents of colleges, principals of schools. So as women religious, our lifetime experience has been of expecting strong leadership from women, and that's been our daily experience. So our experience of the leadership of women in the church is our daily bread. It's very different from that at the hierarchy.

GROSS: My guest is Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. We'll talk more about her group's response to the Vatican's assessment after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal assessment of the group, criticizing it for not following the church's teachings on human sexuality and other issues, and has appointed bishops to help bring the group into conformity with the church.

When you became a nun, among the vows you took was a vow of obedience. What does that vow mean to you, obedience to who or to what?

FARRELL: Well, first of all obedience to God. But the word obedience comes from the Latin root meaning to hear, to listen. And so as I have come to understand that vow, what it means to me is that we listen to what God is calling us to in the signs of our times. We listen to the voice of God in legitimate church authority, in the pain and the hopes and the aspirations of the people of our time. We listen to the voice of God in the depths of our own hearts and in our consciences, and that all of that together is what we listen to in trying to discern: What is God really calling me to? And it's to that that I must be obedient.

GROSS: So in your mind, the obedience isn't directly to the church hierarchy, it's to God.

FARRELL: It's first to God. First to God.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

FARRELL: Absolutely.

GROSS: And so I imagine...

FARRELL: And that's how I understand our vow of obedience.

GROSS: I think a lot of people inside and outside the church have questioned the strict discipline that your group is getting with the way priests accused of sexual abuse have been treated by the church.

And in fact, Cardinal Levada who was the head of the Conference of the Doctrine of the Faith during the assessment of your group - he just retired - he is one of a group of top Vatican officials named in a sex abuse complaint filed in September of 2011 in the International Criminal Court, charging the church hierarchy tolerated widespread sexual abuse on a global scale.

And in at least in two instances during his time, Archbishop Levada chose to return priests with proven allegations of sexual abuse against them to ministry after treatment with the agreements of therapists, according to church records. I read that in the New York Times.

So what are your thoughts about how priests accused of sexual abuse were returned to their parishes while the church is cracking down on your group?

FARRELL: Well, it's horrific. I mean, the sexual abuse scandal in the church is deeply painful for all of us and absolutely unacceptable. And I think that the healthiest thing is that it's all coming to light so that it can be dealt with. And I think you're right, the contrast between the severity with which our organization is being treated and the lack of adequate response on the church to the sexual abuse scandal, it's just an unacceptable scenario.

GROSS: I want to ask you a question that I've asked many women of different faiths - many women religious of different faiths - and that is why would you want to stay in an institution that doesn't think of women as equal? That doesn't think of you as worthy of being equal?

FARRELL: I have faith that the church can respond and change, but I would answer that in the same way I would say why would you stay in a country in which you severely disagree with the leadership of a president? I'm an American, and I am the church. I'm a Catholic. I am the church.

So I will continue to work for the rightful place of women in the church, but it's easier said than done to just talk about walking away, because I also feel some responsibility, as the church, to bring that corrective to the church for the sake of the whole.

GROSS: You became a nun just about the time of the end of Vatican II, which reformed the church and enabled nuns to not wear habits, to dress in regular clothes, and to take positions in lay organizations and to be more out in the world. Did you expect, when you became a nun, that things would head in the opposite direction and that views of women would become more conservative?

FARRELL: No, and it's deeply disappointing to me. And I entered religious life at the time when there was huge excitement and hopefulness in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and it is very disheartening to me to see that going in a reverse direction. The changes that we made were not just in a whim, they were in direct response to the reform that Vatican II was asking us to undergo.

So it was in obedience and in faithfulness to the church that we took off habits, became more involved in the world, because the Second Vatican Council developed a different theology about religious life. Rather than talking of the church as something that viewed the world as something to be distanced from, as what would contaminate us from holiness; rather, it's a place of encounter with God where we don't need to separate ourselves from, but walk into and to find God present there.

GROSS: Well, Sister Pat Farrell, I wish we had more time to talk. I regret that our time is up. I thank you very much for talking with us.

FARRELL: Thank you, Terry. It's been wonderful to have this opportunity.

GROSS: Sister Pat Farrell is the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the LCWR. Next week we'll talk with the bishop of Toledo, Ohio, Leonard Blair, the Vatican's delegate to oversee the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and work with the group to bring it into conformity with the church's teachings.

You'll find a link to the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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