Dozens protest Vatican's criticism of nuns' group

Tom Chubb holds up a placard thanking nuns. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Tom Chubb holds up a placard thanking nuns. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 23, 2012

They gathered in the shadow of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia’s main Catholic church, in an amen chorus of support for nuns.

“For Sister Marie Timothy, who assured me I didn’t have an attitude problem and that I was a strong woman in the making,” said a school nurse.

“For Sister Evelyn, who put my feet on the path of demonstrating in Washington in 1972,” said a baby boomer.

“To Sister Mary Paul, for teaching us the mysteries of sex in middle school!”

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest and most influential organization of Catholic nuns in America, has been under fire since a Vatican report last month reprimanded the group for “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” including teachings that challenge church doctrine on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood.

The Vatican also criticized the American nuns for over-involvement in social-justice causes and for public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

Carrying placards emblazoned “SOS: Support Our Sisters,” “Thanks for Doing Jesus’ Work,” and similar themes, about 50 demonstrators from five local lay groups assembled Tuesday and called on the church to change with the times.

The pope and the bishops “are part of the church, but they are not all of the church,” said Richard O’Malley, a member of Dignity Philadelphia, a group that ministers to members of the LGBT community.

The church, he said, should be guided by its leaders, but also by “sensus fidelium,” the doctrinal truths recognized by the whole body of the faithful.

“Religious sisters are acting out of conscience and integrity,” said Marisa Guerin, a management consultant whose clients include religious orders that encompass many of the nation’s 57,000 nuns. “They are the most thoughtful and reflective” members of the church, Guerin said. In a slap at the Vatican patriarchy, she carried a sign that read: “A woman’s place is in the house of bishops.”

Pat Hynes’ sister Peg was a nun killed in 2002 by a drug-impaired driver. Another sibling, Jody, is a Sister of Mercy. “The sisters need to be respected for their sacrifices,” she said. “As far as I am concerned,” the Vatican’s attack on American nuns “is a smoke screen” to divert attention from “what is going on with the pedophile priests.”

The controversy began four years ago, when the Vatican ordered an apostolic investigation of women’s religious orders in the United States to be conducted by its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Its critical report, released April 18, has triggered national demonstrations that are coordinated through a website, nunjustice.org. The site is seeking signatories for an online petition to be presented at next month’s annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The most outrageous thing is that the Vatican said nuns are paying too much attention to social-justice issues like immigration and health care ... [instead of time spent] opposing abortion, gay marriage, contraception,” said Regina Bannan, 69, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s demonstration. “The nuns are so much more in touch with ordinary people, whether it is the poor, or through the hospitals they administer. They are on the ground seeing what the real issues are.”

Contact Michael Matza at 215 854 2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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