The possible future of the American women religious
It’s no secret that many American Catholics are sick of the church scandals, of the politicization of their faith by American bishops, of much of what their Church has become – and for many of them, it’s the women religious that give them some hope in the future of the Church. But since the story broke about the Vatican condemning the work of American women religious, and imposing a new supervisor on that work, there’s been a lot of speculation about what’s next.

As the primary target of Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, chooses to stay silent on the matter as they prepare to formulate a response at a meeting later in the month,  Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, joins us this week to talk about the far-reaching impact of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Faith condemnation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. Click here to download it. Scroll down to read the transcript. Click here for the full May 5, 2012 State of Belief Radio program. Learn more about NETWORK by clicking here.



[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio everyone, I’m Welton Gaddy. I have something I want to read to you: “The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusion of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate. This is a brief moment of great import for religious life in the wider Church. We ask your prayers as we meet with the LCWR national board within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response.”

Now, that statement – posted online – is the response so far of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to a very harsh condemnation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Faith. It is responsible and respectable of the LCWR to handle this privately, but many far beyond that organization have been impacted by the actions of Rome. Here to talk about that impact now is Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. Sister Simone has been on State of Belief Radio before; she is a friend in DC. Simone, welcome to State of Belief Radio again.

[SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL, GUEST]: Glad to be with you, Welton.

[WG]: Can you summarize for us what the Congregation for the Faith actually has done, and whom that impacts?

[SC]: What they have said is that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is suspect for doctrinal reasons, because it appears they focus too much on the needs of people in poverty, and have been what they say is “silent” on the issues of abortion and gay marriage. Because of – and also that there are, I think they call it “radical feminist tendencies” in their discussions and in their documents, and they therefore appoint an archbishop to basically put LCWR in receivership, and that this archbishop and his two bishop assistants are given the authority to restructure LCWR, to change their statutes, to change the organization, and to affect – the way we got involved in this is that the Vatican specifically mentioned their relationship with NETWORK, our organization, a national Catholic social justice lobby, as being one evidence of the suspect relationships that they have. So there was a determination that we at NETWORK are wrong or bad or outliers in some fashion, and the LCWR’s relationship with us is improper.

[WG]: Simone, I know what the definition of the phrase I’m going to give you is from the perspective of bishops and people in Rome. How would you and your staff define what they mean by “radical feminist tendencies”?

[SC]: Well, not sure, wish I knew. The only thing that I can think is that – there are two things. One is: if we’re radical it’s we’re radical because we take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience forever, to live a celibate life in pursuit of the Gospel by service to people who are poor. Now, that’s pretty radical! It’s also pretty radical that we strive – like the women in the New Testament in the Christian scriptures, who were the first ones at the tomb on Easter Sunday, and saw that Jesus had risen and take that information back to the apostles – that’s what we strive to do: take the information of Jesus alive in our streets back to the leaders of our Church. I have a hunch the part that is challenging for the leaders of our Church as to why they might say this is that we have been very faithful in following the directives of Pope Pius XII and of Vatican II in our renewal: Pope Pius XII in the 50’s urged women religious all over the world to get educated, to get advanced degrees, to enter into the academia and to share that knowledge in the Church. Well, I think one of the challenges is that many in leadership are used to an all-male leadership structure, and that when women who are highly educated start asking what I might call pesky questions, when they engage in thoughtful discourse, that some of the leaders in our Church find that difficult. And perhaps just because we ask questions – they find that annoying and possibly, maybe, that’s the source of the radical feminist view.

[WG]: You know, I wouldn’t at all be surprised, and the bottom line is: it is some people feeling that you all may feel like you are real representatives of Christianity, and you think you’re better than you really are.

[SC]: Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, that is so far from the truth as we strive every day – I live in a community that values a Benedictine spirit, and what we do is we work every day not just to get what St. Benedict calls “to get up.” You fall every day, and we just keep trying to get up and be faithful. I think, really, what the challenge is – and the outpouring of support that we’ve received brought this home to me – I thought women religious were pretty anonymous, pretty invisible within the United States – because most of us don’t wear the fancy habits anymore, and most of us are engaged in working with people in poverty, but what we’ve discovered is that people see our lives as witness; they see in our lives – based on all the letters that we’ve gotten – they see in our lives a moral power; and I think we never claimed to speak for the institutional Church, no way, that’s not my job. I’m just lay person who has taken these vows, I’m not ordained, I’m not, you know, it’s not something I aspire to. I’m just living a lay life in my community. What I think what the bishops see is that the people in the United States look to us for that moral witness, and they wish that the bishops’ words would have that same reverence – and some do, and some don’t.  I think some of the scandals in our Church have tainted some of the bishops’ capacity to really be a moral witness in our society, and they think maybe by hitting out at us that they might get it back. I don’t think it will work.

[WG]: Well I don’t either. Simone, for non-Catholics how powerful is the Congregation for the Faith?

[SC]: I suppose you could say – this is a pretty secular way to say it, but – kind of the top dog in Rome, at least that’s how I understand it. You know, I work in federal politics, so I don’t quite know all the power relationships; but I do know that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen as the most responsible vigilant for protecting our faith from folks that might stray. You also have to know, though, it’s the same group that was the Inquisition. They just changed their name in the 1960s to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I hadn’t realized that until all this blew up. So they have kind of a checkered past, shall we say, for their capacity to effectively lead our Church.

[WG]: Well, I want people to know even more about you and NETWORK, so would you talk a little bit about NETWORK as an organization, and how these events could likely affect your work?

[SC]: Well, thanks for this opportunity. NETWORK is this amazing organization of what I call a Catholic people’s movement; and what we’ve discovered is Catholic is with a big “C” meaning Roman Catholic, but it’s also with a small “c” meaning universal, because so many people share our commitment to Catholic social teaching, our sense of engagement of Gospel in our world. And what we do is we educate, organize and lobby for justice within federal policy. So we have educational workshops; we have this fabulous thing up on our website, a “Mind the Gap” campaign where we started last May to work on the wealth gap in the United States, and at the end of this month we’re going to start our new campaign about mending the gap because we believe that the Gospel is best served when there’s less disparity in our nation. We also know we all suffer because of wealth disparity. So that’s some of our education work.

We have this fabulous election project that we’re working on, inviting people all over the United States to have conversations about the common good in 2012, and if folks are interested in checking that out that’s at – all one word – and that is in an effort to bridge the huge divides, the polarization in our nation. We strongly believe that the only way forward is if we share together what our values are, and that in those values for the common good, so that everyone is cared for in our society. So it’s really about claiming faith in the streets, but it’s also about reclaiming our Constitution, because our Constitution says: “We the people” and we the people is about all of us – so we apply our faith to politics. Sometimes it gets us in a little trouble; but it certainly is a vibrant and, for me, a very exciting and moving ministry. We invite anybody to join us.

[WG]: Simone, I hope I’m not being too harsh here, but I was very moved by that statement from LCWR, waiting to respond publicly, wanting to get their thoughts together, wanting to say their prayers, looking for guidance – and the kind of contrast between that approach, and many bishops who are running for every microphone they can find, and yelling and ranting and raving. What are you – in this interim period – what are you hearing from people affected by these actions?

[SC]: Well, I’ve heard from a lot of Catholic Sisters a great deal of bewilderment and uncertainty about what is behind this, what is going on – but also a tremendous amount of confidence that Jesus is the way, and the Spirit will lead us through. We’ve heard from a lot of lay people who are Catholics and an amazing number of non-Catholics. I got this lovely letter from a woman rabbi in Saint Louis that I met a few years ago when I was working on healthcare reform, and she sent this lovely note and ended with saying that we had sisters in many faiths – and to me that was such a strong sense of solidarity, of being this body that tries to lift up the values that we hold dear – and I’ve heard also a lot of heartbreak. I have to say, I mean, we’ve ended up in tears here, because this is extremely painful. It’s extremely painful to have the leadership of the Church in which we have discovered deep spirituality and a life – I mean, I’ve been doing this over 40 years, I’ve been a Sister – and then to have them say we’re unfaithful? And that NETWORK is suspect? That’s really painful.

[WG]: Sure it is.

[SC]: And they never talked to us. That’s the other part that’s really hard.

[WG]: Well, you know, I have a sense that another part of the pain that other people are feeling is that in a time when there is a lot of bad publicity about the Catholic Church anyway, many people, many of us, I’ll say, have looked to the women religious to give us hope in the future of the Church. I fear what that’s doing to that hope. Do you?

[SC]: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. But the point that we need to know is that at least in – and I think, probably, in most religious traditions – hope is bigger than a person, hope is bigger than a structure. Hope is about having your hearts broken, and knowing that beyond that there is growth and life and what my faith tells me is that deeper sense of commonality; I most meet God when my heart’s broken. And so I’m trusting that in this process, just like the Jewish people wandering in the dessert, just like the early Christians having to hide out, just like, you know, the saints of our time – I mean, some of the great mystics were excommunicated several times by the leaders of the Church – so I’m trusting that we will meet God if we are faithful to the Gospel. It’s hard, it is painful, it’s not what I would want from our Church leaders, but faith is so much bigger than the Church’s structure.

[WG]: That’s such a great word from you. Is there anything else that our listeners need to hear from you about the threat to women, to social justice movements, to initiatives toward diversity and inclusivity in the Catholic Church today?

[SC]: Well, I think the fact is, I mean, a lot of what I say is trying to be the hope in the darkness, or a light in the darkness. I have the sense that we’re called to be the burning bush, to be a light of God in the midst of this – and not be consumed, I hope – but I also want people to know that there is a very serious risk, and that maybe part of what this needs is that it’s not just Catholic Sisters who need to stand up as witnesses to this, but we need everyone to stand up, to say that our faith brings us together, that we know we are one body. We don’t leave people out; we are inclusive. All of us are created in the image of a loving, generous, abundant grace-filled God, and that is who we are. We need everyone to share that message, and maybe that’s what this is about; to push the message out so there are more bearers of this light than just us.

[WG]: Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. Sister Simone, I want to thank you for talking with us today at a very difficult time. We share the anxieties that you all must have, but I know they’re deeper in you. I can’t help but listen to you – and it happens every time I listen to you – if you’re guilty of something that needs to be reprimanded, I hope I’m guilty of the same thing.

[SC]: How lovely, thank you Welton.

[WG]: Thank you, Simone. We’ll talk with you soon.

[SC]:  Thank you.


State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.

Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.


The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.

While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.

Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.


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