National Press Club

Catholic nuns’ leader answers Vatican and bishops' criticism

August 16, 2012 | By Joan Mooney |

Sister Mary Hughes

Sister Mary Hughes

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Sister Mary Hughes, past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), told a club luncheon audience August 16 that she felt “humiliated” when a Vatican representative told her in April that the Vatican was appointing three U.S. bishops to oversee the LCWR, revise its statutes and review its programs.

The LCWR is a group of 1500 administrators of congregations of Catholic nuns, whose members include 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the country. The group’s leadership meets with the Vatican every year, and Sister Hughes said she was completely surprised by the news at this year’s meeting.

A document resulting from a Vatican investigation of the LCWR authorized by Pope Benedict XVI -- the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-- cited “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” in the LCWR’s programs and said it was focusing too much on social justice work and not enough on the Church’s teaching on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

“The sisters do speak out on abortion, but we do it in a different way from the bishops," said Sister Hughes. She called the nuns' work as counselors in pro-life clinics and volunteers for literacy programs for homeless mothers "pro-life work."

As for gay marriage, “we don’t usually speak out on doctrinal issues,” Sister Hughes said. "That is the role of the bishops. We don’t see ourselves as a teaching arm of the Church."

She added, “We fall in love with the people we work with. Many of those people feel excluded from the Church.”

The LCWR does not intend to break away from the Church, said Sister Hughes. “We derive our strength from the sacramental life of the Church.” Since the Vatican’s April announcement, she said the LCWR has received thousands of letters and emails of support.

She emphasized the need for better communication and said the process has already begun. The LCWR leadership has met with Archbishop of Seattle Peter Sartain, who was appointed to oversee the group.

“Obedience at its very deepest sense is listening, where each person makes every effort to understand the other,” said Sister Hughes. “We’re not there yet. It’s not blind obedience."

It would be premature, she said, to ask what would happen if dialogue fails.

She observed that “One congregant asked, ‘Is this a matter of doctrine or docility?’ That may have hit the nail on the head.”

Sister Hughes described the controversy over priests and sex abuse as a “very shameful moment” in the Catholic Church. “Some would say, had there been greater conversation with women earlier, the scandal would not have gone on so long,” she added.

On some Catholic groups’ opposition to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)’s budget, Sister Hughes said that the LCWR has no official stand on the budget. But she said LCWR members would oppose any budget that hurts the poor.