Sister Elizabeth Johnson Blasts Catholic Bishops For 'Unconscionable' Investigation Of American Nuns

Controversial Nun Blasts US Bishops For 'Unconscionable' Investigation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) A nun who drew U.S. Catholic bishops’ ire with what they consider radical feminist writings fired back Friday (Aug. 15), saying their investigation of women’s orders is wasteful when financial mismanagement and sexual abuses are being covered up.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a theology professor at Fordham University, accepted the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ top award and then lambasted bishops for criticism of her book “Quest for the Living God,” saying it appears they’ve never read it.

“To this day, no one, not myself or the theological community, the media or the general public knows what doctrinal issue is at stake,” she told the Nashville assembly of about about 900 sisters representing 80 percent of the nation’s nuns.

In her 20-minute acceptance speech, followed by a standing ovation, Johnson suggested the conference’s support of her work prompted the investigation by the church’s top enforcer of orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.

Johnson’s book includes chapters on black and feminist theology and interfaith engagement. She said book sales skyrocketed after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized it.

The LCWR has been undergoing a Vatican-ordered doctrinal investigation since 2009. In 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered nun’s group to reform its statutes and appointed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee changes, including a rewrite of the group’s charter and approval of all speakers at future assemblies.

In April, a top Vatican official warned the LCWR that in recognizing Johnson it would provoke the Holy See.

“When the moral authority of the hierarchy is hemorrhaging due to financial scandals and many bishops who … cover up sexual abuse of children, a cover up that continues in some quarters to this day, and thousands are drifting away from the church … the waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable,” Johnson said.

Throughout the week, the conference’s leaders discussed spirituality and doctrine while taking up church politics in closed sessions. The nuns declined any interviews that would include questions about the conflict.

But the ongoing dispute broke into the open at times.

Sister Nancy Schreck, a former LCWR president who delivered the keynote address, said in an interview Wednesday (Aug. 13) that there’s more than one way to look at God. While the church is a vehicle for mission, the LCWR’s focus is the life of Jesus.

“Look at the four Gospels — they all have nuances in who Jesus is,” she said. “We need to figure out how we translate the message of Jesus to the world where we live. We need every creative interpretation of looking of Jesus that we can get.”

The group’s new president, Sister Sharon Holland, too avoided discussing the conflict but scoffed at a newspaper headline from her native Michigan: “Sister Soldier.” It topped a profile about Holland ‘s ascension to leadership in LCWR after 21 years of experience as a Vatican-based legal expert in church law.

“They must not know how we feel about military conflict,” she joked.

It’s unlikely the sides can come to a solution, said Bruce Morrill, a Vanderbilt University professor of theological studies and a Jesuit priest.

At the conflict’s heart is a difference in approach to hierarchical chain of command: the top-down, morals-emphasizing Vatican versus the collegial, social-justice oriented nuns.

“As far as the U.S. bishops and Vatican officials are concerned, this is not a debate,” Morrill said. “The hierarchy expects the women religious to obey their directives.”

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