Sister Pat Farrell and three other nuns crossed St. Peter's Square through the fabled white columns, paused for a security check and entered the rust-colored Palace of the Holy Office.
It was April 18, 2012, and on entering the palazzo, they were aware of its history, that in this same building nearly 400 years earlier, Galileo had been condemned as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the earth orbits around the sun.
Today, the palazzo houses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that enforces adherence to church teaching. As president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Farrell and her executive colleagues had an appointment with the prefect, Cardinal William Levada, about a CDF investigation of their group by the forces that control the Vatican, who viewed the nuns as somehow going "off the reservation."
They were walking into what Hans Kung, the internationally renowned theologian who had his own battles in the palazzo, calls "a new Inquisition."
On the 50th anniversary of the reform-driven Second Vatican Council, the nuns were accused of undermining church moral teaching by promoting "radical, feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." To many nuns, the CDF action is a turn toward the past, causing a climate of fear and a chill wind reaching into the lives of missionary leaders.
The Vatican wants control of the LCWR, an association of 1,500 superiors, representing 80 percent of American nuns. Most of the sisters, long active in the front lines of social justice, dispensed with their black habits and traditional jobs, like teaching school, after Vatican II.
The sisters are in a standoff with the male hierarchy under Pope Benedict XVI. But many leading cardinals and bishops have disgraced themselves by recycling pedophiles in the worst crisis for the church since the Protestant Reformation.
The main leadership council of American nuns embraced the Vatican II social-justice gospel that has taken sisters to some of the poorest corners of the world to work with politically oppressed people, particularly in Latin America. But a stark drama of attrition has unfolded as the Vatican II generation reaches an eclipse. Since 1965, the number of American nuns has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 181,241 to 54,000 today.
In contrast, the rate of women joining religious orders has surged in Korea, South Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Nowhere has the increase been more pronounced than in India. Five of the 10 largest religious institutes of women have headquarters in India, where only 1.6 percent of the population is Catholic.
"While India has nearly 50 million fewer Catholics than the United States does, it has over 30,000 more women religious," wrote Jeff Ziegler in Catholic World Report.
The Vatican crackdown of LCWR has exposed a schizophrenic church. Interviews with missionary sisters in Rome, from India and other countries, register a deep fault line between cardinals immune from punishment, and nuns who work in poor regions with some of the world's most beleaguered people. Religious sisters from other parts of the world view the LCWR's conflict with foreboding. How far Benedict goes in imposing a disciplinary culture, policing obedience over nuns as they push a Vatican II gospel of social justice, is an urgent issue to many of these women--and one sure to color this pope's place in history.
The Doctrinal Assessment delivered by Levada was an intervention plan on how the nuns should pray; he appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to approve speakers for LCWR gatherings. The Vatican also signaled a striking interest in nuns' property amid financial convulsions that have seen many American bishops sell churches to stanch deficits.
"You can impose silence, but that doesn't change anyone's thinking," Sister Farrell reflected, several months later at the Franciscan convent in Dubuque, Iowa, where she lives.
"This is about the Vatican II church, how we have come to live collegially with participatory decision-making," Farrell explains. "When I entered in 1965, we studied and prayed with [the Vatican II] documents, implementing new charters. ... We're in a line of continuity with the early history of our communities, assessing unmet needs, going to the margins to help the homeless, people with AIDS, victims of torture and sexual trafficking."
"When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women," said Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious. "They found, instead, nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so."
The leadership conference endorsed women's ordination in 1977--12 years before Pope John Paul II officially banned it. Farrell said they have not campaigned for it. Nor has LCWR endorsed abortion. The CDF demand that the leaders speak out against abortion and gay rights is a battle over conscience, forcing words into superiors' mouths. Seattle Archbishop Sartain, the CDF delegate to oversee the group, is tasked with approving their conference speakers, a hotly contentious issue.
"These women are really rooted in Christ and committed to the poor," said Sister Nzenzili Lucie Mboma, executive director of Service of Documentation and Studies on Mission, in Rome. A Congolese, Sister Lucie had two friends murdered in political violence in the 1960s, during her novice years. "It is painful to see the Vatican carrying on these kinds of things," she said.
"In certain parts of the church, we have an us-vs.-them mentality," said Father Miceal O'Neill, an Irish Carmelite prior in Rome with background as a missionary in Peru.
"'Us' is religious, and 'them' is officers of the Holy See."
"We have a church that is doctrinally conservative and pastorally liberal," said O'Neill. "The Vatican is trying to assert control, 'we are in charge.' ... Many people are saying the two churches are not coming together."
"There is a fundamental problem of honesty."
Sister Farrell, 65, came of age in Iowa in the heady years of Vatican II. She joined the Franciscans at 18, and in her 30s, worked with Mexicans in San Antonio. She moved to Chile in 1980 during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Disappearances were common.
"It was routine for police to torture people in the first 72 hours," she said.
Demonstrations were banned, yet protests were the only way to put a spotlight on abductions when lives were at stake.
She joined "lightning-demonstrations," unfurling banners of the anti-torture protest movement in congested traffic, spreading leaflets that gave people information on the missing, who were airbrushed out of news reports. At one point, she was arrested, with 100 other people, but coverage in a growing clandestine media saw them released the same day.
In 1986, she moved to El Salvador with a handful of sisters to help people reeling from a grisly civil war with U.S. military support of the government. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while saying Mass; several months later, three nuns and a laywoman from America working with the poor were kidnapped, raped and murdered.
Farrell spent her first weeks sleeping at night in a church sacristy, getting to know people, and eventually moving into a sprawling refugee camp. The bishop supported their mission because she lived with villagers displaced by military bombings. American nuns were a nonviolent presence giving thin cover to locals. What she remembers most of those years is walking, miles and miles of walking with the people.
"We learned never to leave the road because any area off defined footpaths could have land mines," she explained. "I remember walking down one long hill with trembling knees to meet a group of soldiers who entered the camp. Part of our role as internationals in the camp was to keep the military out, and I was on my way down to ask them to leave. That time they did, thank God."
Religious processions common to Latin America took on heightened meaning. For a newly repopulated community to show up en masse, with banners of saints and the Virgin Mary, conveyed "a political statement." As she put it, "we are not afraid. We have a right to be here. Our faith continues to be a source of strength to us."
One woman who fled the death squads, moving at night, toting a baby from town to town, made it safely into Honduras--but the baby died. As the war wound down, the woman returned to El Salvador with aching spasms in the shoulder and chest. After training as a therapist, Farrell used a treatment model for torture victims, helping the woman unpack the pain embedded from guilt over the baby's death.
In 2005, Farrell returned to the Dubuque convent of the Franciscan sisters that she had entered at 18. Elected to the LCWR board several years later, she was midway through her one-year term as president when they made their annual trip to Rome, in April, to update church officials on their work. With Farrell were Sisters Mary Hughes, the past LCWR president; president-elect Florence Deacon, and Janet Mock, the executive director.
Before their appointment in the Palace of the Holy Office, they held an hour of silent prayer in a Carmelite center.