Over the last half century, the place known as Holy Wisdom Monastery in Westport, Wisconsin, has changed as the Catholic Church has changed.
And today as history is made with Pope Benedict XVI resigning, the first pontiff to do so in 600 years, this simple, white building here with its modern architecture as a symbol of a global Catholic Church that is deeply polarized, and which some fear could even be fracturing.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the early 1950s, Holy Wisdom Monastery was a Catholic girls’ school run by the Sisters of St. Benedict. In time, the school closed, and in 1966 the sisters, spurred on by the reformist ideals of the Second Vatican Council, transformed it into a retreat center, one that thrived in the confident spirit of a church opening its windows to the modern world — the metaphor used by Pope John XXIII in summoning the world’s bishops to the council in Rome.
In the 1990s, the nuns there established a strong interfaith spirit, they undertook a rigorous environmental effort toward “sustainability’ and they welcomed gay couples into the church and its services. By the year 2000, the nuns transformed the monastery into an ecumenical institution, welcoming a Presbyterian woman minister. And that was the point at which they crossed an irreversible line. Having a Protestant woman ministering in the community threw their identity as a Catholic women’s order into question.
The sisters decided to leave the diocese and end their formal affiliation with the Catholic Church. As they saw it, they were maintaining the monastic ideal of Benedictine spirituality by opening the place to others. In the process of leaving the Catholic Church, the nuns made their own power move, of sorts. They held onto the deed to the land with the position that their faith community was true to the interfaith spirit of Vatican II. Their message, though never formally stated, was sledgehammer blunt: the male hierarchy has gone backwards and we’re moving forward. They quite literally held their ground.
“As they set out to change the nature of the community,” explains the head of the community, Sister Mary David Walgenbach, “We received emails from all over the place. Some positive. Others thought we fell into hell for sure. But that’s just the way it is. Some people are future-oriented, broad-minded and deal with diversity and other people have a set, black-and-white perception.”
Today, as cardinals trailed by clergy abuse scandals in many countries arrive in Rome these divisions are laid bare. A half century after Vatican II, the church, led first by John Paul II and then by Benedict, reversed the council’s reformist ideals and particularly a spirit of collegiality with bishops that the reformist council brought forward. These two popes dispensed of Vatican II’s collaborative model of dialogue and exchange on matters of doctrine and policy and instead imposed loyalty tests on prospective bishops on matters like celibacy and women’s ordination.
And under Benedict, the leadership of American nuns became the target of a sweeping investigation into what was seen as a form of “radical feminism” that was too questioning of church teaching and too focused on social justice causes. From the Vatican’s point of view, many of the nuns were carrying themselves in a way that was tantamount to heresy. The investigation was, as some theologians saw it, ‘a new inquisition.’ And the Vatican took control of the umbrella organization known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The group has 1500 members who represent more than 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States. With the resignation of Benedict, the old-guard prelates who led the probe into the standing allegations against the nuns will have no authority to continue their work. That is, unless a new pope requests them to do so. As of tomorrow, the chair of the Vicar of Christ will be empty and the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will enter a period known as “sede vacante,” or, “the seat being absent.”
In that interim, as the college of cardinals prepare to elect a new pope, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, is hopeful that the church might take a new direction. And specifically, the leaders are focused on maintaining the group’s canonical status, which is official recognition within the church as an organization that is considered authentically Catholic.
LCWR’s Sister Pat Farrell, who was president of the group when it was called to Rome for the investigation last summer, said, “Most important to all of us is not just that status, but our being able to live religious life as we feel called to do, with integrity and freedom — and hopefully with a good working relationship with the hierarchy.”
Farrell, who spent many years doing courageous social justice work in El Salvador and Chile, added, “We have not chosen to opt out of canonical status and would rather not rupture the relationship, with all that it would signal. It is very important to us as fidelity to our call as religious.”
Maintaining canonical status carries an implicit hope that the new pope will halt the Vatican-mandated process and drop the supervisory oversight structure imposed last year by William Cardinal Levada when he served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a kind of prosecutorial arm of the Catholic Church which is housed in the same building where Galileo was brought before the Inquisition for heresy.
A LARGER STRUGGLE OF LAND AND FAITH
The bitterness of the division between the conservatives handpicked by and loyal to former Pope Benedict and the relatively progressive nuns who carry out work on behalf of the poor and sick across America and around the world is in some ways embodied by the small faith community in Westport, Wisconsin, which took the bold step of actually breaking away from the Catholic Church.
And the issue of land and faith at the Holy Wisdom Monastery reflects a larger struggle between a generation of bishops and cardinals who have become more rigid and reactionary, while disaffected communities of nuns have challenged the male authority of the church by ignoring it or going around it, fusing theology and action as Catholic witnesses on their own terms. For the doctrinal office in Rome, the bottom line is obedience; but material questions — who controls the real estate — shadow the larger conflict.
Last April’s Doctrinal Assessment criticizing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for “radical feminism” used imperious language, but it tap-danced around specifics. It threatened the legal group that helped the Holy Wisdom sisters and other communities of nuns to hold onto their land without naming them or defining any formal ink between property and doctrine.
The takeover, or “supervision,” of the nuns’ leadership group backfired in media coverage as countless Catholics spoke out for the nuns. Just how, or whether, the supervision moves forward will be determined by a new pope and whoever he puts in the DCF.
“Our desire to become ecumenical had nothing to do with the outlandishness of the Roman hierarchy now,” says Walgebach. “We began our ecumenical movement out of our own sense of vision and mission as Benedictine sisters, which grew out of people praying of us from different Christian denominations.”
She said, “Other Benedictine communities encouraged us. How do you deal with canon law, keeping our community, and our property, as a whole?”
A COMPLEX CHARACTER, FATHER DAN WARD
The man who provided the answer is a complex character, a Benedictine Father named Dan Ward. He is a canon lawyer with a civil law degree from University of Iowa who has helped many communities of sisters with legal counsel.
Described by one of his former students as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Ward is heroic in the eyes of many nuns; and he has drawn fire from sex abuse survivors for his defense work for clergy perpetrators.
Ward was a key back-channel advisor in helping the Wisconsin nuns draft their petitions to Rome, requesting formal release from their vows in a Catholic religious order. He also advised them on legal steps to maintain ownership of the monastery and grounds. That transition from a Catholic order, to an ecumenical, or intra-Christian community, took several years and was done quietly, to avoid alerting the bishop of Madison, Wis.
“When a group of nuns in a diocese goes out of existence, then all the temporal goods go to the diocese,” explains Patrick Wall, a canon lawyer and former Benedictine priest who lives in Contra Costa, Calif.
“Dan Ward was my mentor at St. John’s in Collegeville [Minnesota] in the 1980s,” explains Wall. “He taught me everything I know.”
In the late 1990s Wall, who was mentored by Ward in the seminary in the 1980s, grew disillusioned after serving at five consecutive Minnesota parishes, cleaning up after priests who abused youths or diverted parish funds to personal use. Wall left the priesthood, moved west and since 2002 has worked as a researcher and expert witness for lawyers representing clergy abuse victims. That role has occasionally put him across the table from Ward in his defense work for clergy perpetrators. Wall, married with a daughter in grade-school, accepts the reversal of roles with Ward as a professional matter. Like the nuns at Holy Wisdom, he moved beyond the church, becoming, in turn, an Episcopalian, then a Methodist, and a Buddhist. But the church he left still permeates his life.
“When you look at the larger crisis,” continues Wall, “you ask yourself: Why go after the nuns when they’re a dying group, in terms of numbers, yet these women have been more faithful to church than the clerics have? It makes no sense. But that’s where Dan Ward has been righteous — he is extremely well-read with a work ethic that will run you over. The only reason you go after the nuns is because a bishop wants to know where that property is going.”
When the Benedictine Sisters phased out of existence, they did so without giving the bishop of Madison the opportunity to take title to their property and grounds. Ward orchestrated their end run. Ward also assisted nuns in Sacramento, Calif., in the selling of a school that sparked a huge controversy, according to a spokesman for Bishop Jaime Soto.
A RECYCLED CITY ON THE HILL
Many sisters interviewed for this report suspect — though none can prove — that Madison Bishop Robert Morlino protested to the Vatican about Ward’s role. That they say would explain why the Doctrinal Assessment singled out his group, Resource Center for Religious Institutes, for its association with the LCWR.
At the Diocese of Madison, spokesman Brent King responded to an email asking if Morlino had reported Ward’s work to Rome.
He said, “The Diocese of Madison has said everything it plans to say publicly at this time with regards to Holy Wisdom Monastery. We would have no public comment about Fr. Dan Ward.”
What Morlino has said, in warning Catholics about Holy Wisdom Monastery, is relatively mild. He accused the community of “indifferentism...the belief that not one religion or philosophy is superior to another.”
He said that the Holy Wisdom community “may not share an authentic view of the Catholic Church’s approach to inter-religious dialogue.”
But the bishop has no real power over the group.
In moving out of a Romanist idea of church, as many nuns had already done in taking a social gospel to the poor, and quietly moving leftward in their social and theological positions, the Wisconsin community followed their own vision and remade the place into their own idea of a spiritual city on the hill.
They oversaw the dismantling of the Benedict House with care so that 97 percent of its parts were responsibly recycled.
In 2009 the construction was done on a 30,000-square-foot Holy Wisdom Monastery. It has cutting-edge design as a green complex, utilizing solar energy, geothermal pumps, large energy-absorbing windows, roof gardens and storage tanks to recycle rain.
Bishop Morlino watched from the sidelines as the liturgies went well beyond the traditional Mass.
Today, women lead services and preach. Gay people in committed relationships are welcomed. Anyone at services, not just Catholics, can receive communion, in contrast with the Catholic prohibition on priests giving the Eucharist to non-Catholics.
ANOTHER TARGET OF THE ‘INQUISITION’
The investigation by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012 took special aim at Sister Laurie Brink. Specifically, the so-called “Doctrinal Assessment” focused on a 2007 speech at an LCWR conference, which referred to some communities as “moving beyond the church,” a characterization that would apply to Holy Wisdom.
Brink is a member of Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, a Wisconsin community pledged “through the ministry of preaching and teaching...to participate in the building of a holy and just church and society.”
The Sinsinawa Dominicans are in the liberal mainstream of American nuns, a current that the April 2012 Doctrinal Assessment tried to halt, if not divert. The congregation has 500 members with missionaries in several foreign countries. The headquarters at Sinsinawa Mound, once a famous Indian site, covers 800 acres with a large motherhouse, chapel and retreat complex. A girls’ school that closed several years ago has been converted to housing for the elderly.
Cardinal Levada called Brink’s August 2, 2007 speech to an LCWR gathering “a serious source of scandal...incompatible with religious life.”
Brink’s speech enraged Levada as it provided one image after another in a verbal carousel of today’s church as deeply polarized and supportive of progressive initiatives that were threatening to hierarchs like Levada and Law. She offered sharp criticism of church leaders, who too often recycled pedophiles from one parish to the next. Without mentioning bishops by name, Brink confronts a church of inner strife. And then speaking directly to the graying mother superiors, many disappointed by a road from Vatican II to latter day betrayal by the Vatican, she tells them to think of how “to become ambassadors of Christ, initiating reconciliation.”
“Reconciliation first with our hierarchical church from which we have experienced abuse, oppression, neglect and domination. If there is to be a future for women religious that upholds our dignity...we must first be reconciled with the institutional church,” she said.
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“This is not about faith — it’s about politics,” says Sister Simone Cambell of Network, the Washington, D.C. social action agency also singled out in Levada’s assessment. “All of our work as Catholic sisters is engaged with the world and that is different from living in Vatican City where that’s your only world. “The rules make a protective wall. Most Catholic sisters see engagement as way of living the gospel.”
RCRI, the group led by Father Ward, helped Network secure autonomy for property it owns, says Campbell.
Network and the Catholic Health Association supported ‘Obamacare’ as helping the poor get insurance; the bishops attacked the legislation as favoring abortion and forcing coverage of contraception. Campbell, who became an overnight sensation after speaking at the Democratic Convention, says Network labored in obscurity for years until the health care debate raised the bishops’ ire.
“What we saw with Nuns on the Bus is a huge hunger for a deeper spiritual reality that does like Jesus does, walk with people who are suffering,” says Campbell.
Over the last two decades, as the bishops sank into a quagmire of clergy abuse cases, the nuns maintained and perhaps even intensified their focus on a social justice mission all over the world.
Sisters like Pat Farrell returned from El Salvador to help immigrants in the Midwest, and as a therapist with people who had been tortured before fleeing Central America. In Cleveland, Chris Schenk worked with parishioners who reversed a bishop’s closure orders for their parishes with appeals to the Vatican. And the Holy Wisdom sisters left the church by staying put, following a more radical, egalitarian idea of the spiritual life. Countless other women of the sister’s liberal mainstream went about their work, following the vision of Vatican II that had changed their lives, and living a resistance to the retrenchment by the hierarchy that sought to reverse the reforms ushered in by Vatican II.
“The bishops sitting in the US have on average only five years of pastoral experience,” says Simone Campbell. “They don’t know what it is to enter into people’s lives in heartbreaking situations. And when your heart hasn’t been broken you can be pretty rigid in thinking rules can’t be broken.”