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Nuns' group receives Freedom in the Church award

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - If you see a Catholic nun this week — serving turkey dinners at a homeless shelter, working with immigrants preparing to be sworn in as U.S. citizens or directing children in a Thanksgiving play — you might want to congratulate her on her Herbert Haag Prize for 2013 for Freedom in the Church.

In a news release Monday, the Swiss foundation said, "With great respect, the Herbert Haag Foundation honors the LCWR, its nearly 1,500 member organizations, and the 10 thousands of dedicated women religious for their candid stance in this crisis, for their persistent loyalty to the Christian message and for the spiritual energy with which they carry the conflict."


The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is made up of the elected leaders of 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. Catholic sisters. The group met in St. Louis in August amid accusations that it was not in step with Vatican teachings.

In the spring, the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after an investigation into allegations that the leadership group had "grave shortcomings" in doctrine in the organization’s annual meetings, issued a mandate to reform. That's called a Doctrinal Assessment. It accused LCWR of positions on abortion, the ordination of women, feminism and homosexuality that deviate from Catholic teachings.

The nuns in this organization and tens of thousands of lay Catholics were up in arms. Just on the abortion issue, Sister Patricia Farrell, the Franciscan sister who led the group, said every one of the sisters' members' orders or congregations has sisters assisting women with troubled pregnancy with housing, education, legal matters and help with adoption referral.

Still, a committee of three U.S. bishops, under the leadership of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, has been charged by the Vatican of seeing that the nuns are not leaning into heresy. In the coming five years, the three bishops, including Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., can intervene in all the proceedings of LCWR, formulate new statutes, and censor publications, future activities, and statements.

In a private June meeting with Cardinal William J. Levada, head of the congregation, and Sartain at the Vatican, the leadership group claimed the Vatican criticism was unfounded. Farrell and LCWR Executive Director Sister Janet Mock, a sister of St. Joseph, said that the accusations of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are "without any substantial foundation" and are the result of an unsatisfactory investigation process that lacks transparency. The Vatican was asked but was not able to prove any of the accusations in official documents to the leaders, Farrell said.

The intervention of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is looked upon as a scandal by many Catholics, especially in the United States, a response that has found enormous echo in the general public, the award citation said.

The Herbert Haag Foundation said it wished to give weight in Europe to the strong voice of these women, giving encouragement to those resigned to silence, those announcing the honor said.

The prize for Freedom in the Church was endowed by Herbert Haag who died in 2001 and was professor for Old Testament at the University of Tubingen, in Germany.

Beyond the award news, the American overseers are reporting to a new person at the Vatican. Levada, the American cardinal who started the investigation, retired in July. His replacement as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller who is 64. Until July he was bishop of Regensburg, Germany. He is known to be a good friend of the pope, whose older brother, Father Georg Ratzinger, was music director of that Regensburg Cathedral's choir. In another connection, one of the four principals of the awarding foundation Sabine Demel, a professor at Regensburg University.

The foundation seeks people and institutions that engage in the spirit of the apostle Paul for freedom in the church and in doing so give witness to the world, according the foundation's mission statement.

The American sisters are being citied for the award because "their struggle for the marginalized and people in difficult circumstances, their presence to the needs of today’s world, and their careful reflection of the signs of the times in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, have made them a pillar of the Catholic Church in the United States," the foundation announcement said.

Farrell, who led the St. Louis meeting, will accept the award on April 14, 2013, at the Hotel Schweizerhof in Lucerne, Switzerland.