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The Vatican, American Nuns and southern-Italian Americana

The Vatican, American Nuns and southern-Italian Americana

Tom Verso (June 20, 2012)

No single institution is more closely associated with the history and culture of Italians south of Rome and west of Ellis Island than the Catholic Church. Christianity born in the Middle East came to Europe through the proletarian and slave populations of southern Italy and Sicily. For two thousand years since, the Catholic Church has been the common cultural thread uniting southern Italians. While dialects, economics, politics, music, art, foods, etc. vary dramatically; across southern Italy and Sicily, from the mountains of Abruzzo to the shores of Marsala, from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea, virtually all the people south of Rome and their progeny in American shared one common cultural motif – Catholicism. Accordingly, when major social issues involving the Church arise, such as the current schism between some American Nuns and the Vatican, southern-Italians should be factually informed and reflective; for such schisms are more than theological, they are manifestations of the evolution of southern Italian culture.


Saints and the “Intercession of Saints”

The pervasiveness and depth of Catholic penetration in the culture of southern Italy is most obviously manifested in the concept of “Saintly Intercession”; i.e. the “belief” that Catholic Saints in heaven have the capacity to intercede with God on behalf of the praying petitioner on earth. 
I can think of no single cultural characteristic shared invariably by all sub-cultures south of Rome other than the belief in the Intercession of Catholic Saints in human affairs. Virtually all the communities south of Rome had one or more patron Catholic Saints such as Naples’ San Gennaro, Palermo’s Saint Rosalia (La Santuzza) etc; also, there are saints that span all communities such as the Blessed Mary, Saint Anthony etc. 
Indeed, the profound adoration of the twentieth century southern Italian Saint Padre Pio both in Italy and many southern-Italian American communities today, suggest that the concept of Catholic Saintly Intercession is still a significant component of southern Italian culture. Also, the many statues of Saints that can be found from the fields of southern Italy to the Italian neighborhoods in American is indicative of the deeps of the belief in Saintly Intercession.
This pervasive belief in the intercession of Catholic Saints is indicative of the profound role that the Catholic Church plays in the history and culture of southern Italy and southern Italian Americana.  Accordingly, when profound schismatic issues arise within the body of the Church and between the Church and the broader society, such as the current conflict between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), southern Italian Americans should be especially interested.
Schisms – Religious and Cultural
Of course all Catholics have a vest interest in theological schism, in as much as such schisms represents a challenge to the prevailing teachings of the Church.  The resolution of the schism determines what the Church teaches; i.e. Catholic beliefs and practices.
However, as argued above, for southern Italians the teachings of the Catholic Church are not solely theological.  The teachings are not only about religious beliefs and behavior; the teachings have historically virtually defined the culture of Italians south of Rome and in America.
For example, many if not all Christian sects believe in the very special holiness of Jesus’ mother Mary.  However, I do not know of any that raise Her to the level of adoration that southern Italians historically have; consider for example the number of Madonna statures not only in churches but in residential yards, and the number of women who are named Mary or some variation of the name.
Accordingly, for southern Italians, when Catholic schismatic issues arise there is a twofold consideration to be given: theological and cultural.  This is to say: a challenge or change in theological teachings calls into question cultural traditions. 
For example (albeit relatively trivial not rising to the level of schism nevertheless instructive in its simplicity) the changes made in the post 1969 calendar of Saints. In 1969, the Church evaluated many saints to see if there was historical evidence that a saint existed and lived a life of holiness, and found that there was little proof that many "saints", including some very popular ones, like St. Christopher (the patron saint of travel) either never lived or qualified for sainthood. Given the penetration of the St. Christopher ‘legend’ in popular Catholic culture as manifested by the many medals, car fixtures, etc, removal of Christopher from the calendar of saints was not simply a theological change it was a cultural change as well.
Currently, there has developed a very significant schism in the American Catholic Church between some American Nuns and the Vatican. Given the historical and profound role that Nuns have played in the culture of southern Italians, this schism is not to be taken lightly by Americans of southern-Italian Americans.
The Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)
Mass media reporting on the conflict between the Vatican and the LCWR must be taken with “a grain of salt”.  
The role of Nuns in southern Italian culture is nothing less than profound.  Even today there are many southern-Italian Americans who were educated in Little Italy Catholic Schools by the Nuns.
In 1938 Bishop Kearney of the Rochester, NY diocese said:
“Catholic Schools are the products of two charities: the parishioners who donate money to build and operate the schools and the Nuns who donate their lives to teaching in the schools.”
When southern-Italian Americans hear about the schism between American Nuns and the Vatican, it is an especially grievous pain and cause of confusion.  Accordingly, it is incumbent upon us to be well informed about the particulars to the divisive issues.  Out of respect for the love we have for both Nuns and the Church, we cannot allow ourselves to be influenced by mass media representations that are designed to affect public opinion rather than understand the truth of Church teachings. 
Nor is mass media representations meant to help resolve the conflict consistent with our Catholic beliefs and love of both the Nuns and the Church.
The Schism
According to the LCWR website, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious:
“is an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. The conference has more than 1500 members, who represent more than 80 percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States.” (see:
On April 18, 2012 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released the results of a four-year Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). (see:
The Vatican’s website states, regarding the “duty”of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
“according to Article 48 of the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, "Pastor Bonus", promulgated by the Holy Father John Paul II on June 28, 1988, «the duty proper to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world: for this reason everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence.» (emp.+, see:
In accordance with its Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia mandated duty”, the CDF undertook its above stated four-year “Assessment” of, and submitted the “Assessment” to, the LCWR on 4/18/12.
Along with the “Assessment”, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation, provided a cover letter in which he stated:
“The findings of the doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) released today by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors in order to provide a stronger doctrinal foundation for its many laudable initiatives and activities...
“The overarching aim of the doctrinal Assessment is, therefore, to assist the LCWR in the United States in implementing an ecclesiology of communion, confident that “the joyous rediscovery of faith can also contribute to consolidate the unity and communion among the different bodies that make up the wider family of the Church.
Most importantly, the purpose of the “Assessment”, clearly in all the language associated with it, is Not condemnation! - as mass media would have us believe. Rather, the purpose of the “Assessment” is reconciliation!
After four-years of detail meticulous study by some of the most highly qualified clerics knowledgeable in the 2,000-year history and tradition of Sacred Theology and Cannon Law, legitimate concerns have been raised about the docternal practices of the LCWR.
Clearly, such a technical theological / cannon law study is not the type of thing that lay Catholics generally can meaningfully discuss and debate.  However, to my mind Bishop Leonard Blair, “cutting to the chase” succinctly summed up the essence of the problem that the Vatican has with some American Nuns in the LCWR.
He said:
“What are the Church’s pastors to make of the fact that the LCWR constantly provides a one-sided platform—without challenge or any opposing view—to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office?” (see: (see:
In short, there cannot be a difference (indeed blatant contraction) between what Bishops, Pastors and Parish Priests are preaching and what members of Religious orders (be they Nuns or Priests) are teaching or promoting
Schisms are Insidious and Destructive
Consider the consequences of allowing individual Catholic orders or individuals to preach and promote their respective subjective ephemeral sociologically conditioned ideals. Bishops are teaching one thing, the American Sisters of Saint Joseph another, the Jesuits another, etc. Further, Catholic Orders and individuals in other countries teaching in accordance with prevailing views conditioned by their own social history in the Philippines, Mexico, etc.
Keep in mind; the Protestant Reformation began with one dissenter – Martin Luther.  Today, who can count the number of Protestant sects? A single schism is like cellular mitosis; once the division begins, it goes on infinitely. A single schism in the Body of the Catholic Church could ultimately lead the destruction of the Church founded by Saint Peter at the behest of Christ Himself.
In Sum
The Church must speak in One Voice or else the laity will be confused and disillusioned, and the Church will fragment into many sects.  For 2,000 years that One Voice has been that of the Bishops of the Church (i.e. the Shepherds); and most especially the Bishop of Rome – The Pope.    

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The doctrine of the Church

The doctrine of the Church has to be ONE. But the administration or hierarchy has to be changed. I agree with D. Clemente Isnard, Brazilian Bishop who died last August at age 94, that the institutional Catholic Church needs a reform, ordaining women and making celibacy optional for diocesan priests. If the Church really wants to be missionary, it will need more clergy. The number of religious women is two times the number of priests around the world, then why not ordain some nuns to help in the process. The hierarchy of the Church is organized as it was in the Middle Age. As we moved on to Modern Age the role of women in the society also changed therefore the involvement of women in the hierarchy of Church should take place to accommodate this change. Congratulations to LCWR! GO NUNS GO!

I wholeheartedly agree! We

I wholeheartedly agree! We have always known nuns to be the backbone of the church, while rarely being recognized by the Church hierarchy for their vital work in the education, health care and social work. They are in the trenches with the most vulnerable.