A U.S. nuns group rebuked by the Vatican said recently it would hold talks with the bishops appointed to overhaul the organization but would not “compromise its mission.”
Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, called a Vatican assessment charging the sisters with tolerating dissent a “misrepresentation.” But she said the more than 900 women who attended the group’s national assembly this week decided they would stay open to discussion for now with three bishops the Vatican appointed to oversee them.
“The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible but will reconsider of LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission,” Farrell said at a news conference, where she declined to discuss specifics.
The organization represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 Roman Catholic nuns in the U.S.
The St. Louis meeting was the group’s first national gathering since a Vatican review concluded the sisters had “serious doctrinal problems” and promoted “certain radical feminist themes” that undermine Catholic teaching on all-male priesthood, birth control and homosexuality. The nuns also were accused of remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion.
Farrell acknowledged the nuns’ plan going forward was vague, but noted the process was to last five years and had only just started. The board is expected to meet soon with Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, who will be in charge of the overhaul.
“Dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point,” Farrell said. “Our starting point will be about our own life and about our understanding of religious life, and the (Vatican) document’s, in our view, misrepresentation of that, and we’ll see how it unfolds from there.”
The Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, undertook the assessment in 2008, following years of complaints from theological conservatives that the American nuns’ group had become secular and political while abandoning traditional faith.
The critique, issued in April, prompted a nationwide outpouring of support for the sisters, including parish vigils, protests outside the Vatican embassy in Washington and a congressional resolution commending the sisters for their service to the country.
After the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles as they sought to more fully engage the modern world. The nuns said prayer and Christ remained central to their work as they focused increasingly on Catholic social justice teaching, such as fighting poverty and advocating for civil rights.
Vatican investigators have praised the nuns’ humanitarian work, but said the conference had “serious doctrinal problems.” Sartain has been appointed to oversee a full-scale reform of the conference, including rewriting the groups’ statutes, reviewing its plans and programs, approving assembly speakers and ensuring the group properly follows Catholic ritual.
One part of the Vatican censure focused on the speakers the nuns selected for their annual meetings. The keynote address this year was from a woman who described herself as a futurist who leads a movement called “conscious evolution.”
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who oversaw the Vatican doctrinal review, has said “there’s been a lot of just denial” by the conference about its problems. In a recent radio interview on National Public Radio, he said there was no “middle ground” on core church teaching.