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Investigation of U.S. nuns ends with olive branch

By David Gibson
©2015 Religion News Service



ROME (RNS) — The Vatican on April 16 officially ended a controversial seven-year investigation of American nuns with a face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes that he inherited from his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

“We are pleased at the completion of the (investigation), which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice,” said Sister Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group of nuns that had been under investigation, in a statement released after a meeting in Rome with the Vatican’s top doctrinal officials.

“We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”

A brief statement from Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and leader of the effort to rein in the nuns, who were seen as too liberal, shed little light on what the long-running investigation achieved and seemed aimed at moving past the contentious saga.

Mueller said he was confident that the mission of the nuns “is rooted in the Tradition of the church” and that they are “essential for the flourishing of religious life in the church.”

The original report, issued almost exactly three years ago, had accused the nuns of promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

In another indicator of the thaw in relations, the delegation of American nuns met later Thursday with Francis for 50 minutes in a warm encounter that seemed to underscore the sisters’ affinity for the pope’s focus on social justice and his pastoral outreach to the world.

“Our conversation allowed us to personally thank Pope Francis for providing leadership and a vision that has captivated our hearts and emboldened us as in our own mission and service to the church,” the nuns said in a statement.

“We were also deeply heartened by Pope Francis’ expression of appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through our lives and ministry and will bring that message back to our members.”

Both the nuns and Mueller’s office agreed not to speak further to the media for the next month, and the joint statement and two-page final report issued Thursday seemed to represent a quiet and merciful end to what had been a noisy showdown between Rome and the nuns — and one the Vatican never seemed likely to win.

The investigation of the LCWR, a network of 1,500 Catholic sisters that represents about 80 per cent of the 50,000 nuns in the U.S., began quietly in 2008 but had been a serious public relations headache for Rome since April 2012.

That’s when the Vatican’s doctrinal office surprised the nuns — and the American hierarchy — by publishing a harsh assessment of the LCWR and announcing plans to effectively take over the group and institute a sweeping overhaul.

Mueller’s office charged that the American sisters were straying too far from traditional doctrines in the theological speculations of some members and said the sisters were focusing too much on social justice issues, such as caring for the poor and advocating for immigrants. The CDF was also upset that many sisters were active in promoting health care reform in the U.S.

The Vatican office also said the LCWR members should spend more time advancing church teachings on sexuality and abortion.

Mueller’s office — which Benedict had led for a quarter century before he was elected pope in 2005 — charged three U.S. bishops with overseeing a reform of the LCWR and gave the prelates a final say over many of the group’s activities.

The sisters rejected those charges, calling them “unsubstantiated,” and the report sparked a furor in the U.S. and an outpouring of support for the nuns. The controversy was yet another crisis that dogged the final year of Benedict’s troubled papacy.

Many U.S. bishops were also frustrated at having to answer for a Vatican investigation they had nothing to do with and often disagreed with.

When Francis was elected two years ago, it was widely expected that he would try to wind down the investigation, and he signalled that he did not want to waste much effort on such internal disputes.

“Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing. . . . But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward,” he told a visiting group of nuns and priests from Latin America three months after he was elected.

A separate and broader Vatican review of women’s religious orders in the U.S. ended last December with a positive report and an almost effusive exchange of praise between representatives of the American nuns and Vatican officials from a different Vatican office.

That investigation had been launched in 2008 by a conservative Vatican churchman, Cardinal Franc Rode, who said he was troubled by reports he had received from U.S. church sources claiming that a “secularist mentality” and a “feminist spirit” had affected the U.S. nuns.

Rode was later replaced by Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil, a more progressive churchman and a strong supporter of Francis’ more conciliatory approach. Braz shepherded that review to a more harmonious conclusion.

But Mueller, also a holdover from Benedict’s papacy, is seen as much more of a hard-liner and seemed determined to take a tougher approach. Just last September, Mueller renewed his criticism of the LCWR and sought to downplay the size and importance of the group.

The nuns took a more low-key approach, expressing a willingness to discuss the outstanding issues with the Vatican while defending their priorities and commitment to social justice and the kind of theological inquiry that riled conservatives. They also made it clear they might drop their official Vatican affiliation rather than agree to unacceptable limits on their autonomy.

The final report issued April 16 indicated that the nuns acceded to some oversight of their publications and choice of speakers for their annual conference to ensure doctrinal orthodoxy, and both sides agreed to a new set of statutes for the LCWR.

Both sides also reaffirmed a commitment to maintaining unity and keeping the faith and spiritual practices of the Catholic Church at the heart of their common mission.

How implementing those recommendations will play out in the coming years is somewhat unclear, but the report seems to make it clear that both sides are eager to put the episode behind them.

Timeline: long and contentious duel between Rome and American nuns

The long and often contentious duel between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious came to an abrupt end on April 16; the probe of the umbrella group that represents most of the nation’s 50,000 nuns concluded with an amicable resolution that avoided serious sanctions for the sisters. Here’s how the dispute played out:

April 2008: The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taps Bishop Leonard Blair, then head of the Diocese of Toledo in Ohio, to carry out a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR.

December 2008: The Vatican’s office that oversees religious orders — the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life — launches a parallel review of all women’s orders in the U.S. because of reports about “a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist spirit.’ ”

July 2010: Blair submits his eight-page initial assessment of the LCWR to the Vatican.

April 2012: The CDF announces a surprise crackdown on the LCWR, accusing the group of allowing views that have “serious theological, even doctrinal errors,” and conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

April 2012: The Vatican appoints Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, along with Blair and Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., to directly oversee an overhaul of the LCWR that would give the hierarchy the final say on the sisters’ statutes, speakers and published materials.

June 2012: After consulting the membership, the LCWR leadership responds by saying that the Vatican crackdown was based on “unsubstantiated” allegations and caused “scandal and pain” in the church. A week later, LCWR leaders meet with top Vatican doctrinal officials in Rome in what is called an atmosphere of “openness and cordiality.”

August 2012: After Blair accuses the sisters of “a lot of just denial” about the concerns, LCWR delegates vote to reject Rome’s plans to recast the group in a more conservative mold, but they decline an ultimatum that could have created an unprecedented schism between the sisters and the hierarchy.

April 2013: Pope Francis, a month after his election, orders the Vatican investigation to continue. Though not entirely unexpected, the decision raises questions about where the probe is headed under the new pontiff.

June 2013: The pope tells a group of nuns and priests from Latin America not to worry if they find themselves under scrutiny: “Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing,” the pope said. “But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”

May 2014: Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the CDF, delivers what he calls a “blunt” talk at the Vatican to the LCWR leaders, telling them they have been thumbing their nose at Rome’s demands to toe the doctrinal line and they need to obey or face serious consequences. The Vatican needs “more substantive signs of collaboration,” he said. In response, the LCWR says, “We do not recognize ourselves in the doctrinal assessment . . . and realize that, despite that fact, our attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings.”

August 2014: The LCWR gives its annual award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a popular theologian whose book on God was sharply criticized by a committee of U.S. bishops for alleged doctrinal failings. Johnson blasts the Vatican probe, saying “the waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable.” She receives a standing ovation from the sisters.

September 2014: Mueller renews his criticisms, downplaying the LCWR’s size and importance and defending the investigation. “We have to clarify that we are not misogynists, we don’t want to gobble up a woman a day!”

December 2014: The parallel Vatican review of women’s orders in the U.S., launched in 2008, concludes with a report designed to bury the differences and celebrate the sisters’ contributions to the Roman Catholic Church. That outcome is seen as a possible sign of things to come with the LCWR.

April 2015: The Vatican concludes its investigation of the LCWR without major sanctions, in what looks like a face-saving compromise. — David Gibson, Religion News Service

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