NEW YORK — The largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns on Friday broke weeks of near-silence on a stinging Vatican report that they had undermined Roman Catholic teaching, saying the inquiry was “flawed” and based on “unsubstantiated accusations” that were causing pain throughout the church.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious had been considering for six weeks how they should respond to the Vatican findings, which accused them of promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” while failing to emphasize core teaching on abortion. The Vatican ordered a full-scale overhaul of the organization overseen by three American bishops, a decision that has led to an outpouring of support for the nuns nationwide.
After three days of discussion and prayer, the board decided to take their concerns to a meeting June 12 in Rome with the Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The office in Rome is led by an American, Cardinal William Levada.
“Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency,” the group said after a three-day meeting. “Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission.”
The Vatican investigated the group for more than two years and concluded in April that the organization has “serious doctrinal problems,” including taking positions that conflict with the American bishops and undermine Catholic teaching on the all-male priesthood, marriage and homosexuality.
The nuns’ group, along with many sisters who work in health care disagreed with the bishops’ analysis of the law and supported President Barack Obama’s plan. The report praised the group’s social justice work, but said they hadn’t spoken out on abortion and other important teaching.
Vigils and protests defending the sisters have been held nationwide, including in front of the Vatican’s U.S. embassy in Washington, and have coursed through Facebook and Twitter. Last Wednesday in the Cleveland area, more than 650 people attended a rally in support of the nuns at a parish, the Plain-Dealer reported.
“The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization,” the board said.
On Friday, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain said the Holy See and the bishops are “deeply proud of the historic and continuing contribution” of sisters and that he looked forward to speaking with them in Rome.
Separately, the Jesuit magazine America on Friday posted a lengthy article Sartain wrote, affirming the Vatican findings. He said changes were needed because the sisters played such an important role in the church. Training future leaders “requires thorough spiritual, theological and human formation that is firmly grounded in Catholic teaching and tradition,” Sartain wrote.
The archbishop has been given authority to oversee rewriting the statutes of the Leadership Conference, reviewing its plans and programs including approving speakers, and ensuring the group properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual. The conference represents about 57,000 sisters or 80 percent of U.S. nuns.
In a phone interview, the president of the Leadership Conference, Sister Pat Farrell, declined to comment on specifics of the report or go into detail about what the group considers the flaws in the findings. She said the organization would formally respond to the investigation following discussions with members at regional meetings and a national assembly in August.
She said that the Vatican investigation of her group — and the public backlash — reflect how polarized the church has become about what parts of Catholic teaching should be emphasized.
After the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, many sisters embraced Catholic teaching against war and nuclear weapons and for workers’ rights and shed their habits, while serving as hospital administrators, social workers and teachers. Many conservative Catholics have long complained that the sisters have grown too liberal and flout church teaching.
“The mood at the board meeting was one of deep, deep sadness about this document that has come from the Vatican, but there was also a spirit of deep prayer and reflection and sincere searching together,” Farrell said.
Farrell has been a sister for 47 years. She said she was “stunned at the severity” of the reprimand.
“I didn’t think I would ever see anything like this,” Farrell said. “Truthfully, I’m glad my mother is not alive to see this unfolding. She would be heartbroken.”