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The largest organisation of US Catholic nuns on Friday rejected a Vatican assessment that it had fallen under the sway of radical feminism and needed to hand control of the group over to a trio of bishops.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose members represent about 80 per cent of nuns in the US, issued a statement calling the Vatican’s rebuke “unsubstantiated” and “the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency”.
The nuns said the Vatican’s report has “caused scandal and pain throughout the Church community and created greater polarisation.”
Tensions between US nuns and Church authorities, both in Rome and in the US, have been simmering for decades as nuns have taken an increasingly independent and outspoken role in politics and social outreach.
The Leadership Conference has aired frank discussions of issues that deeply discomfit the Vatican, from ministry to gays and lesbians to the patriarchy of Church culture. Some nuns have made public calls for the Church to relax its stance against contraception; others have worked to ordain women as priests, in ceremonies the Vatican does not recognise as valid.
The Vatican also complained that the nuns had focused most of their attention on social justice issues, such as poverty, and had not spent enough time promoting the Church’s view on divisive political questions such as abortion and gay marriage.
To bring the sisters into line, the Vatican announced earlier this spring that it would put the Leadership Conference under the control in effect of a trio of bishops, who would have the power to rewrite its statutes, its meeting agendas and even its liturgical texts.
In their response on Friday, announced after three days of discussion and prayer in Washington, the conference board called the punishment “disproportionate” and said it “could compromise their ability to fulfil their mission”.
The nuns have drawn strong public support in the US since the Vatican made its move to rein them in. In the past few weeks Catholics have organised vigils outside churches from Anchorage, Alaska, to Lady Lake, Florida, and in big cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, as well as outside the offices of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
Knots of demonstrators pray, sing and give thanks for nuns. More than 50,000 have signed an online petition asking the Vatican to withdraw its order.
The Leadership Conference cited that support in its tough response to the Vatican, saying the board “believes that the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world”. Pat Farrell, the Leadership Conference president, and Janet Mock, the group’s executive director, said they would fly to Rome in little over a week to meet Cardinal William Levada and the US bishop assigned to reform their group, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle.
That meeting is scheduled to take place one day before US bishops gather in Atlanta for wide-ranging discussions on issues from clergy sex abuse to the federal mandate that all health insurance plans cover contraception.
Following their discussions in Rome, the nuns will convene a national convention in St Louis in August to further shape their response to the Vatican.
“This response shows Catholic sisters are not backing down from their social justice mission and are handling a troubling situation with great dignity,” said John Gehring, the Catholic programme director for Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group.
But Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said a decline in women’s religious communities in the US showed there had been a “serious problem” under the Leadership Conference’s watch.
“I am glad the meeting in Rome will take place, but I hope the sisters are prepared to listen,” Mr Shaw said. “So if the Leadership people don’t accept the Vatican’s analysis of the problem, what is theirs and what are they going to do about it? And does it occur to them that they might need some help?”