Vatican extends olive branch to US nuns in conciliatory report

Church softens stance in results of a 2008 investigation into alleged secular, feminist mindset of sisters

The Vatican gave its backing Tuesday to activist nuns in the United States, in a apparent retreat from antipathy from some in the Church towards what they claimed to be anti-doctrine leanings. The more conciliatory tone towards U.S. sisters is in line with the policies of reform-minded Pope Francis, who has won plaudits for dragging the Church away from its conservative stance.

The supportive line came in the findings of a investigation into accusations from Vatican bishops that some female members had strayed too far from doctrine and adopted a secular, feminist mindset in their work. They alleged the women had become too involved in politics while fighting for the rights of the oppressed.

This report steered clear from endorsing that criticism and controversy, noting that women had “courageously been in the forefront” of the Church’s evangelical mission while “selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalized.”

The inquiry — or Apostolic Visitation — began during the papacy of former Pope Benedict and involved surveying 341 religious orders and about 50,000 nuns. The visitation teams conducted more than 90 on-site visits throughout the U.S., according to a statement of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR), a group representing 80 percent of U.S. nuns.

Sister Sharon Holland, president of the LCWR, which has come under a separate investigation by the Vatican for promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith," told a news conference that while many sisters at the time reacted with "apprehension and suspicion," the final report had "an encouraging and realistic tone."

The tone is in line with the leadership of Pope Francis, which emphasizes a reorienting of the Church toward supporting grassroots activism as a means of combating social ills, such as homelessness and inequality.

Despite a more liberal stance, Pope Francis still reaffirmed his predecessor’s admonishment of the LCWR nuns last year.

But he has refrained from pursuing a similar stance on women’s involvement in the Church, and promised to appoint women in decision-making positions at the Vatican.

His positive comments about women’s pastoral work have garnered the praise of community leaders and set the tone for further reconciliatory steps, according to Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network and leader of the Nuns on the Bus campaign, which rallies for various social justice issues.

“It is a good step forward, it’s a sign of Pope Frances’ leadership and it’s very affirming of the life of women religious in the U.S.,” she said.

While the report cast an overall positive judgment on the women’s activities and mission, it did, however, caution U.S. nuns to “review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching.” It also asked the nuns to ensure that new conscripts receive "solid theological, human, cultural, spiritual and pastoral preparation."

The contentious question of women’s ordination and increased decision-making authority in the Church remained unaddressed, but Campbell noted that the report made tentative steps toward establishing a dialogue with bishops on strengthening women’s position — an ongoing debate between proponents of a more egalitarian institution, and its detractors, who hold fast to doctrine and what activists say are misogynist traditions.

“We have to move to respect first,” Campbell said. “That’s what is happening here.”

The investigation was conducted separately from the doctrinal crackdown on the LCWR ordered in 2012 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith after allegations the group took positions that undermined church teachings. The inquiry remains ongoing, but might end sooner than expected, the LCWR’s Holland said.

"We're moving toward resolution of that," she told a news conference.

The report also noted that the vocation has lost popularity in recent years: only 50,000 nuns now make up women’s congregations compared to about 125,000 in the mid 1960s. Their age, dwindling finances and significant involvement in U.S. pastoral life, which has frequently gone unrecognized, added to the urgency of the appreciative judgment of the report, which noted that it could offer “an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust.”

With wire services

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