ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) U.S. Catholic nuns — accused by Rome of “radical feminism” for advocating social justice at the expense of issues such as abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia — responded to a Vatican knuckle rapping with a brief, conciliatory statement on Monday (Aug. 19).

After its four-day annual assembly, the board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of the nation’s 57,000 sisters, emphasized the positive, and remained tight-lipped about negotiations to resolve the investigation.

Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, LCWR's apostolic delegate, is seen at the group's annual assembly Aug. 13. RNS photo courtesy Joshua J. McElwee/National Catholic Reporter

Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, LCWR’s apostolic delegate, is seen at the group’s annual assembly Aug. 13. RNS photo courtesy Joshua J. McElwee/National Catholic Reporter

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Referring to closed sessions with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, named by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to implement Rome’s “doctrinal assessment,” the sisters said:

“The session with Archbishop Sartain allowed a profound and honest sharing of views. … Although we remain uncertain as to how our work with the bishop delegates will proceed, we maintain hope that continued conversations of this depth will lead to a resolution of this situation that maintains the integrity of LCWR and is healthy for the whole church.”

It’s unclear whether the nuns’ gentle words will be sufficient to turn away the wrath of the church’s hierarchy.

In brief public remarks, Sartain told the nuns he came to the gathering as a “brother and a friend.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said the tone was far less confrontational than in the past.

Things could have been much worse after the meeting, and that clearly didn’t happen,” he said. “From their press release, they’re saying that things improved slightly — which is good news. Because both sides seemed to have listened and understood each other during the meeting.”

Initially, the nuns “didn’t feel that they were treated with respect, as adults,” Reese said. “Now it’s no longer a food fight. They’re talking; they’re having a conversation. It’s like couples counseling. … That’s a big step forward from where they were in 2011.”

The controversy began in April 2011, when, under the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, leaders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR, saying that the Vatican-chartered organization suffered from “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The organization was put under the control of several Vatican appointees, ultimately led by Sartain.

Leaders of the LCWR were shocked by the public humiliation of the initial attack, which included criticism of some convention speeches that were more than 30 years old. Many observers noted that while the women’s orders had been largely untainted, the scandal over the sex abuse of minors by priests had done much to erode the male clergy’s moral authority.

In the wake of the Vatican’s action, there was an outpouring of support from the U.S. laity for the nuns’ work in the trenches as teachers, nurses, caregivers, as well as their tireless work on behalf of migrant workers, immigrants, the homeless, prison inmates, and people with disabilities.

“I’m continually stunned by the enormous support we received,” said Sister Mary Hughes, who served two terms as president of the LCWR. “I don’t think we realized the extent our lives have touched others.”

Even the hierarchy seemed to backpedal. In an August 2012 blogpost, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, proclaimed,  “We Catholics love the sisters!”

After his election, Pope Francis reaffirmed the actions taken against the LCWR.

But the following month, Francis appeared to send a different signal when speaking to Latin American religious orders:

“They will make mistakes, they will make a blunder; this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you such and such a thing. … But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”

Monday’s statement, hammered out after the convention at the Diocese of Orlando’s wooded retreat, was foreshadowed last week by the address of Sister Florence Deacon, the LCWR president, who met with Vatican officials in April. It was titled, “A Delicate Weaving.”

“Because of our experience sharing our gospel ministry with those on the margins, women religious have sometimes been to places the hierarchy could never go, and have seen things they could never see,” said Deacon. “At times our role as women of the gospel results in tension.”

The majority of the sisters, reflecting the demographic of Catholic women religious in the U.S., appeared to be white and middle-aged or older.

At the opening of the assembly, Deacon, who is also superior general of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in St. Francis, Wis., added: “We are women of the church called on to expand perspectives to create a new reality which recognizes women’s identity, ability, mission and responsibility, both in the church and beyond.”



  1. Danny Berry, NYC

    Benedict was foolish enough to believe he could tangle with the American Roman household by trying to smack down the sisters–the sisters whose work is one of the few wholesome witnesses to the Gospel of Christ to be found in the American Roman church. Benedict is not a pastor: he’s a retrograde, doctrinaire, foolish little man whose isolation and countenancing of crimes against minors left him with no moral authority whatever. The new occupant of the Roman see shows promise simply be declining to be heavy-handed. And his approach as implied in the quote above is certainly pastoral. He’s obviously a much smarter man than his predecessor.

    • The Nuts on a Bus are nothing less than apostates. They are social workers who reject Scripture and the authority of the Vatican. No true, decent Catholic would give the slightest credibility to what they say. They have greatly damaged the church for which I believe they will pay dearly.

  2. Benedict is a great theologian and his works on Jesus will renew biblical scholarship. Your petty name calling makes you look stupid. While most of the nuns have done wonderful work, many of their orders have been hijacked by leftist politics and a despair about the church and its views of salvation through Christ. If you look at their orders’ web pages, you can see an undebated acceptance of a new age, environmentlist political viewpoint . Also there is little mention of classical Catholic spirituality or biblical spirituality. I was very involved in a woman’ religious order, and many who still are want Fr Sartain to do something to steer the leadership back. They are mired in the sixties, which is why young people today don’t join.

    • It seems as if you have a problem with left-wing Catholics? lemme just tells you that’s what makes me consider whether I want to remain a Catholic. I love the faith, but arrogant right-wings have a way of putting us down. I’d highly suggest you learn to appreciate those leftists that bring a different point of view to the Church. I’ve honestly been fed up. I disliked Benedict for his negligence towards the poor. Francis, is my only hope now.

  3. To read the article, you’d think that LCWR included all religious orders.
    Not so! Religious orders which are loyal to the teachings of the Church are not members of the LCWR.
    The sisters that I see today teaching in schools and working in the community are wearing a habit and following the guidance of Mother Church. Their orders are bursting at the seams.
    LCWR is aging and dwindling.

  4. I am not reading any mentions of the responses of the LCWR to the specifics of the CDF report. Removing inappropriate materials from their website etc, there are actually several which should be easy to implement. The writer suggests this is actually because the LCWR were tight lipped, no info forthcoming etc. Is this the case, or has any of them announced steps taken to comply with the points in the report?

    Dialog is good when it yields actionable results through understanding, but it is less than worthless when it becomes a procrastination tactic to avoid doing what must be done.

  5. I think the most damaging thing about the CDF investigation is that it opened the door for a small extremist fringe of our Church to freely insult our religious sisters, calling them all kinds of names. It is a disgrace the way this minority has been publicly criticizing our religious sisters; the CDF bears full responsiblity for allowing this shameful behavior.

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