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Was end of standoff with Vatican a win for U.S. nuns? More of a draw

A 'thaw' has warmed the frosty relationship between U.S. nuns and the Vatican, experts say

After years of vitriol and sour relations, the Vatican and U.S. nuns announced they had developed a collaborative relationship and had engaged in conversations “marked by a spirit of prayer, love for the church, mutual respect and cooperation.”

Relations between the Vatican said the Leadership Conference of Women Religious grew uneasy in 2012 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican’s enforcer of orthodoxy — issued a report saying the nuns had deviated from Roman Catholic Church doctrine and had promoted “radical feminist themes.”

The Vatican sent a bishop to oversee the rewriting of the statutes of the conference, as well as a review of its publications and speakers.

But a new report, issued jointly by the Vatican and the conference on April 16, suggests the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — Cardinal Gerhard Mueller — seemed intent on moving past the controversy. In a statement, Mueller called the sisters “essential for the flourishing of religious life in the church.”

So did the nuns prevail? Or was the report the equivalent of a truce? Here's a look at the some of the questions surrounding the controversy and what lies ahead:

What is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious?

Founded in 1956, the group acts as a support system for nuns in leadership roles. It serves as the umbrella organization for U.S. nuns and sisters, representing more than 80% of the nation’s 51,600 women religious in the country.

What prompted the Vatican’s investigation of the conference?

In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked Bishop Leonard Blair of Ohio to carry out a doctrinal assessment of the conference. Later that year, the Holy See launched a second, parallel investigation looking into all women's orders in the country due to what church leadership called whispers of a “secularist mentality” and “perhaps even a certain feminist spirit.”

Two years later, Blair submitted an eight-page report that stunned affiliates and members of the conference. Things got ugly in 2012. The Vatican said that although the LCWR was vocal on social-justice issues, it had failed to speak out enough on other church concerns, such as opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also criticized the group for “protesting the Holy See's actions regarding the question of women's ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons.”

The investigation called for an overhaul of the conference.

How did nuns react?

The conference said the report was “based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”

The conference and the Vatican exchanged a few more blows last summer. Mueller said the LCWR required reform and didn't do enough to fall in line with church teachings. The sisters said their “attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings.”

Has anything like this happened before?

Experts say the frosty relationship between U.S. nuns and the Vatican dates to the 1970s, when then-LCWR President Theresa Kane addressed Pope John Paul II. During a 1979 speech, Kane called for the ordination of women.

Following the address, Kane said she “sensed the need of some women to articulate their growing concern about being included in all ministries within the church.”

In response, the pope forbade discussing the ordination of women.

Tensions rose again in 1984, after a group of Roman Catholic nuns, priests and theologians posted an ad in the New York Times arguing that abortion can sometimes be a moral choice.

“There were 24 nuns who signed it and the Vatican went after them like crazy,” said Patti Miller, author of “Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church.” “But most of the 24 nuns they pressured recanted. Some literally had meetings with Vatican officials.”

The ad led to an extensive Vatican review of women's and men's religious communities. The Vatican Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes said in a letter that those who signed the ad were “seriously lacking in religious submission of will and mind” to the teaching authority of the church.

The Vatican letter called the nuns' action “the pernicious upholding or spreading” of condemned doctrines, “a flagrant scandal.”

Unless the nuns issued a public retraction, the letter said, the statement would be “sufficient cause for dismissal.”

“That’s the back story of this and why there aren’t a lot of liberal voices in the Vatican now,” Miller said.

Does the end of the investigation into the LCWR mean the nuns won?

Last week’s report signals more of a draw, experts say. The nuns could claim victory because major charges levied against them have been dropped; the Vatican could say it gained the level of oversight it called for years ago.

The Vatican hasn’t made any structural changes that would give the conference greater influence in church affairs, for example. Mary E. Hunt, co-founder of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said that although she didn't expect such changes, the nuns' lack of power is the real problem.

The conference's leadership doesn’t go to meetings or sit down with men as equals to discuss doctrine, Hunt explained.

“While the report indicates a rapprochement, it doesn't indicate structural changes. ... The only way you get to make decisions is if you're ordained,” Hunt said.

Does this signal the start of better relations between Rome and American nuns?

The release of a joint statement — instead of one filed solely by the Vatican — is a step in the right direction, said Anne Braude, director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.

“It has been a pattern in Vatican documents to speak about women as if women are the problem,” Braude said. “The Vatican is not talking about the Leadership Conference. They are speaking with them.”

Miller described the report as a “thaw” in relations. Francis, she said, won't pursue such punitive investigations during his papacy.

“He’s talked about having more women’s voices in the church,” Miller said. Referring to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, she added, “This was a Benedict-era investigation that could not last in the Francis era.”

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