The Vatican ended its controversial takeover and investigation of U.S. nuns on Thursday, marking a quiet conclusion to a boisterous battle between the Holy See and the main umbrella group of American nuns.
A report noting the end of the Vatican’s years-long takeover described a collaborative relationship and conversations “marked by a spirit of prayer, love for the church, mutual respect, and cooperation.”
It was a sharp contrast to the Roman Catholic Church’s accusations that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious deviated from church doctrine and promoted “radical” feminist themes.
In 2012, 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.
The Vatican said in 2012 that although the conference 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 eight-page document stunned affiliates and the conference, which oversees and acts as a support system for nuns in leadership roles. The LCWR represents 80% of the 50,000 nuns in the U.S.
Rome’s enforcer of orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also criticized the nuns 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 nuns’ emphasis on social justice, however, falls in line with Pope Francis’ emphasis on austerity and serving the poor. After their censure, some sisters staged a cross-country road tour — Nuns on the Bus — to draw attention to their focus. They were often greeted by cheering crowds.
Francis assumed the papacy in 2013 after the investigation into the conference had already been launched. Although Francis has not rejected church teachings on abortion or same-sex marriage, he has said the church sometimes focused narrowly on those issues. But a month after he took office, Francis “reaffirmed the findings” of the investigation that led to the conference’s censure, as well as the program of reform, according to the Vatican.
On Thursday, during an annual visit to Vatican offices, a delegation from the conference had a 50-minute meeting with the pope.
The president of the conference, Sister Sharon Holland, said in a statement that the investigation had led to “long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice.”
She added: “We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
Said LCWR officials in a separate statement: “We were also deeply heartened by Pope Francis’ expression of appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through our lives and ministry and will bring that message back to our members.”
Thursday’s report, issued jointly, did not detail the extent of any revisions to the nuns’ statutes but did say “measures are being taken” to ensure the group’s publications “avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.”
It also noted the Holy See’s expectations in the selection of programs and speakers at general assemblies and other LCWR-sponsored events.
“When exploring contemporary issues, particularly those which, while not explicitly theological nevertheless touch upon faith and morals, LCWR expects speakers and presenters to have due regard for the church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues,” the report said.
Mary E. Hunt, cofounder of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said she was alarmed by some of the report’s language.
“‘Measures are being taken’ … that’s an enormous red flag. Who’s taking the measures?” Hunt said. “When you see passive voice without any clarification, that’s alarming. I’m pleased to see there’s an end to this chapter, but I think it would be a mistake to say they’ve come away with anything new.”
The Vatican hasn’t made any structural changes that would give the conference greater influence in church affairs, she said.
“A cursory read is that the nuns won,” Hunt said. “The correct analysis is that this particular incident has been resolved.”
Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seemed intent on moving past the controversy. He called the sisters “essential for the flourishing of religious life in the church.”
When the Vatican investigation began in 2008, some nuns and their backers described it as an attempt to rein in their communities, which often provide social services in schools and hospitals — often at salaries below what the nonreligious earn.