Vatican scolds Catholic nuns’ group for deviating from doctrine


A group that represents the majority of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States has been chastised by the Vatican for deviating from church doctrine and promoting what the Holy See called “radical feminist themes.”

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious said Thursday it would consult with its members to decide on a course of action after the church’s three-year investigation resulted in the harsh assessment of its activities and a call for reform.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the enforcer of orthodoxy — 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.”

DOCUMENT: Doctrinal Assessment

The Vatican also said 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.

“We are so shocked by this action that we’re still putting our thoughts together,” said Stephanie Niedringhaus, spokeswoman for Network, a social justice lobby formed by nuns, and part of the conference. “We never expected this and we are deeply grieved for the tens of thousands of sisters who dedicate themselves to social justice work.”

The conference, based in Silver Spring, Md., is an umbrella organization for other groups composed of Catholic nuns. The conference says it has more than 1,500 members representing more than 80% of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. The group represents the majority of nuns who work in education, healthcare, religious education and social services.

Network gained notoriety in recent years when it supported the Obama administration’s sweeping healthcare bill. TheU.S. Conference of Catholic Bishopsvehemently opposed it.

The conference has opposed male-only ordination, a fact noted in the Vatican’s assessment.

The Vatican investigation began in 2008. Some nuns and their backers described it as an attempt to reign in their communities, which often provide key social services in schools and hospitals — often at salaries below what the nonreligious earn.

“I think it’s a [public relations] problem for the church to send a man to tell a group of women who have dedicated their lives to this kind of work to tell them to get in line,” said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has written about politics and religion.

The sisters’ ministries run the gamut, Niedringhaus said. The ministries themselves might not specifically focus on Catholic doctrine, but “what links them together is that they’re all Catholic sisters.”

The Vatican designated Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee changes in the group, “in order to implement a process of review and conformity to the teachings and discipline of the church.” The conference has up to five years to meet the Vatican’s requirements. It did not specify what might happen if the conference failed to comply.

The conference spokeswoman, Sister Annmarie Sanders, said the group’s presidents planned to meet with the board “for a wider consultation with its membership before making any decisions so they will be speaking and acting as a unified body.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is led by American Cardinal William Levada, formerly the archbishop of San Francisco. The position was previously held by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Aside from leveling criticism, the church recognized the sisters’ work in communities, including “schools, hospitals and institutions in support of the poor.”

That provided little solace, however. Niedringhaus deemed the report “so unfair and so unnecessary,” but she said Network and the conference believe in dialogue and want to work with church leaders on a solution.