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Pope Francis extends olive branch to American nuns, but only so far

Pope Francis got an enthusiastic response from nuns Thursday at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

Pope Francis got an enthusiastic response from nuns Thursday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

(Tony Gentile / Pool Photo)

Standing before 3,000 worshipers in the pews of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Pope Francis gave women religious a shout-out.

“To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say thank you, a big thank you … and to tell you that I love you very much,” he said.

The remarks Thursday extended an olive branch to nuns who have felt in recent years that the Vatican was questioning their efforts to serve those on the margins.

Years of tension between the Holy See and American nuns came to a head in 2012, when the Vatican, then led by Pope Benedict XVI, accused the group representing 80% of American nuns of deviating from church doctrine and promoting radical feminist themes.

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A document that laid out charges against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and made the case for putting a bishop in charge of overseeing the group and rewriting its statutes said the conference was vocal on social justice issues but had failed to speak out enough on other church concerns, such as opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

The controversy triggered a cross-country protest known as Nuns on the Bus.

“American Catholics didn’t really get behind the Vatican here,” said Margaret McGuinness, who has written a book on the history of American nuns and is a professor of American Catholic History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Why are we going after a group of women in their 70s who live and work with the dispossessed?”

A 2012 Pew study found that 50% of U.S. Roman Catholics were very satisfied with nuns’ leadership and that 33% were “somewhat satisfied.”

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The fight between nuns and the Vatican highlighted the changing role of women in the church. At their peak, in 1965, there were 180,000 American nuns. By last year their numbers had fallen to 50,000.

In New York, Pope Francis called nuns “women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel.”

“What would the church be without you?” he asked.

A roar of applause echoed through the 136-year-old cathedral. Thousands rose to their feet.

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Earlier, in Washington, the pontiff made an unscheduled visit to a group of nuns who have been fighting a federal health insurance requirement to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

The pope’s visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor on Wednesday was “a sign of support for them” in their legal fight, said Father Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, at a televised news conference.

But Francis is hardly talking about radical change in women’s roles. Although he said in 2013 that women “are more important than bishops and priests,” he also said women would never be ordained because Pope John Paul II had expressly forbidden it.

“That door is closed,” Francis told reporters on a flight from Brazil to Rome.

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It was a blow not only to nuns, who have suffered declines in vocations and decreased institutional support, but to laywomen whose leadership has sustained parishes that lack full-time priests.

“I think it’s pretty obvious” that women are as smart as men, said Sister Clare Tjader, who has spent nearly 60 years as a nun.

She links the dispute to the debate that has rankled the church since the Vatican II conference in the 1960s, which called for modernizing certain aspects of the church, including an increased role for laypeople and women.

Like others on the liberal side of the spectrum, Tjader speaks positively about how Francis is “putting the right accent” on the church’s teaching — not changing doctrine but emphasizing “God’s love and desire to save.”

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She believes many people who have left the church grew up under a culture that emphasized the church’s laws as “controlling” rather than “liberating.”

“It’s not meant to crush people and control them,” she said, “but to lead them and to guide them.”

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

noah.bierman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.


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