Vatican observers look for thaw between Pope Francis, U.S. nuns

Pope Francis, shown arriving for his weekly audience at the Vatican earlier this month, has reaffirmed the Holy See's censure of a group of U.S. nuns. But he's also made many statements suggesting that he supports them.
(Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

When the Vatican censured an organization representing thousands of American nuns, it did so in part because the group had not spoken out enough against gay marriage and abortion.

The Vatican said the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had espoused “radical feminist themes,” adding, “Issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.”

Now, some observers of the Roman Catholic Church are wondering whether the arrival of a new pope will thaw the frosty relationship between the nuns and the Holy See.


In September, 17 months after the censure, Pope Francis said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” Since he took office in March, the pontiff has also repeatedly spoken about the need for economic justice, which would seem to match the nuns’ emphasis on serving the poor.

Moreover, in an 84-page manifesto released last month, Francis moves away from the “smaller but purer” church advocated by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and calls for a larger, inclusive church — one that in theory would be more accepting of the sisters, said Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

“He’s steering a very large and ungainly ship,” Reid said. “It turns slowly, but he’s setting in motion things that will help it turn.”

Supporters of the nuns’ group, which represents 57,000 sisters or 80% of the nuns in the U.S., have been watching since Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election for signs that the Argentine pope would set a tone more encouraging to the sisters.

“Of all the people that could’ve been picked,” said Douglas Porpora, a Vatican expert at Philadelphia’s Drexel University who identifies as progressive, “the fact that [the cardinals] ended up with Francis is like an act of God.”

So it seemed for the sisters, whose censure was issued in April 2012 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s enforcer on orthodoxy. The censure subjected them to five-year oversight under Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and possible reforms.


After the censure, some sisters staged a cross-country road tour — Nuns on the Bus — to bring attention to their emphasis on social justice. They were often greeted by cheering crowds at parishes around the nation.

But a month after he took office, Francis “reaffirmed the findings” of the investigation that led to the censure, as well as the program of reform, according to a statement from the Vatican.

Some church observers see a discrepancy between the pope’s statements and his actions toward the nuns. Sandra Yocum, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton, called it “one of the puzzles of Pope Francis.”

However, some experts agreed that although disappointing for the nuns, reaffirming the censure was a wise political move for Francis. He would have caused unwanted friction in the church had he reversed a key piece of Benedict XVI’s career only a month after taking office, Reid said.

Because of Francis’ emphasis on inclusiveness, his reluctance to act on the censure is seen by some as an attempt to not alienate supporters of the previous popes, while still giving encouragement to the sisters through his remarks.

In June, Francis spoke to a group of nuns and priests in Latin America and appeared to refer to LCWR, telling his audience to take risks even if it gets them in trouble: “Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine [of Faith] will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing.... But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”


Francis’ statements reveal a greater openness to discussing and resolving conflicts within the church, said Sister Rochelle Mitchell, with the Sisters of Social Service in Encino.

Cardinals, Mitchell said, “have the right to question things but I think they also have the obligation to listen.” She added that Francis made her hopeful that the Vatican would come to understand the sisters’ point of view, which she said may appear unorthodox.

Since Francis took office, the Vatican and LCWR have been tight-lipped about how the oversight is proceeding. Sister Annmarie Sanders, a spokeswoman for the group, declined to comment on specifics, but said in an email: “LCWR’s hope is that the conversations will lead to increased understanding of LCWR and U.S. Catholic sisters, and to improved relationships between the Catholic Church leadership and LCWR.”

A staff member for Sartain said the bishop did not “grant interviews on the LCWR process, preferring to communicate directly with LCWR leaders rather than having them read his comments in the media.” In August, Sartain said in a speech that he and the nuns’ group had developed “a wonderful respect for each other.”

“And, yes,” he continued. “I would say a friendship with one another.”