A Vatican report Tuesday paid glowing tribute to the social work carried out by America's nuns, a sharp contrast to the Roman Catholic Church's accusations that nuns had promoted "radical" feminist themes.
The report, released at a Vatican news conference packed with nuns, resulted from a years-long church investigation of nuns in the United States after allegations that nuns were failing to tow the Vatican line on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
Praising the "feminine genius" of nuns, the report says the church needed to realize Pope Francis' aim of giving women a greater role in the Church.
"Since the early days of the Catholic Church [in the United States], women religious have courageously been in the forefront of her evangelizing mission, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals," the report says.
After the study was launched in 2008, church officials visited U.S. congregations from 2009 to 2012, provoking apprehension for nuns when the cardinal leading the inquiry warned of "a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain 'feminist' spirit."
Once numbering 125,000 in the mid-1960s, U.S. nuns total 50,000, and many are in their 70s, the Vatican said. They have been lauded in the U.S. for their work in hospitals and schools, but have been increasingly criticized by the Vatican for their autonomous take on hot button Catholic issues.
As the visits to congregations by church investigators got underway, some orders of nuns refused to cooperate and others reacted with "apprehension and suspicion," Sister Sharon Holland, head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents 80% of nuns in the U.S., said at the news conference.
Pope Francis was elected in 2013 as the report was being written. Since succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has largely taken the stress off arguing the fine points of doctrine and focused on giving charity to those who need it.
"We have prepared this final report with the compassionate support and encouragement of Pope Francis," Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, the secretary of the Vatican congregation for religious orders, which prepared the report, said at the press conference.
"(Francis') insistence that 'none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice' certainly resonates deeply with women religious in the United States," Carballo said.
Sister Sharon Holland and others said the report had been well-received by nuns.
"One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on," she said.
Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Catholic Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, helped compile the report.
"The report is in total harmony with what the Holy Father has spoken about constantly," she said after the news conference.
The report contains advice to nuns about the way they conduct their lives, and "calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and Redemption."
A separate report on the LCWR is expected from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Accusing nuns of "radical" feminism, the congregation in 2012 appointed an archbishop to oversee the group's statutes and programs, provoking protest vigils outside American churches.