By Stephanie Simon
May 23 (Reuters) - In Washington, D.C., and Toledo, Ohio, in upstate New York and in south Texas, protesters have gathered in recent weeks with a simple message: Let the sisters be.
The vigils in cities across the United States are intended to express solidarity with American Roman Catholic nuns, who are struggling to formulate a response to a sharp rebuke from the Vatican.
The Vatican last month accused the leading organization of U.S. nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, of focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. The Vatican also rapped the group for standing by as some nuns publicly challenged U.S. bishops on matters of church doctrine and public policy.
In a move that many nuns viewed as an insult, the Vatican put the nuns' organization under the effective control of three U.S. bishops, who have the power to rewrite its statutes, its meeting agendas and even its liturgical texts. The board of the Leadership Conference is due to meet next week in Washington, D.C. to mull a response.
Some prominent nuns have suggested that the Leadership Conference, w hich was founded in 1956 at the Vatican's request, mi ght dissolve its official ties with the Roman Catholic church and become an independent nonprofit organization. Others argue that the best course may be to stall and hope the Vatican's scrutiny will fade with time.
The Conference includes the leaders of religious orders representing 80 percent of American nuns. Its board declined to comment beyond a statement saying it would "move slowly, not rushing to judgment" and would "conduct its meeting in an atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue."
But behind the temperate language, many nuns remain furious - and determined to resist the Vatican crackdown.
"Our sisters have fed the hungry, healed the sick and stood with the marginalized, so they're wondering, how can these men in the Vatican criticize us?" said Donna Quinn, a nun from Chicago who helps run the liberal National Coalition of American Nuns.
Submitting to the Vatican's demands would be akin to "allowing an oppressive regime to come in with a hostile takeover," Quinn said.
"Among nuns I know, there's a horror at the whole thing," said Maureen Fiedler, a nun who hosts the public radio show Interfaith Voices.
The Leadership Conference has been a fiercely independent voice in the U.S. church for decades, airing discussions about women's ordination, ministry to gay Catholics and the patriarchy of church culture. It urged dialogue with feminist nuns who refused to attend Mass to protest the central role of the male priest. And it forged ties with liberal Catholic activists, including those who bucked the U.S. bishops to support President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul.
The group's motto: "We risk being agents of change within church and society."
Older Americans, especially, may think of nuns as pious schoolteachers, but "times have changed and so have the sisters," said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who supports the Vatican's move.
Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, who was appointed by the Vatican to supervise reform of the nuns' group, declined to comment on his approach. In remarks in Rome last month, he took pains to praise American nuns as a "great gift" and said he hoped to work with them "in a way that shows our continued love and support for their extraordinary contribution."
But many of the nuns' supporters aren't feeling that love.
In the past few weeks they have organized vigils outside churches from Anchorage, Alaska to Lady Lake, Florida and in major cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. K no ts of demonstrators - sometimes a handful, sometimes several dozen - pray, sing and give thanks for nuns. More than 50,000 have signed an online petition asking the Vatican to withdraw its order.
"We think the Vatican should be thanking the sisters for their work, not appointing men to bring them back into line," said Al Dabrowski, who has led a weekly vigil since May 8 in San Juan, Texas, on the Mexican border.
Mary Ann Walsh, a nun who serves as spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said some protesters might have misinterpreted the Vatican's action. Church officials demanded reform of the nuns' leadership group, she said, but did not intend to criticize all 57,000 nuns in the United States.
"It's clear that the sisters are appreciated for what they do by bishops and lay people alike," Walsh said.
But many protesters say they do not see the distinction and accuse the Vatican of silencing and marginalizing all women. In recent weeks some pro-nun vigils have added prayers for the Girl Scouts; U.S. bishops have just announced they would investigate the Girl Scouts out of concern that the group might have "problematic relationships" with organizations that support access to birth control. The church teaches that artificial contraception is a sin.
News of the Girl Scouts investigation, coming just after the crackdown on nuns, has many Catholics thinking, "What's next, kittens and puppy dogs?" Fiedler said.
Some conservative Catholics in the United States have welcomed the tough stance, saying it's high time church authorities enforced doctrine and discipline on wayward groups. But Fiedler said the continuing vigils suggest that "in the world of public opinion, the Vatican has been the overwhelming loser." (Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Douglas Royalty)