(RNS) Leaders representing most of the nation's 57,000 Catholic nuns on Friday (June 1) answered a Vatican crackdown on their group by charging that Rome's criticisms of the sisters were "unsubstantiated," caused "scandal and pain" and "greater polarization" in the church.
"Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission," the 22-member board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious warned in a statement issued after a special four-day meeting in Washington.
The LCWR board meeting followed the surprise announcement in April that Pope Benedict XVI wanted a Vatican-led makeover of the group on the grounds that it was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women's ordination.
Rome also chided the LCWR for doctrinal ambiguity and sponsoring conferences that featured "a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
The unexpectedly strong pushback to the Vatican may be an indication of how much backlash the campaign has sparked among Catholics, who value the sisters' longstanding ministry in education, health care and social services, and who bristle at Rome's demands to focus instead on sexual morality and enforcing orthodoxy.
Friday's statement specifically noted the outpouring of support the nuns have received, from petitions to protests to prayer vigils, which continued to pour in after Friday's statement from the LCWR.
"We commend the sisters on their prayerful discernment of the Vatican's mandate," said Jim FitzGerald of the Nun Justice Project, a lay-led church reform group that was created after the April takeover was announced. "It speaks to the faithfulness of the sisters and the reason why Catholics across the country continue to stand behind them."
In an interview Friday with the National Catholic Reporter, LCWR president Sr. Pat Farrell, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa said that in raising doctrinal and theological issues the nuns in her organization have also been reflecting a wider conversation among Catholics in the church -- and one that often finds no other outlet in officialdom.
"The insinuation that I think many people could draw from reading that Vatican document is that if we raise those questions, we're unfaithful to the church," Farrell said. "That's not true. And I don't think that's really fair. I think, in fact, that that is a sign of our deepest faithfulness to the church -- questions that the people of God need to raise, that we need to talk about together in a climate of genuine dialogue."
The LCWR response comes as Benedict faces an enormous public relations headache over the leak of sensitive documents that reveal his Roman curia to be a dysfunctional bureaucracy riven by backroom plotting and politicking.
In pointed contrast to the unflattering reports coming out of the Vatican in recent weeks, the LCWR said the stand-off must be "addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity."
The latest development is likely to be the first in a back-and-forth exchange that will continue on June 12 when LCWR representatives meet in Rome with Cardinal William Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco who now heads the Vatican's doctrine office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is directing the LCWR probe.
Also at that meeting will be Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, whom the pope tapped to be Rome's U.S. representative in charge of revamping the LCWR.
In a sort of "prebuttal" to the LCWR statement, Sartain on Friday published a lengthy essay in America magazine, a national Jesuit weekly, in which he reiterated Rome's criticisms of the nuns. But Sartain spent the bulk of his essay praising the "momentous and heroic contribution of women religious in the United States" across the centuries, and he generally struck a diplomatic tone.
"No one expects that such a sensitive task will be accomplished quickly or effortlessly, but by God's grace and with mutual respect, patience and prayer it can be indeed accomplished for the good of all," Sartain said of the Vatican-led reform. "Challenges larger than this have been met before, with renewal and even deeper faith the outcome."
The magazine also included a response to Sartain by Christine Firer Hinze, a professor of ethics at Fordham University, who wrote that "the dangers of talking past one another, stalemate or alienation are high."
Hinze said it is important that the Vatican avoid comparisons between the LCWR and the more conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, a group that the Vatican set up in 1992 to serve as a more traditional counterpoint to the liberal-leaning LCWR. The CMSWR represents about 10,000 nuns in the U.S. and its ranks are growing, while the LCWR represents the other 45,000 or so sisters, whose average age is significantly higher.
Sartain's own sister is a nun and a member of a conservative order of Dominican Sisters in Nashville, who are affiliated with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
The LCWR nuns have no formal church authority and few options in opposing Rome, but some Vatican watchers believe the pushback by the nuns and the groundswell of support from the pews -- combined with a Vatican that is reeling with its own problems -- could raise the odds of a rapprochement that might defuse the tensions.
There is recent precedent for such an outcome. A wide-ranging investigation of all American nuns, launched in 2009 by a different Vatican agency, was also seen as a heavy-handed maneuver and prompted widespread resistance. That led the Vatican to recalibrate its approach and focus on dialogue with the nuns rather than top-down scrutiny.
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