The American nuns who were harshly condemned by the Vatican in April as failing to uphold Catholic doctrine finally responded on Friday in their own strong terms, saying the Vatican’s assessment was based on “unsubstantiated accusations” and a “flawed process,” and has caused scandal, pain and polarization in the Roman Catholic Church.
The nuns issued a statement after six weeks of virtual silence, during which their religious communities across the country mulled over the Vatican’sstartling pronouncement, and Catholics across the country rallied to support the nuns. The Vatican had announced it would dispatch three American bishops to lead a complete makeover of the sisters’ principal organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the nation’s 57,000 nuns.
After three days of discussion and prayer in Washington this week, the 21 national board members of the group decided they could not accept the Vatican’s verdict, and would send their president and executive director to Rome on June 12 to open a dialogue with Vatican officials.
Sister Pat Farrell, president of the leadership conference, said in a telephone interview on Friday, “We do want to go and speak the truth as we understand it about our lives.” She said the sisters had been “stunned by the severity” of the Vatican’s pronouncement, which accused them of transgressions that included promoting radical feminism and contradicting the bishops. The sisters were also concerned that the assessment was conducted almost entirely by written communication, she said, with only “minimal contact” with officials at the Vatican office that issued the conclusions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Among the accusations the nuns considered “unsubstantiated” was the Vatican’s charge of promoting “radical feminist themes,” Sister Farrell said.
“Even large sectors of the church itself have legitimate concern and want to continue to talk about the place of women in the church, and rightful equality between men and women,” said Sister Farrell, who is a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Francis, of Dubuque, Iowa. “So if that is called radical feminism, then a lot of men and women in the church, far beyond us, are guilty of that.”
The Vatican ordered a “doctrinal assessment” of the women’s leadership conference in 2008 after years of concerns about its direction. The conference was formed in 1956 to provide communication and coordination among communities of sisters, and is a canonical organization, which means it answers to the Vatican. The assessment concluded that the leadership conference had hosted speakers who “often contradict or ignore” church teaching; had never revoked a statement from 1977 that questioned the male-only priesthood, and focused their efforts on serving the poor and disenfranchised, while remaining virtually silent on issues the church considers great societal evils: abortion and same-sex marriage.
It also reprimanded the sisters for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” Many influential nuns who work in hospitals and health care had supported passage of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, crossing wires with bishops who were working with Congress to forestall the bill’s passage because of their concerns about abortion.
Sister Farrell said they intended to convey their particular objections to the Vatican’s assessment in private in Rome to Cardinal William Levada, an American who leads the Vatican’s doctrinal office, and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, of Seattle, appointed by the Vatican to lead the reform of the nuns’ organization.
The sisters’ statement said that the Vatican’s actions “were disproportionate to the concerns raised” and “could compromise” the ability of women religious “to fulfill their mission.”
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