VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict on Friday held out an olive branch to American Roman Catholic nuns, who are reeling from a stinging Vatican report that criticized them as being feminist and politicized.
"I wish to reaffirm my deep gratitude for the example of fidelity and self-sacrifice given by many consecrated women (nuns) in your country," he said in an address to visiting U.S. bishops.
In a reference to the malaise felt by many American nuns after the report issued last month, he said he hoped that "this moment of discernment will bear abundant spiritual fruit for the revitalization and strengthening of their communities in fidelity to Christ and the Church ..."
A month ago, the Vatican's doctrinal department, which the pope headed for many years before his election in 2005, issued a blistering report on the activity of the majority of American nuns.
It was issued after a Vatican investigation determined that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose 1,500 members represent some 80 percent of American nuns, had "serious doctrinal problems" and promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith".
The report, which also criticized the LCWR for sometimes challenging bishops, shocked most American nuns and led to an outpouring of popular and editorial support for them and their work among the poor, and in schools and hospitals.
A Twitter drive in the support of the nuns attracted thousands.
The report said the LCWR had been "silent on the right to life" and had failed to make the "Biblical view of family life and human sexuality" a central plank in its agenda.
In his address to visiting U.S. bishops, the pope did not mention the scolding report and used much softer language in describing his view of religious life.
"The urgent need in our own time for credible and attractive witnesses to the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel makes it essential to recapture a sense of the sublime dignity and beauty of the consecrated life ..." Benedict said.
Last month's report prompted much criticism of the Vatican attempt to rein in the nuns, who were seen by many as helping the image of the Catholic Church in the United States at a time when it was engulfed the scandal over sexual abuse of minors by priests and accusations and bishops covered it up.
A New York Times editorial called the Vatican's report "a misreading of the very fine work in schools, charities, prison and impoverished neighborhoods being done by about 60,000 nuns across the nation".
The editorial, one of many to defend the nuns, said: "It would be a tragedy, far beyond the Church, if their fine work and their courageous voices were constrained."
American nuns and U.S. bishops have been at odds over several issues social issues. They supported President Barack Obama's health care reform which the bishops opposed it.
The Vatican named Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other U.S. bishops to undertake the reforms of the conference's statutes, programs and its application of liturgical texts, a process it said could take up to five years.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella Editing by Maria Golovnina)