(Reuters) - The largest organization of U.S. Catholic nuns on Friday rejected a Vatican assessment that they had fallen under the sway of radical feminism and needed to hand control of their group over to a trio of bishops.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose members represent about 80 percent of nuns in the United States, issued a sharp statement calling the Vatican’s rebuke unsubstantiated and “the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”
The nuns said the Vatican’s report has “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community and created greater polarization.”
Tensions between U.S. nuns and church authorities, both in Rome and in the United States, have been simmering for decades as nuns have taken an increasingly independent and outspoken role in politics and social outreach.
The Leadership Conference has aired frank discussions of issues that deeply discomfit the Vatican, from ministry to gays and lesbians to the patriarchy of church culture. Some nuns have made public calls for the church to relax its stance against contraception; others have worked to ordain women as priests, in ceremonies the Vatican does not recognize as valid.
The Vatican also complained that the nuns have focused attention on social justice issues, such as poverty, and have not spent enough time promoting the church’s view on divisive political questions such as abortion and gay marriage.
To bring the sisters into line, the Vatican announced earlier this spring that it would put the Leadership Conference under the effective control of three bishops, who would have the power to rewrite its statutes, its meeting agendas and even its liturgical texts.
In their response on Friday, announced after three days of discussion and prayer in Washington, D.C., the conference board called the punishment “disproportionate” and said it “could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission.”
The bishop assigned to oversee the conference, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, did not discuss that complaint directly on Friday but issued a statement vowing that he would address both the Vatican’s concerns and the nuns’ response “in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity and fidelity to the Church’s faith.”
The nuns have drawn strong public support in the United States since the Vatican moved to rein them in. In the past few weeks Catholics have organized vigils outside churches from Anchorage, Alaska, to Lady Lake, Florida, and in major cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, as well as outside the offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
Knots of demonstrators - sometimes a handful, sometimes several dozen - come to pray, sing and give thanks for nuns. More than 50,000 have signed an online petition asking the Vatican to withdraw its order.
The Leadership Conference cited that support in its tough response to the Vatican, saying the board “believes that the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world.”
The Leadership Conference president, Pat Farrell, and the group’s executive director, Janet Mock, said they would fly to Rome in little over a week to meet with Sartain and Cardinal William Levada.
That meeting is scheduled to take place one day before U.S. bishops gather in Atlanta for wide-ranging discussions on issues from clergy sex abuse to the federal mandate that all health insurance plans cover contraception.
Following their discussions in Rome, the nuns will convene a national convention in St. Louis in August to further shape their response to the Vatican.
“This response shows Catholic sisters are not backing down from their social justice mission and are handling a troubling situation with great dignity,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group.
But Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said a decline in women’s religious communities in the United States shows there has been a serious problem under the Leadership Conference’s watch. “Does it occur to them that they might need some help?” he asked.
Editing by Vicki Allen and Bill Trott