NEW YORK - The leader of the group representing most American nuns challenged the Vatican’s reasons for disciplining her organization, insisting that raising questions about church doctrine should not be seen as rebellion.
Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said Monday that Catholics should be able to search for answers about faith without fear.
“I don’t think this is a healthy environment for the church,’’ Farrell said in a phone interview. “We can use this event to help move things in that direction - where it’s possible to pose questions that will not be seen as defiance or opposition.’’
Farrell’s remarks are her first since she met last week in Rome with the Vatican orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which concluded in April that the group had strayed broadly from church teaching.
The Vatican has appointed three American bishops to conduct a full-scale overhaul of the organization, sparking protests globally in support of the sisters.
In the Rome meeting, Farrell said she did not ask Vatican officials to drop their demand for reform. “I think we could clearly see in the tenor of the conversation that that was not an option,’’ she said.
She characterized the meeting as frank and open but difficult, and said she did not leave feeling more hopeful about what is ahead.
The Vatican has directed the bishops to oversee rewriting the statutes of the Leadership Conference, reviewing its plans and programs including approving speakers, and ensuring the group properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.
“I don’t yet feel that we’re any further than just the initial conversation,’’ Farrell said.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, based in Silver Spring, Md., represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States.
After an investigation starting around 2008, the Vatican office concluded that the nuns’ group had failed to emphasize core teaching on abortion, while promoting “certain radical feminist themes’’ that undermine Catholic teaching on the all-male priesthood, marriage, and homosexuality.
The Leadership Conference has called the claims unsubstantiated and the investigation flawed. Farrell said the conference “cooperated to the best of our ability’’ with the doctrinal assessment, but said the group was not shown the final report before it was sent to the Vatican.
Vatican officials and US bishops have stressed that the Vatican orthodoxy office report targeted the leadership of the nuns’ group, not individual orders of religious women. But in a statement Monday, the board of the Leadership Conference said the Vatican crackdown had been felt by “the vast majority of Catholic sisters’’ and lay Catholics globally.
At a meeting last week of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta, protesters presented church leaders with petitions signed by more than 57,000 people condemning the Vatican inquiry.
Farrell said the nuns’ group would decide its next steps in regional meetings that will culminate in a national assembly in August.
In a separate development Monday, the Vatican’s number two official blamed the media for fueling the scandal over leaked Vatican documents.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, told an Italian Catholic weekly that journalists reporting on the leaks scandal are “pretending to be Dan Brown . . . inventing stories and replaying legends.’’ Brown wrote “The Da Vinci Code’’ and “Angels and Demons’’ the best-selling fictional accounts of power struggles and scandals inside the Catholic Church.
The Vatican has been on the defensive ever since sensitive documents alleging corruption and exposing power struggles began appearing in the Italian media in January. A recent book containing dozens of documents from Pope Benedict XVI’s own desk has compounded what many see as a plot to undermine Bertone’s authority.