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Vatican won’t budge in plan to revamp US nuns’ group

Max Rossi/Reuters

Sisters Janet Mock (left) and Pat Farrell will now report to the US nuns’ group they lead after meeting with Vatican officials.

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican insisted after a high-level meeting Tuesday that American nuns must faithfully promote age-old church teachings, after the women were accused by Rome of flouting core doctrine and taking an overly liberal “feminist’’ bent.

Sister Pat Farrell and Sister Janet Mock, respectively president and executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, met with the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, and the American bishop tasked by the Vatican to overhaul the group which represents about 80 percent of American sisters.

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Farrell and Mock came to Rome to present their concerns about the Vatican’s April decision to thoroughly revamp the nuns’ organization. Levada’s office had determined that the nuns’ group had strayed too far from church doctrine and was imposing certain “radical feminist themes’’ that were incompatible with Catholicism.

The nuns’ organization had termed the Vatican assessment flawed and unsubstantiated, and said Tuesday that Farrell and Mock had brought those concerns directly to Levada and Archbishop Peter Sartain, who, along with two other bishops, will overhaul the group, rewrite its statutes, and review its plans and programs.

“It was an open meeting and we were able to directly express our concerns to Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Sartain,’’ Farrell said in a statement. Stopped by reporters outside Levada’s office, Farrell said she was “grateful for the opportunity for open dialogue’’ and said she and Mock would now report back to their board “to decide how to proceed from here.’’

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The Vatican said the meeting was conducted in an atmosphere of “openness and cordiality.’’ But in its own statement, it stressed that the nuns’ group must promote church unity by stressing core church teachings.

It noted that the nuns’ organization was created by the Vatican in 1956 and remains under its direction. The purpose of the Vatican’s assessment, it said, is to assist the group “in this important mission by promoting a vision of ecclesial communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the teachings of the church as faithfully taught through the ages under the guidance of the Magisterium.’’

The Vatican’s crackdown on the nuns has prompted a remarkable outpouring of support from ordinary Catholics and clergy alike, who have touted the good work the sisters do in education, health care, and tending to the poor. Mock told reporters such support has been “very affirming’’ for the sisters.

The dispute with the American sisters goes back decades.

Theological conservatives have long complained that in the years since the 1960s Second Vatican Council, American sisters’ congregations have become secular and political, while abandoning traditional prayer life and faith. The nuns insist prayer and Christ were central to their work.

In 1992, the Vatican created another umbrella group of women’s religious orders for sisters with a more traditional approach to religious life and church authority. That group, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, is significantly smaller than the older group. But a recent study found these smaller, more traditional religious orders are having greater success attracting new candidates.

Then, under the tradition-minded Pope Benedict XVI, the conflict reached a turning point.

Around 2008, the Vatican announced the doctrinal review of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and also launched an investigation of all US women’s congregations. That inquiry looked at quality of life, the response to dissent, and “the soundness of doctrine held and taught’’ by the women. Results of the wider inquiry have not been released.

For the next five years, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will effectively be under Vatican receivership.

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