VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has unexpectedly ended its controversial overhaul of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, cementing a shift in tone and treatment of the U.S. sisters under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.
The Vatican said this week it had accepted a final report on its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and declared the “implementation of the mandate has been accomplished” nearly two years ahead of schedule. The umbrella group for women’s religious orders had been accused of straying from church teaching.
The brief report stated the organization would have to ensure its publications have a “sound doctrinal foundation,” and said steps were being taken for “safeguarding the theological integrity” of programs. But no major changes were announced and the direct Vatican oversight that the sisters considered a threat to their mission was over.
“I think there are still some questions about how this is going to play out, but that it concluded early was an overwhelming affirmation of what the sisters do,” said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College.
The report’s tone stood in stark contrast to the 2012 Vatican reform mandate, which said the nuns’ group was in a “grave” doctrinal crisis.
Vatican officials said the Leadership Conference had over-emphasized social justice issues when they should have also been fighting abortion, had undermined church teaching on homosexuality and the priesthood, and had promoted “radical feminist” themes in their publications and choice of speakers.
The nuns’ group called the allegations “flawed.” But Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle was appointed to conduct a top to bottom overhaul of the conference.
Just last year, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, sharply rebuked the nuns’ group for its “regrettable” attitude and behavior during the process. He accused the LCWR of being in “open provocation” with the Holy See and U.S. bishops because they planned to honor a theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose work had drawn sharp criticism from the U.S. bishops.
But on Thursday, leaders of the umbrella organization and the Vatican officials in charge of the overhaul released statements of mutual respect, and the sisters met in Rome for nearly an hour with Pope Francis. The Vatican released a photo of the nuns sitting across a table from a warmly smiling Francis.
The turnabout suggested possible papal intervention to end the standoff on amicable grounds before Francis’ high-profile trip to the United States in September. The investigation, and a separate but parallel review of all women’s religious orders, prompted an outpouring of support from the public for the sisters, who oversee the lion’s share of social service programs for the church.
The review of the Leadership Conference emerged from decades of tensions within the church over the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles, taking on higher-level professional work in hospitals and schools, with sisters increasingly focused on social justice issues.
Theological conservatives grew concerned that the sisters were becoming too secular and too political, instead of focusing on traditional prayer life and faith. The tensions worsened as the number of American nuns dwindled from about 160,000 in 1970, to less than 50,000 today, and church leaders searched for a way to stem the losses.
Conservative-minded Catholics argued a return to tradition would help.
The investigation of the sisters’ group began about seven years ago under Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a German theologian who spent a quarter century as the Vatican’s doctrine watchdog, after complaints from conservative U.S. bishops and influential Catholics about the organization’s doctrinal soundness.
The first sign of a different outcome for the nuns’ group came in December, when the Vatican’s investigation of all women’s religious orders ended with sweeping praise for the sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor.
On Thursday, Mueller said in a statement he was confident that the LCWR is now clear in its mission of showing its members a Christ-centered vision of religious life that is “rooted in the tradition of the church.”
Sister Sharon Holland, president of the nuns’ group, said in a statement the process had been “long and challenging” but “we learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
The Vatican asked the sisters and church officials not to comment on the report for a month.
“Given the current moment in the church, with Francis emphasizing mercy and not judging and trying to see the best of what people are doing, they had to find a quiet way out of this,” said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist specializing in the Catholic Church. “What you’d love to hear directly from LCWR leaders is what exactly this oversight means. Who decides what’s really the authentic doctrine?”