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Vatican’s review of U.S. nuns ends with joint report

Pope Francis talks with a delegation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious during an audience at the Vatican on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Pope Francis talks with a delegation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious during an audience at the Vatican on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Sarah Parvini Los Angeles Times

The Vatican ended its controversial investigation of U.S. nuns Thursday, marking a quiet conclusion to a boisterous battle between the Holy See and the main umbrella group of American nuns.

A report noting the end of the Vatican’s years-long inquiry describes a collaborative relationship and conversations “marked by a spirit of prayer, love for the church, mutual respect and cooperation.” It was a sharp contrast to the Roman Catholic Church’s accusations that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious deviated from church doctrine and promoted “radical” feminist themes.

In 2012, the Vatican sent a bishop to oversee the rewriting of the statutes of the conference, as well as a review of its publications and conference speakers.

The Vatican said in 2012 that although the conference was vocal on social justice issues, it had failed to speak out enough on other concerns, such as opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

The eight-page document issued then stunned affiliates and the conference, which oversees and acts as a support system for nuns in leadership roles. The LCWR represents 80 percent of the 50,000 nuns in the United States.

The nuns’ emphasis on social justice, however, falls in line with Pope Francis’ emphasis on austerity and serving the poor. Francis assumed the papacy in 2013 after the investigation had been launched. While not rejecting church teachings on abortion or same-sex marriage, Francis has said the church sometimes focused narrowly on those issues.

On Thursday, a delegation from the conference had a 50-minute meeting with the pope during an annual visit.

“We were also deeply heartened by Pope Francis’ expression of appreciation for the witness given by Catholic sisters through our lives and ministry and will bring that message back to our members,” LCWR officials said in a statement.

Sister Sharon Holland, LCWR president, said the investigation led to “long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice.”

She added, “We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”

Thursday’s joint report does not detail the extent of any revisions to the nuns’ statutes, but it does say “measures are being taken” to ensure the group’s publications “avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.”

It also notes the Holy See’s expectations in the selection of programs and speakers at General Assemblies and other LCWR-sponsored events.

“When exploring contemporary issues, particularly those which, while not explicitly theological nevertheless touch upon faith and morals, LCWR expects speakers and presenters to have due regard for the church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues,” the report says.

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seemed intent on moving past the controversy, calling the sisters “essential for the flourishing of religious life in the church.”

When the Vatican investigation began in 2008, some nuns and their backers described it as an attempt to rein in their communities, which often provide key social services in schools and hospitals, often at salaries below what the nonreligious earn.

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