The Vatican on April 16 officially ended a controversial investigation of American nuns with a face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes from the pontificate of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
“We are pleased at the completion of the (investigation), which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice,” Sister Sharon Holland, president of the leadership network of nuns that had been under investigation, said in a statement released following a meeting in Rome with the Vatican’s top doctrinal officials.
“Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the church and the people it serves,” said Holland.
“We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
A brief statement from Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and leader of the effort to rein in the nuns, who were seen as too liberal, shed little light on what the long-running investigation achieved and seemed aimed at moving past the contentious saga.
Mueller said he was confident that the mission of the nuns “is rooted in the Tradition of the Church” and that they are “essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.” The original report had accused the nuns of promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
In another indicator of the thaw in relations, the delegation of American nuns met later on April 16 with Francis for 50 minutes in a warm encounter that seemed to underscore the sisters’ affinity for the pope’s focus on social justice and on pastoral outreach to the world.
“Our conversation allowed us to personally thank Pope Francis for providing leadership and a vision that has captivated our hearts and emboldened us as in our own mission and service to the church,” the nuns said in a statement.
“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.”
Both the nuns and the Vatican doctrinal officials sides agreed not to speak further to the media for the next month, and the joint statement and final report issued on April 16 seemed to represent a quiet and merciful end to what had been a noisy showdown between Rome and the nuns — and one the Vatican never seemed likely to win.
The investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a network of Catholic sisters that represents about 80 percent of the 50,000 nuns in the U.S., had been a public relations headache for Rome since April 2012.
That’s when the Vatican’s doctrinal office surprised the nuns — and the American hierarchy — with a harsh assessment of the LCWR and a plan for a sweeping overhaul of the group.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith charged that the American sisters were straying too far from traditional doctrines in the theological speculations of some members and said the sisters were focusing too much on social justice issues, such as caring for the poor and advocating for immigrants. The CDF was also upset that many sisters were active in promoting health care reform in the U.S.
The Vatican office also said the LCWR members should spend more time advancing church teachings on sexuality and abortion. It set up a panel of three U.S. bishops and charged them with overseeing a reform of the LCWR and gave the prelates a final say over many of the group’s activities.
The sisters rejected those charges, and the report sparked a furor in the U.S. and an outpouring of support for the nuns, and the controversy dogged the final year of Benedict’s papacy.
Many U.S. bishops were also frustrated at having to answer for a Vatican investigation they had nothing to do with and often disagreed with.
After Francis was elected in March 2013, it was widely expected that he would try to wind down the investigation, and he signaled that he did not want to waste much effort on such matters.
A separate and broader Vatican review of women’s religious orders in the U.S. ended last December with a positive report and an almost effusive exchange of praise between representatives of the American nuns and Vatican officials from a different Vatican office.
That investigation had been launched in 2008 by a conservative churchman, Cardinal Franc Rode, who said the probe was necessary because of reports he had received from U.S. church sources claiming that a “secularist mentality” and a “feminist spirit” had affected the U.S. nuns.
Rode was later replaced in that office by Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazilian, a more progressive churchman and a strong supporter of Francis’ more conciliatory approach.
But Mueller, also a holdover from Benedict’s papacy, is much more of a hardliner and seemed determined to take a tougher approach.
Just last September, Mueller renewed his criticism of the LCWR and sought to downplay their size and importance.
But the nuns continued to take a low-key approach, expressing a willingness to discuss the outstanding issues with the Vatican while defending their priorities and commitment to a mission focused on social justice and the kind of theological inquiry that riled conservatives. They also made it clear they might drop their official Vatican affiliation rather than agree to unacceptable limits on their autonomy.
The final report issued on April 16 indicated that the nuns acceded to some oversight of their publications and choice of speakers for their annual conference to ensure doctrinal orthodoxy, and both sides agreed to a new set of statutes for the LCWR.
Both sides also reaffirmed a commitment to maintaining unity and keeping the faith and spiritual practices of the Catholic Church at the heart of their common mission.
How implementing those recommendations will play out in the coming years is somewhat unclear, but the report seems to make it clear that both sides are eager to put the episode behind them.
David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. Via RNS.