Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Photo:Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

The American nuns who were publicly scolded by the Vatican’s top doctrinal official for disobedience and promoting unorthodox beliefs have rejected the criticisms, and say their “attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings” between Rome and the organization representing most of the 50,000 sisters in the U.S.

But the leaders of the umbrella group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, also said in a statement that the April 30 conversation with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who leads Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “was constructive in its frankness and lack of ambiguity.”

“It was not an easy discussion, but its openness and spirit of inquiry created a space for authentic dialogue and discernment,” the four sisters representing the LCWR said late Thursday.

“This work is fraught with tension and misunderstanding,” they said. “Yet, this is the work of leaders in all walks of life in these times of massive change in the world.”

Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued an appeal for the release of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Photo: David Gibson/RNS

The Vatican issued an urgent appeal Thursday for the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

The abduction of the young girls three weeks ago was the latest instance of the “horrible forms of violence” for which the militant Islamic group has become known in Nigeria, said the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

“The denial of any kind of respect for life and for the dignity of human beings, even the most innocent, vulnerable and defenseless, calls for the strongest condemnation,” Lombardi said.

He added that the kidnappings aroused the most heartfelt feelings of compassion for the victims and a sense of horror for the physical and spiritual suffering and the incredible humiliation they have suffered.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi at WIPO Treaty for the Blind conference in June 2013. Photo courtesy JRandomF, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vatican has effectively addressed the “worldwide scourge” of clerical sexual abuse over the past decade and promoted the reporting of allegations to both church and legal authorities, a United Nations panel heard on Tuesday.

The Vatican’s ambassador to U.N. agencies in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, said the Catholic Church had “crossed the threshold” in its approach to the issue of abuse, saying the church’s internal culture had changed.

Tomasi faced intense questioning from members of the U.N. committee investigating whether the church upholds the U.N. convention against torture beyond the walls of the world’s smallest country, the Vatican City state.

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Photo:Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

Catholic nuns in the U.S. have been thumbing their nose at Rome’s demands to toe the doctrinal line and they need to obey or face serious consequences, the Vatican’s enforcer of orthodoxy said in a surprisingly tough talk to women representing most American sisters.

“The Holy See believes that the charismatic vitality of religious life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the church,” Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told four members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Mueller said the LCWR — which represents about 80 percent of the more than 50,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S. – is dependent on the Vatican for its bona fides as a church body. He indicated that the group’s status, and the Catholic faith of the sisters, was at risk if they did not heed Rome’s directives.

St. Peter’s Basilica in early morning light. Photo courtesy of Andreas Tille, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Vatican could face a wave of new sexual abuse claims dating back decades if a United Nations inquiry finds that the Roman Catholic Church has violated an international treaty against torture and inhuman treatment.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, on behalf of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Monday that victims may look at fresh litigation since torture was not bound by the statute of limitations in many of the 155 countries that have endorsed or ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture, including the United States.

“For too long, sexual violence and acts of rape by the Catholic Church have been minimized,” said Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney at the New York-based CCR, after the U.N. panel that enforces the torture convention held hearings in Geneva.

Cardinal George Pell in Rome, 2007. Photo courtesy of Gavin Scott [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Francis and his council of eight cardinals are unlikely to complete a radical shakeup of the Holy See’s administration, or Curia, before 2015, the Vatican said Tuesday.

The council, which includes Australian Cardinal George Pell, head of the Vatican’s new economic secretariat, has been meeting in Rome for the past two days and also received input from the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Francis joined the council’s discussions in between events on an intense appointment schedule that included an audience with King Juan Carlos of Spain after the historic double canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII on Sunday.

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson.

Pope Francis likes to say that he prefers to raise questions rather than issue edicts or change doctrine, and he has certainly generated plenty of debate with his off-the-cuff remarks about gays and his cold-call chats on topics like divorce and Communion, as happened recently with a woman in Argentina.

Now a recent conversation between the pope and a bishop from Brazil about the priest shortage may be moving the issue of married clergy onto the pontiff’s agenda.

It began when Bishop Erwin Krautler, an Austrian-born bishop who heads a sprawling diocese in the Brazilian rain forest, had a private audience with Francis on April 4 in the Vatican.

During the meeting, Krautler and Francis compared notes on how much the priest shortage affects the church, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Krautler’s diocese, geographically the largest in Brazil, has just 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics, most of whom might attend Mass a couple of times a year.

A statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. RNS photo by David Gibson

When Pope Francis canonizes Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday, Catholics across the spectrum will have reason to cheer: Liberals credit John with opening the church to the modern world in the 1960s, and conservatives hail John Paul as reasserting orthodoxy after too many innovations.

But the unprecedented double-barreled canonization also raises a question that might give both sides pause: Why is Rome making saints of almost every modern pontiff after nearly a millennium when almost no popes were canonized?

In the first 500 years of Christianity, the Apostle Peter (considered the first pope by tradition) and 47 of his 48 papal successors were viewed as saints, mainly because so many of them were martyred, which is the simplest route to canonization. Another 30 popes were named saints in the next 500 years, largely based on their reputation for sanctity.

View down Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Harris via Flickr

Hundreds of pilgrims wind their way around St. Peter’s Square as tour guides shout in multiple languages. Beggars have their hands outstretched amid warnings of an invasion of pickpockets from abroad.

Across Rome, hotels are full, streets are clean, and the cash registers in the souvenir stalls are singing as the faithful pour in to the Eternal City for the dual canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII on Sunday.

Italian authorities are expecting at least a million pilgrims, including heads of state, prime ministers, and diplomats from 54 countries. One group of Polish pilgrims is making the 2,000-mile trek on horseback, dressed in medieval costumes, to celebrate Poland’s most famous native son.

Pope Francis greets a crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sept. 11. 2013. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

On Thursday evening, in a familiar reprise of an ancient rite, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., will wash the feet of 12 men, all seminarians — a re-creation of Jesus’ action at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his disciples and, according to Catholic doctrine, formally instituted the priesthood.

That same evening, thousands of miles away, Pope Francis will also observe the Holy Thursday rite, though not in a cathedral like Morlino but at a center for people with disabilities. There he will wash the feet of a number of residents, all lay people and perhaps some of them women and even non-Christians or nonbelievers.

Francis did something similar last year, shortly after his election, when he stunned church observers by traveling to a juvenile detention center outside Rome and washing the feet of 12 young people, two of them women and two of them Muslims.

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Harris via Flickr

View down Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Harris via Flickr

VATICAN CITY — While millions of pilgrims are expected to attend the Catholic Church’s first-ever double canonization at the end of April, the Vatican is preparing its most ambitious TV and social media campaign for the millions who don’t make it to Rome.

For the first time viewers will be able to watch the historic event live in 3-D movie theaters in 20 countries across North and South America and Europe through a deal between Vatican TV and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV network, Sony, and other partners. City officials are expecting more than 5 million people to attend the ceremony when Pope Francis declares his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII saints in St Peter’s Square on April 27.

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany. Photo by Alessia Giuliani, courtesy of CNS.

The news that Pope Francis fired — or “accepted the resignation of” — the German churchman known as “Bishop Bling” because of his big-spending ways has touched off speculation among Catholics that other dismissals could be in the offing.

Here’s the answer in four words: Perhaps, but probably not.

Recent history shows why: Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., remains in office 18 months after his conviction – and $1.4 million spent on his defense — for failing to report a priest suspected of abuse. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony enjoys a high-profile retirement in spite of the disapproval of his own successor over Mahony’s abuse record. Similarly, Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, is still living a gilded existence in Rome years after he was plucked from the U.S. amid the clergy abuse scandal.

Mary Ann Walsh 03-25-2014

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Photo courtesy of Bob Roller, Catholic News Service.

Thirty years ago, when the United States established full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, critics of the move fell into two camps.

One group worried that the Vatican would try to unduly influence the U.S., where anti-Catholicism lies barely beneath the skin. Indeed, Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once called anti-Catholicism “the deepest bias of the American people.” Poet Peter Viereck of Mount Holyoke College called anti-Catholicism “the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.”

Those in the other camp worried that the U.S. would try to unduly influence the Vatican. They complained, for example, that the U.S. would lobby the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences to make it refrain from criticizing the now barely remembered Star Wars program, which the U.S. was promoting in the 1980s as part of our national defense system.

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson.

When President Obama and Pope Francis sit down at the Vatican on Thursday, the meeting may well offer a vision of what could have been for Democrats and the Catholic Church over the last six years: a leader of the state and a leader of the church working on the many issues where they agree while working through the issues where they don’t.

Of course, that’s not exactly how it’s gone for Obama and the U.S. hierarchy, even though Obama and the church both stress economic justice and the priority of the common good, universal health care, robust government support for the needy and comprehensive immigration reform.

The potential for a robust alliance fizzled almost from the start of Obama’s candidacy in 2007, and a relationship that began badly went downhill when he was elected.

Left photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service. Right photo by Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. Via RNS.

President Obama is to meet Pope Francis for the first time next week as Obama wraps up a European tour, a high-profile encounter between two major world leaders that appears to carry especially high stakes from the U.S. perspective.

The White House and the American bishops have been at loggerheads for years on a range of culture war issues, and on Tuesday, just two days before the Vatican meeting, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the contraception mandate that has sparked fierce opposition from the U.S. hierarchy.

But American and Vatican officials say the talks may disappoint those hoping for fireworks, and that the summit is going to focus on collaboration much more than conflict.

Eric J. Lyman 03-18-2014

Pope Francis leads Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in 2013. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy Catholic News Service/RNS

The Vatican said Monday that Pope Francis will preside over a prayer vigil dedicated to victims of mob violence in Italy and their families.

It’s a sensitive issue for Francis after a famed anti-mob prosecutor last year said the pope’s financial reforms were making mob bosses “very nervous” and could expose the pope to assassination plots.

The special service, to be held Friday, is expected to include at least 700 Italians who lost a family member to violence connected to Italy’s various organized crime organizations.

Jim Wallis 03-13-2014
Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 5, giulio napolitano /

Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 5, giulio napolitano /

Today the world celebrates Pope Francis’ first year. Notice I didn’t say the church is celebrating, but the world. The pope has graced the covers of every magazine from TIME to Rolling Stone over the past year. People all over the world are delighted by the breath of fresh air he has brought. His popularity has moved beyond Catholics to Christians of all kinds, believers from other faith traditions, agnostics, and the “nones,” who are very drawn to this pope who emphasizes love and simple living.

But the pope said last week that he is not a “ superman” and does not want to be a celebrity. He is just trying to talk and live like Jesus, a point he makes repeatedly to shrug off his media darling standing. From the moment he took the name Francis, he made clear his, and thus the church’s priorities: the poor, peace, and the creation. Francis is now challenging the most powerful people and places in the world, as well as a popular culture that mostly asks how we can serve ourselves.

Pope Francis is right: it is not about him; it’s about the Christ he follows. Everything Francis is saying and doing is aimed at pressing this question: Are Christians going to follow Jesus or not? That should be the question on the first anniversary of this new pope. Are we Christians ready and willing to follow Jesus? How can we then serve the world?

Couples gathered in St. Peter’s Square received a blessing from Pope Francis on Feb. 14. RNS photo: Eyal Baruch (

So what’s it like to come to work every day when your boss is the pope?

At the one-year mark of Pope Francis’ election, the answer probably depends on whether you are an old-timer or a relative newcomer, and whether you agree with his reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy or you pine for the old ways of the papal court.

Much also depends on whether you are one of the approximately 3,500 (mostly Italian) lay people in the Vatican’s workforce or one of the 1,100 or so cardinals, bishops, priests, or religious brothers and sisters who tend to occupy decision-making positions and are deeply invested in the policies that Francis adopts.

That second group, often defined by their ideologies and rivalries, tends to draw the most attention, given the high stakes and fierce passions involved.

A Swiss Guard salutes Pope Francis and cardinals. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy Catholic News Service. Via RNS.

Figuring out why Pope Francis has upended so many expectations, how exactly he’s changed the Catholic Church in his first year and what he might be contemplating for the future has become a Catholic parlor game that is almost as popular as the pontiff himself.

A single key can best answer all of these questions: Francis’ longstanding identity as a Jesuit priest.

It’s an all-encompassing personal and professional definition that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio brought with him from Buenos Aires, and one that continues to shape almost everything he does as Pope Francis.

“He may act like a Franciscan but he thinks like a Jesuit,” quipped the Rev. Thomas Reese, a fellow Jesuit who is a columnist for National Catholic Reporter.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Cardinal Timothy Dolan said Sunday that Pope Francis is asking the Catholic Church to look at the possibility of recognizing civil unions for gay couples, although the archbishop of New York said that he would be “uncomfortable” if the church embraced that position.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera last week published an interview with the pope in which Francis reiterated the church’s teaching that marriage “is between a man and a woman” while acknowledging that governments want to adopt civil unions for gay couples and others to allow for economic and health benefits, for example.

Francis said the churches in various countries must account for those reasons when formulating public policy positions. “We must consider different cases and evaluate each particular case,” he said.