Pope Francis attends a Mass in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on April 14, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Credit: Franco Origlia

The Vatican announced that Pope Francis supports a controversial plan approved one year ago by Pope Benedict which calls for leaders of the organization representing the majority of American nuns to function under a Vatican-appointed overseer. The pope's decision lets stand an investigation critics say is of dubious research, and which has been likened to a modern 'inquisition.'  

Upholding the "supervision" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) signals that despite his conciliatory words on working with women that drew favorable attention in his first days as pope, Francis has taken a traditionalist stance toward progressive American nuns.

A Doctrinal Assessment issued last April by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) empowered Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain as delegate, or effective overseer of LCWR, which represents the superiors of 80 percent of American nuns.

A Vatican Press Office communiqué today said that LCWR officials met in Rome at CDF, the office that enforces doctrinal conformity among theologians and religious groups. The CDF also has responsibility for defrocking priests found guilty of abusing children.

CDF prefect Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller and Sartain met with LCWR officials who are in Rome on an annual trip, making the rounds at various Vatican offices. Muller said that religious order conferences “are constituted by and remain under the direction of the Holy See.”

Pope Francis “reaffirmed the findings” of a CDF Doctrinal Assessment issued in April 2012, according to the Vatican.

That document released by now-retired Cardinal William Levada, drew heavy public criticism for the accusation that LCWR espoused “radical feminist themes” at the expense of opposing abortion and speaking out on issues like gay rights.

“The conversation was open and frank,” said an LCWR website posting. “We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church.”        

LCWR spokeswoman Sister Annmarie Sanders in Silver Springs, Maryland, told GlobalPost that the president, Sister Florence Deacon, and other officials were still in Rome and unavailable for comment.

But the last year has been marked by a standoff between Sartain and the progressive nuns’ organization. The Doctrinal Assessment gave the Seattle prelate sweeping power to revise LCWR statutes; vet publications; approve or reject the choice of conference speakers; monitor LCWR ties to other organizations and create new programs — everything short of running day-to-day office operations.

The LCWR functioned for decades as an organization under canon law with approval by the Vatican. The investigation was spurred by Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston archbishop in 2002 because of his role in the clergy abuse scandal. He moved to Rome in 2004 to become pastor of a basilica and served on several influential Vatican boards until his recent retirement at age 80.       

How far Sartain goes in using the power stipulated is a question that looms large behind today’s decision. Another issue raised by the 2012 assessment is its accuracy. Levada’s document criticized a scripture scholar, Sister Laurie Brink, for a speech to LCWR that the CDF distorted, taking remarks out of context and failing to acknowledge her call for renewing ties to the Vatican.

Sartain has not taken decisive action since meetings with the nuns’ leadership group last fall. When Pope Benedict announced his resignation, the Assessment became a dangling question mark. Levada retired to his native California. Benedict replaced him with Muller, a German theologian and bishop.

LCWR has held to a strategy of playing for time, with few public statements, trying to negotiate with Sartain for more limited oversight.

The alternate course, which has been increasingly discussed in many religious communities, is for LCWR to refuse cooperation with Sartain, thereby ending the nuns’ association with the Vatican — in effect, ceasing to function as an official Catholic group.

A smaller organization of traditionalist nuns represents about 20 percent of American sisters.

“This may be an indication of having a living former pope,” Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious, told GlobalPost. “Does the new pope a month after taking office radically contradict a policy established by his predecessor living down the street?”

Another question mark hangs over a report on American nuns from a 2009 apostolic visitation, or investigation ordered by Cardinal Franc Rodé, who was the congregation prefect in charge of religious orders. Rodé has since retired and the report has not been released. The office has a new prefect and undersecretary.

"Right now the most accurate interpretation is that nothing has changed,” said Thompson, who has close ties with many convents and LCWR. “I don’t know if that is a good or bad message. It may be indicative of the shadow of a living pope. This is going to take time to play out.”

Related Stories