NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) The nation's largest leadership group for Catholic nuns will bestow its top award Friday (Aug. 15) on a theologian who has been condemned by the U.S. Catholic bishops for her book examining the nature of God.
But a top Vatican official warned the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in April that honoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, author of "Quest for the Living God" and longtime Fordham University professor, would be considered provoking the Holy See and U.S. bishops.
Meeting for their annual four-day conference in Nashville this week, the group's leaders are publicly discussing spirituality and doctrine while taking up church politics in closed sessions. Their appointed overseer, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, said he's promised the sisters not to talk about their conflict with the media, and the LCWR's spokeswoman said interviews with nuns were contingent on agreements not to mention it.
The LCWR represents 80 percent of the 51,600 women religious in the United States. The organization has been under fire since 2012, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic church's top orthodoxy enforcement group, ordered the nuns to revise their statutes and move away from "radical feminism."
After this conference, Sartain will approve all speakers.
Despite the public display of unity, signs of the dispute emerged.
The nuns launched their assembly with interpretive dance and happy songs about justice. But after Vatican-based Rev. Hank Lemoncelli took the stage to read a letter that included hard questions about whether the orders were following the rules of Jesus, reporters rushed to ask if those were related to attempts to bring the nuns into line.
Lemoncelli insisted the letter's questions were the same as those read to priests.
Sister Nancy Schreck, a former LCWR president who delivered the keynote address, said anyone who knows the Vatican II document about religious life shouldn't find the questions unusual.
At the same time, she quietly reiterated Johnson's book's stance that there's more than one way to look at God and said that while the church is a vehicle for mission, the LCWR's focus is the life of Jesus.
"Look at the four Gospels -- they all have nuances in who Jesus is," she said. "We need to figure out how we translate the message of Jesus to the world where we live. We will be richer for looking at a variety of interpretations."
The group's new president, who took leadership today avoided discussing the conflict but scoffed at a newspaper headline in her native Michigan titled: "Sister Soldier." It topped an article about Sister Sharon Holland's ascension to leadership in LCWR after 21 years of experience as a Vatican-based legal expert in church law.
"They must not know how we feel about military conflict," she joked.
It's unlikely the sides can come to a solution, said Bruce Morrill, a Vanderbilt University professor of theological studies and a Jesuit priest.
At the conflict's heart is a difference in approach to hierarchical chain of command: the top-down, morals-emphasizing Vatican versus the collegial, social-justice oriented nuns.
"As far as the U.S. bishops and Vatican officials are concerned, this is not a debate," Morrill said. "The hierarchy expects the women religious to obey their directives, such as their having now to submit the agendas and speakers for future annual meetings to the archbishop."
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