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Vatican ends controversial investigation of US nuns with olive branch

Anna O'Connor holds a sign "Honk for Nuns" to passing traffic during a rally to honor American nuns at J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. on Tuesday June 19, 2012. The event was organized by local residents and the nationwide organization Call to Action, a Catholic movement working for equality and justice in the Church and society. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow
Anna O'Connor holds a sign "Honk for Nuns" to passing traffic during a rally to honor American nuns at J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. on Tuesday June 19, 2012. The event was organized by local residents and the nationwide organization Call to Action, a Catholic movement working for equality and justice in the Church and society.

Anna O’Connor holds a “Honk for Nuns” sign to passing traffic during a rally to honor American nuns at J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., on June 19, 2012. The event was organized by local residents and the nationwide organization Call to Action, a Catholic movement working for equality and justice in the church and society. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) The Vatican on Thursday (April 16) officially ended a controversial seven-year investigation of American nuns with a face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes that he inherited from 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,” said Sister Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group of nuns that had been under investigation, in a statement released after a meeting in Rome with the Vatican’s top doctrinal officials.

Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, speaks with Sister Sharon Holland, center, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, at the conclusion of a Vatican press conference for release of the final report of a Vatican-ordered investigation of U.S. communities of women religious on Tuesday, December 16, 2014. Also pictured is Sister Agnes Mary Donovan, far right, coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, speaks with Sister Sharon Holland, center, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, at the conclusion of a Vatican press conference for release of the final report of a Vatican-ordered investigation of U.S. communities of women religious on Tuesday, December 16, 2014. Also pictured is Sister Agnes Mary Donovan, far right, coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

“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, issued almost exactly three years ago, 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 Thursday 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 his 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.”

Archbishop Gerhard L. Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pictured in a Jan. 11 photo in Rome. Photo by Paul Haring/courtesy Catholic News Service

Archbishop Gerhard L. Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pictured in a Jan. 11 photo in Rome. Photo by Paul Haring/courtesy Catholic News Service

Both the nuns and Mueller’s office agreed not to speak further to the media for the next month, and the joint statement and two-page final report issued Thursday 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 LCWR, a network of 1,500 Catholic sisters that represents about 80 percent of the 50,000 nuns in the U.S., began quietly in 2008 but had been a serious public relations headache for Rome since April 2012.

That’s when the Vatican’s doctrinal office surprised the nuns — and the American hierarchy — by publishing a harsh assessment of the LCWR and announcing plans to effectively take over the group and institute a sweeping overhaul.

Mueller’s office 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.

Mueller’s office — which Benedict had led for a quarter century before he was elected pope in 2005 — charged three U.S. bishops 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, calling them “unsubstantiated,” and the report sparked a furor in the U.S. and an outpouring of support for the nuns. The controversy was yet another crisis that dogged the final year of Benedict’s troubled 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.

When Francis was elected two years ago, 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 internal disputes.

“Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing. … But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward,” he told a visiting group of nuns and priests from Latin America three months after he was elected.

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 Vatican churchman, Cardinal Franc Rode, who said he was troubled by 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 by Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil, a more progressive churchman and a strong supporter of Francis’ more conciliatory approach. Braz shepherded that review to a more harmonious conclusion.

(Left) Vern Barnet, a member of Episcopalian Grace and Holy Trinity Church in Kansas City and Brother Jim Krause (right) of St. Anthony hold a sign addressing the Vatican during a rally to honor American nuns at J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. on Tuesday June 19, 2012.  The event was organized by local residents and the nationwide organization Call to Action, a Catholic movement working for equality and justice in the Church and society. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

(Left) Vern Barnet, a member of Episcopalian Grace and Holy Trinity Church in Kansas City and Brother Jim Krause (right) of St. Anthony hold a sign addressing the Vatican during a rally to honor American nuns at J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. on Tuesday June 19, 2012.  The event was organized by local residents and the nationwide organization Call to Action, a Catholic movement working for equality and justice in the Church and society. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

But Mueller, also a holdover from Benedict’s papacy, is seen as much more of a hard-liner and seemed determined to take a tougher approach. Just last September, Mueller renewed his criticism of the LCWR and sought to downplay the size and importance of the group.

The nuns took a more low-key approach, expressing a willingness to discuss the outstanding issues with the Vatican while defending their priorities and commitment to 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 Thursday 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.

KRE/MG END GIBSON

This story is available for republication.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

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