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Vatican cuts short investigation of U.S. nuns' leadership group; praises religious life

Pope Francis meets with four representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the Vatican April 16.

Pope Francis gave his blessing Thursday to a leadership network of Catholic nuns closing early what was set up as a four-year investigation.

The pope didn’t say “go forth and sin no more.” The message was more like keep up your good work, but tip toe around some flaky-‘60s style programing at your annual meetings. He encouraged their missions:  Keep helping the poor, the sick, children, youth and the marginalized.

The group that was under scrutiny, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is a network of U.S. elected superiors and team leaders of more than 80 percent of the nation’s 51,600 Catholic nuns and sisters.

The accusations about “grave doctrinal issues” concerning the group go back several years. But the Vatican went public with its investigation in 2012 just before conference opened its annual meeting on the St. Louis Riverfront in the old Millennium Hotel that August

The umbrella group had received harsh criticism from several U.S. bishops, never officially named, who called for the Vatican theological department to examine the group. Among the complaints were that keynote speakers at LCWR meetings had promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith," supported ordination of women and veered away from Catholic teachings especially on homosexuality and birth control. Thousands of lay Catholics were outspoken in defense of the nuns, even picketing at the meeting.

The distressed conservative bishops had submitted to the Vatican videos of talks and events at previous LCWR annual meetings. Many of the charges were refutedby the nuns meeting that August in St. Louis. Immediately after the St. Louis meeting, the LCWR officers met with three U.S. bishops assigned by the Vatican to investigate. 

The meeting Thursday at the Vatican was much more than a photo op and lasted 50 minutes. Joining Pope Francis were the head of the Congregation for the faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, and the three U.S. bishops: Springfield, Ill., Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki, whose diocese includes the northern part of the Metro East; Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford, Conn., and the investigation chair, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain. 

Representatives from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious were Sister Carol Zinn, Sister Marcia Allen, Sister Joan Marie Steadman, and Sister Janet Mock.

An agreement limits public comment outside the meeting for several months. The final report approved organizational statutes of the organization, which were revised in 2014, and stressed the need for invited speakers to the LCWR "to have due regard for the Church's faith."

Müller released to the Vatican website his statement: “At the conclusion of this process, the Congregation is confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member Institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the tradition of the Church. It is this vision that makes religious women and men radical witnesses to the Gospel, and, therefore, is essential for the flourishing of religious life in the Church.”

The four sisters  at the meeting issued a statement through spokeswoman Sister Annmarie Sander:

“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. 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.”

Sartain and LCWR officers outlined for the pope the process undertaken by the three bishops and the LCWR over the past three years, the Vatican said. Sartain and the nuns noted “the spirit of cooperation among participants throughout the sensitive process.”

Müller thanked those at the Thursday session for their willing participation in this “important and delicate” work.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.