Apr 16, 2015 12:37 PM

Vatican unexpectedly ends takeover of US nun group

The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) The Vatican on Thursday unexpectedly ended its controversial takeover of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, cementing a major shift in tone and treatment of U.S. sisters under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.

The Vatican said it had accepted a final report on its overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and declared that the "implementation of the mandate has been accomplished" nearly two years ahead of schedule.

When the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took over the LCWR in 2012, it accused the group of taking positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

It launched a five-year overhaul to fix a "grave" doctrinal crisis, fueled by concerns among U.S. conservatives that the group had strayed from church teaching by not focusing enough on issues like abortion and euthanasia.

The Vatican appointed a bishop to oversee the rewriting LCWR's statutes, to review its plans and programs including approving speakers and ensure the organization properly followed Catholic prayer and ritual.

The takeover, combined with a separate Vatican investigation into the quality of life of U.S. nuns, deeply wounded the U.S. sisters who oversee the lion's share of the Catholic Church's social programs, running schools, hospitals, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The crackdown resulted in a remarkable outpouring of popular support for their work and fueled allegations that the church was employing a heavy-handed, misogynistic tactic against the women.

In a final joint report, the congregation and the LCWR said the group's new statutes show its focus on Christ and being faithful to church teaching. It said an advisory committee would ensure manuscripts in LCWR publications are doctrinally sound. It said speakers at LCWR events must use the "ecclesial language of faith" in their remarks and said there was a revised process for selecting award winners.

Last year, the Leadership Conference honored a theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose work had drawn sharp criticism from U.S. bishops.

In December, the Vatican's quality of life investigation ended with sweeping praise for the sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor. Thursday's conclusion of the doctrinal assessment reflected a similar outcome.

"Alleluia!" tweeted Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, a theologian at Boston College and member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. "LCWR investigation by CDF is over!"

Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey, said the announcement Thursday was "a complete vindication" of the sisters' group and American nuns in general.

"Anything coming out of the Vatican this morning is nothing other than a fig leaf because they can't say 'oops' in Latin," Bellitto said.

In a statement, the official responsible for the investigation, Mueller, said he was confident that the LCWR is now clear in its mission of showing its members a Christ-centered vision of religious life that 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, it is essential for the flourishing of religious life in the church," he said.

Sister Sharon Holland, president of the LCWR, said the process had been "long and challenging" but completed with mutual respect.

"We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences," she said in a statement.

After Francis was elected, U.S. sisters had expressed optimism that the crackdown would end positively given Francis' own focus on the need for the church to be a "field hospital" for wounded souls.

The crackdown had begun under his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a conservative German theologian, and was launched after complaints from conservative U.S. bishops and influential Catholics about the doctrinal soundness of the organization.

Mueller's office dashed any hopes of immediate change under Francis when he met with the LCWR leadership in April 2013, a month after Francis was elected, and said the pope had "reaffirmed the findings of the assessment and the program of reform."

But two years later, the overhaul ended and a delegation of LCWR officials met with Francis in the Apostolic Palace. They said they discussed his "Joy of the Gospel" apostolic exhortation, which lays out his vision of a church that is merciful and looks out for the poorest.

"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 LCWR 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."


Zoll reported from New York.


Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield , Rachel Zoll at www.twitter.com/rzollAP


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