This afternoon group representing roughly 80 percent of American nuns, met in downtown St. Louis to release a statement refuting calls from the Vatican to implement reforms.
The group, called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has come under criticism from Rome for endorsement of healthcare reform, as well as tacit support for a range of other issues from contraception and same-sex marriage, to women in the priesthood.
The Vatican had asked the group to submit to an oversight panel of three American bishops, led by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle.
Sister Pat Farrell is the President of the LCWR and said the group remains committed to dialog with the bishops, but not at the expense of their mission.
“If in the process we can see that what we’re being asked to do really compromises who we are, or what our mission is, then we have to reconsider whether we can continue in the process,” Farrell said.
Farrell says the announcement today really signals a desire to work with the church hierarchy, to remain Roman Catholic, but ultimately to bring the church to them, rather than compromise what they view as their calling to work with people on the margins of society.
She says she remains hopeful that the bishops will see the sense in working with such a large group of religious Catholic women.
“Our next step is to enter into dialog with Archbishop Sartain,” Farrell said. “It remains to be seen what the tone of that dialog with be about, but we will enter into that with goodwill, with honesty, with truthfulness and with hope.”
The conflict between the Vatican and the LCWR came to a head when the group sent a letter to Congress voicing support for the Senate-version of the healthcare bill. This angered the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who felt the legislation did not contain sufficient funding restrictions for abortions.
Last April the Vatican’s “doctrinal assessment” accused the sisters of promoting an agenda of “radical feminist themes,” in part because of their silence on certain key issues. Bishop Leonard Blair was one of the authors of the assessment, and questions the intent of the dialog the sisters are calling for.
"If by dialogue, they mean that the doctrines of the church are negotiable,” Blair said [via NPR's Fresh Air]. “And that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR represents another position and somehow we find a middle ground about basic church teaching on faith and morals, then no, I don't think that's the dialog the Holy See [the Vatican] would envision.”
But others within the church have viewed the pushback against the sisters as an attack on women.
“I think what the Vatican is really afraid of is women’s issues,” says Angie O’Gorman of the Catholic Action Network. “The issue of equality, and then you get into the issue of equality within the church and then women’s ordination.
The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops is planning to issue a response.
It’s been speculated that some in the Vatican have been surprised by the backlash against them and are not intent on proceeding with an indictment on the multitude of Catholic teachers, social workers and missionaries who respected a large and visible part of their community.
Adam Allington also did a national version of this story for NPR's All Things Considered.
Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington