New York City, USA – The leader of the group representing most American nuns challenged the Vatican's reasons for disciplining her organization, insisting that raising questions about church doctrine should not be seen as rebellion.
Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said Monday that Catholics should be able to search for answers about faith without fear.
"I don't think this is a healthy environment for the church," Farrell said in a phone interview. "We can use this event to help move things in that direction — where it's possible to pose questions that will not be seen as defiance or opposition."
Farrell's remarks are her first since she met last week in Rome with the Vatican orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which concluded in April that the group had strayed broadly from church teaching. The Vatican has appointed three American bishops to conduct a full-scale overhaul of the organization, sparking protests globally in support of the sisters.
In the Rome meeting, Farrell said she did not ask Vatican officials in to drop their demand for reform. "I think we could clearly see in the tenor of the conversation that that was not an option," she said. She characterized the meeting as frank and open but difficult, and said she did not leave the talk feeling any more hopeful about what's ahead.
The Vatican has directed the three American bishops to oversee rewriting the statutes of the Leadership Conference, reviewing its plans and programs including approving speakers, and ensuring the group properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.
"I don't yet feel that we're any further than just the initial conversation," Farrell said.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, based in Silver Spring, Md., represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. nuns.
After an investigation starting around 2008, the Vatican office concluded that the nuns' group had failed to emphasize core teaching on abortion, while promoting "certain radical feminist themes" that undermine Catholic teaching on the all-male priesthood, marriage and homosexuality.
The Leadership Conference has called the claims unsubstantiated and the investigation flawed. Farrell said the Leadership Conference "cooperated to the best of our ability" with the doctrinal assessment, but said the group was not shown the final report before it was sent to the Vatican.
Vatican officials and U.S. bishops have stressed that its report targeted the leadership organization, not individual orders of religious women. But in a statement Monday, the board of the Leadership Conference said the Vatican crackdown had been felt by "the vast majority of Catholic sisters" and lay Catholics globally. At a meeting last week of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta, protesters presented church leaders with petitions signed by more than 57,000 people condemning the Vatican inquiry.
Farrell said the nuns' group would decide its next steps in regional meetings that will culminate in a national assembly in August.