The Vatican on Thursday unexpectedly ended its controversial takeover of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, signaling 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."
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."
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It envisioned 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 rewriting the statutes of the LCWR, which represents 80 percent of the 57,000 Roman Catholic nuns in the U.S., reviewing all its plans and programs — including approving speakers — and ensuring the organization properly followed Catholic prayer and ritual.
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 be created to 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.
"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!"
The Vatican takeover, combined with a separate Vatican investigation into the quality of life of U.S. nuns, had 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 of the church's heavy-handed, misogynistic treatment of women.
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 signaled a similar positive conclusion.
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.
After presenting the final report to the congregation's prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a delegation of LCWR officials met with Francis and discussed his "Joy of the Gospel" apostolic exhortation, which lays out much of his vision of a church that is merciful and looks out for the poorest. While insisting on a message of mercy over morals, Francis has also frequently dismissed legalistic and theological arguments that he says can impede the church's evangelizing mission.
"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."