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Catholic nuns group and Vatican remain at odds

10:11 PM, Jun 12, 2012   |    comments
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Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin is heartbroken.

At 83, nearing 65 years in the Adrian Dominican religious order, she says her lifetime of faithful service to the Roman Catholic Church has been cast under a shadow.

Out of the cloister, out of the habit, not on the front lines of rallies against abortion and contraception, she and other sisters such as her say they feel personally rebuked by a stinging Vatican report on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) released in April.

The report charged the LCWR with espousing "radical feminism." About 80% of the 57,000 U.S. nuns - women who still wear distinctive habits and live in closed communities - and sisters belong to the LCWR. The Vatican announced that the group's leadership and programming would be taken over by the bishops, led by Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.

The LCWR, in turn, called the report a cause of "scandal" - in church terms, something harmful to the faithful. They say it was based on "misconceptions" that they were straying from church teachings.

On Tuesday, the LCWR's president, Sister Pat Farrell, and executive director, Sister Janet Mock, met in Rome with Sartain and Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the guardian of who and what is truly Catholic.

"It was an open meeting, and we were able to directly express our concerns to Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Sartain," Farrell said in a statement afterward, the Associated Press reported.

The Vatican issued a statement saying that although the meeting was cordial, "the LCWR must promote church unity by stressing core church teachings," the AP said. The LCWR sisters were more focused on social justice efforts than on backing the bishops in their push against abortion and gay marriage, the report said.

"Neither side is prepared to budge," says John Allen, a Vatican specialist for National Catholic Reporter and CNN.

This is not just about the Vatican vs. the nuns, Allen says, it's about "what it means to be Catholic in the 21st century."

It will be August, after weeks of consultation and prayer, before the LCWR decides what to do, a spokeswoman, Sister Anne Marie Sanders, said last week.

"As an older nun who has rejoiced in this great life and witness for 67 years, to see the LCWR belittled and to hear that we are not trusted to be faithful to our calling, that the church frowns on us, is heartbreaking," O'Laughlin says.

She took over the presidency at a small Catholic liberal arts college in Miami Shores, Fla., in 1981 and turned it into thriving Barry University, offering doctoral programs in social work, education, ministry, nursing and law. Five of the young women she mentored are now college presidents themselves, including one who named her school's new football stadium for O'Laughlin.

The LCWR's choices are to accept the bishops' supervision or to pull out, order by order. The consequences of that would be to lose their "canonical recognition" - papal approval under church law.

That would have financial and religious consequences, raising such questions such as who owns their property. It would jeopardize their tax-exempt status, even their right to call themselves Catholic sisters. It also would take the LCWR out of the halls of influence.

Sister Theresa Kane told the National Catholic Reporter that the Vatican has been after the LCWR ever since she shocked Pope John Paul II in 1979 by telling him women deserved to be in "all ministries" of the church. Her public challenge to the pontiff came days after he reiterated that the priesthood was solely for men.

Sister Ilia Delio, a scientist and a theologian at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., sees something "very simple" behind this contemporary conflict. "It's God! God is always creating anew."

Delio predicts the LCWR "will not give in. We are not doing anything wrong. ... It's the Spirit at work in our lives."

Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair led a "doctrinal assessment" of the LCWR, which was the basis of the Vatican's takeover decision. He pinpointed moments viewed as defiance of Catholic doctrine. He focused particularly on a 2007 speech by Sister Laurie Brink, then the LCWR president, in which she appeared to praise a "post-Christian" congregation that left the institutional church.

Theologian George Weigel, a Roman Catholic who is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, agrees with Blair. He says, "It's not about power. It's not about misogyny. It's about doctrine. ... Church-attending Catholics would find it difficult to accept the idea that religious life can be 'post-Christian.' "

Weigel says the LCWR "only exists because the Holy See says it exists. The question of who decides what it is or is not is up to the church. There's not a lot of room for to-ing and fro-ing."

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY

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