Ending a heated three-year battle over doctrine, politics and the role of women in the modern Catholic Church, the Vatican and America’s largest nuns group declared a truce, although some think the cease-fire may be only temporary.
In an unexpected move, Roman Catholic Church leaders said Thursday that they had accepted a final report on its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and effectively ended a probation and monitoring program reflecting deep uneasiness about the nuns’ activities and leadership.
The Vatican had criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the country’s religious women, for taking a soft line on issues such as birth control and homosexual activity while engaging in political activities such as lobbying for Obamacare at the expense of supporting church activities and doctrines.
In a battle that divided liberal and conservative American Catholics, it was unclear which side blinked. Some saw Thursday’s abrupt decision as a reflection of the more relaxed tone toward dissent and Catholic social activism under Pope Francis, compared with predecessor Benedict XVI.
But as part of the settlement announced Thursday, conference officials issued a statement that acknowledged the group’s publications and works should “address spiritual matters rather than engage in formal theological inquiry” and be based on “sound doctrinal foundations.”
“To this end, measures are being taken to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to Church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it,” the statement said.
PHOTOS: Vatican, U.S. nuns reach truce over Roman Catholic Church doctrine
Both the Vatican and the conference refused to discuss in detail how the settlement was reached.
In a statement, Sister Sharon Holland, president of the leadership conference, said only that “we are pleased at the completion of the mandate, which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice.”
Winners and losers
Some interpreted the settlement as a victory for the American nuns, with the conciliatory statement in sharp contrast to the 2012 Vatican mandate, which warned that the women’s conference was in a grave doctrinal crisis. The Vatican probationary period ended two years ahead of schedule.
“I think there are still some questions about how this is going to play out, but that it concluded early was an overwhelming affirmation of what the sisters do,” Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College, told The Associated Press.
Despite the accord, some said, the battle may not be over.
“My attitude is almost a little cynical. It’s great news on the surface but in the next year when [the nuns] invite speakers and have conferences, are they going to follow through or defy it?” said Carl Olson, editor of the Catholic World Report.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s primary arm for policing doctrine, expressed concerns that the U.S. nuns’ group was focusing too much on social justice issues and not on the traditional doctrines and theology of the church.
As a sign that both sides were trying to put the controversy behind them, four U.S. nuns had a private 50-minute meeting with Pope Francis after the decision was announced, and the Vatican released a photo of the pope and nuns in conversation.
Both sides will be watching how the rapprochement plays out.
“I don’t think people realize how independent [the nuns] are,” said Rusty Reno, editor of the conservative Catholic First Things magazine. “They answer to their own superior’s order, not the bishop’s. They can operate very independently. Bishops do not have that much leverage in orders. They only have nuclear options to expel orders from their diocese.”
Last year, theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, after receiving an Outstanding Leadership award from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, used her acceptance speech to criticize the Vatican’s investigation.
At the time, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, sharply rebuked the nuns’ group for its “regrettable” attitude and behavior during the monitoring period. He accused the leadership conference of being in “open provocation” with the Holy See and U.S. bishops because of the decision to honor Sister Johnson’s work.
“American bishops don’t want to come across as heavy-handed, but I know people in the LCWR will take advantage of that,” said Mr. Olson, “The attitude has been almost complete resistance to the Magisterium.”
Mr. Reno said the conflict will end only with the death of the order. According to the National Religious and Vocations Conference, the median age of women in the conference is 74. Fewer young women are joining the order, and the sisters are growing older.
“There will be further conflict,” said Mr. Olson, “Conferences and speakers will continue. It will be difficult to gauge what’s going on behind the scenes. The history of their leadership has been so radical and opposed to church teaching, I want [resolution] to be true, but we’ll see.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.