Nuns Fight Back Against Vatican Report

This week, the largest organization for U.S. Catholic Sisters issued their response to a critical report from the Vatican. The report accused the organization of "serious doctrinal problems." Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty for more on the conflict.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There's a showdown between American sisters and the Vatican. The Vatican is cracking down on the largest organization for U.S. sisters, called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Pope Benedict has appointed an archbishop to oversee and reform the organization, accusing it of what amounts to doctrinal dissidence. Now, the sisters are fighting back - at least verbally. We're joined by NPR's religion correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Barbara, thanks for being with us.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: And this battle's been brewing for a while.

HAGERTY: Yeah, that's right. About four years ago, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith - that's a division of the Vatican that deals with theological purity - they launched an investigation into the Leadership Conference. And the Vatican was really unhappy that, among other things, the sisters have challenged church teachings on things like homosexuality and the male-only priesthood. So, they investigated and they decided that, yes, the group had what it called serious doctrinal problems. According to the Vatican assessment that came out a few weeks ago, the sisters have focused too much on poverty and economic issues and kept, quote, "silent" on things like abortion and same-sex marriage. The report also said that the group promotes, quote, "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

SIMON: The Vatican appointed an archbishop, I gather, to oversee the group.

HAGERTY: That's right. It's appointed Archbishop Peter Sartin of Seattle to reform the Leadership Conference. Now, over the next five years, Sartin will rewrite the group's statutes. He will approve or reject every single speaker that the women invite to their meetings. He's going to have control over their publications. He's going to review their connections with outside groups, like a social justice group called Network, and decide whether those connections are appropriate. You know, one sister told me it's like a hostile takeover. Sartin says it's a great opportunity for collaboration.

SIMON: And what's been the response in and outside the church?

HAGERTY: Well, there's been two kinds of responses. One is there's been this explosion of support for the women from lay Catholics and from priests - petition drives and Twitter campaigns. One sister told me: people come up to me all the time and say the bishops can't clean up their own house - referring to the sex abuse scandal - how dare they attack the sisters? And then, of course, there's the response from the sisters themselves. Now, they're not taking this lying down. This week, they issued a statement saying the Vatican's assessment was based on, quote, "unsubstantiated accusations as a result of a flawed process." And they said the sanctions were disproportionate to the concerns raised. So, that's really pretty strong language for Catholics. And now what they want to do is they want to set the record straight.

SIMON: Barbara, the sisters know the church to which they have dedicated their lives isn't a democracy. The pope's word is final. So, when their delegation gets to Rome, what do they really hope to achieve?

HAGERTY: Right, well, it's unclear what they can achieve. Two of the leaders, two of the sisters, are going to Rome along with Archbishop Sartin, which one said might be a little bit awkward. And what they want to do is they want to meet with the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. And they are going to argue that the report misrepresents them and that the punishment's way too draconian. But, you know, really, Scott, the horse has kind of left the barn. There's not a whole lot that they can do. And so now they have to proceed and think about their future. And one sister in the leadership said that almost certainly they will not go along with these changes, that they can't disband because the Vatican owns the group. But ultimately, she said, the various members could withdraw and they could form another network of sisters. They're having a big meeting in August, and you can be sure that that is going to be the number one item on their agenda.

SIMON: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Thanks so much.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

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