Nuns: We'll Talk to Vatican But Won't Compromise

The largest group representing American nuns said today that they are willing to hold talks with Church leadership, but would not compromise their mission. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been criticized by the Vatican for straying from Church orthodoxy on all-male priests, abortion and homosexuality. Adam Allington of St. Louis Public Radio shares the latest with Melissa Block.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And we go now to St. Louis, where hundreds of nuns have been meeting this week to map out strategy. They were planning their response to harsh criticism from the Vatican. The Vatican called for reform of the group after accusing the nuns of failing to adhere to doctrine on issues such as contraception and homosexuality.

Well, today, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents roughly 80 percent of American nuns, finished their meeting and the group's president, Sister Pat Farrell, suggested they are not backing down.

PAT FARRELL: We will enter into a process of dialog. That's the only thing we can say right now that we are able to do. If, in the process, we can see that what we're being asked to do really compromises who we are or what our mission is, then we will have to reconsider whether we can continue in the process.

BLOCK: And, for more, I'm joined by Adam Allington of St. Louis Public Radio. Adam, explain more about what happened today.

ADAM ALLINGTON, BYLINE: Yeah. The nuns held a press conference to respond to the Vatican's directive that they submit to a doctrinal oversight panel led by three American bishops. This is in response to positions - and, in some case, the lack of positions - the sisters have taken on issues such as contraception, homosexuality and women in the priesthood.

So their announcement today really signals a desire to work with the church hierarchy, to remain Roman Catholic, but ultimately, to bring the church to them rather than compromise what many of them really view as their calling, to work with people on the margins of society.

BLOCK: And walk this back a bit to how this disagreement between the nuns and the Vatican all began.

ALLINGTON: Yeah. The issue really came to a head when the LCWR sent a letter to Congress voicing support for the Senate version of the health care bill. Basically, the sisters said this is an issue of public health, which we feel is good for people. It's not perfect, but we see more good here than bad.

In doing so, they created a rift between the church's liberal and conservative wings, namely, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops have accused the nuns of promoting an agenda of, quote, "radical feminist themes," end quote, because they just haven't spoken out strongly enough on issues such as abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, which the bishops view as silent support for these issues.

BLOCK: Now, has the church, has the Vatican responded to the sisters' announcement today and are there any indications, if they haven't, of what we might expect?

ALLINGTON: A spokesman for Archbishop Peter Sartain, one of the priests charged with leading the oversight panel, has said he will issue a response. It's been speculated by some in the Vatican that they've been surprised by the backlash against them, which is often characterized as an attack on women. Sister Farrell has said she'd like to meet with Sartain and begin a dialog, but one of the concerns she's raised is that questioning appears to be treated as an act of defiance and that's not healthy for the church.

BLOCK: And I know they've been quite outspoken about the notion that the oversight panel really is an affront to their independence. Is it possible that the nuns might eventually break away from the Catholic Church over this?

ALLINGTON: That's the big question. I don't get a sense from any of these women that they really want that to happen. They want to continue to be part of the church. At the same time, the bishops are essentially picking a fight with a very respected and beloved part of their community. These women are teachers and social workers, advocates for the poor and homeless and, if they're placed outside the tent, it's safe to bet that they'd take a large number of American Catholics with them. And, quite frankly, many American Catholics are saying that in this day and age a small group of men just shouldn't be ordering women what to say and think.

BLOCK: OK. Adam Allington with St. Louis Public Radio, thank you very much.

ALLINGTON: You're most welcome.

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