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Catholic nuns in America face two sweeping investigations into their communities. The inquiries were conducted by the Vatican, and they highlight a division in the church. On one side are those who think American nuns have strayed too far from church teachings. Others would put it differently, saying Rome is what moved, trying to enforce a more orthodox faith.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has more.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: In December, the Vatican launched what's called an apostolic visitation of the 340 women's orders. The idea is to evaluate how well they are, quote, "living in fidelity" to the church's guidelines for religious life.

Then in February, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Vatican's theological watchdog - told the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that it, too, is under scrutiny. The Vatican believes this group, which represents 90 percent of women's orders, has defied church teachings on male priesthood, homosexual practice and the doctrine that the Catholic Church provides the only way to salvation.

Ms. NANCY SCHRECK (President, Sisters of St. Francis): It feels like an affront to us.

HAGERTY: That's Nancy Schreck, president of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa. She says the Vatican launches this kind of inquiry only when a group has gone seriously astray. And, she says, the nuns have not done that.

Ms. SCHRECK: I can't help but have some suspicion about where this is coming from and who's really behind it and what they're trying to do.

HAGERTY: She and others believe the church is trying to stamp out the last vestiges of Vatican II. Since the 1960s, many nuns have abandoned their habits for street clothes and their convents for apartments.

Sister Camille D'Arienzo, a former president of the Leadership Conference, says at the same time, many became social activists, and she acknowledges that some sisters advocated for gay rights and the ordination of women. Their independent thinking, she says, has rubbed church leaders the wrong way.

Sister CAMILLE D'ARIENZO (Former President, Leadership Conference of Women Religious): What I would guess is that some of the more conservative bishops in the United States might see the sisters moving with the spirit of Vatican II in ways that they are not comfortable with. So it may be some effort to kind of rein us in.

HAGERTY: Which is fine by Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan. After all, she says, the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy.

Mother MARY QUENTIN SHERIDAN (Superior General, Religious Sisters of Mercy): We knew what we were getting into when we came to the altar and said I promise, I do vow, indeed, poverty, chastity and obedience.

HAGERTY: Sheridan is superior general of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan. At her convent, the women live in community, pray together three times a day and wear ankle-length habits.

Ms. SHERIDAN: We have a navy blue for the winter months, and a light blue pinstripe for the summer months.

HAGERTY: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHERIDAN: But they're actually very attractive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: You want to join?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: No, but most new sisters are joining conservative orders like Sheridan's.

Ann Carey, author of "Sisters in Crisis," says the liberals are out of step. They're openly trying to change religious life and the church itself.

Ms. ANN CAREY (Author, "Sisters in Crisis"): I think it has gotten to the point that there have been some very prominent sisters who have been so open in their dissent and have given so much scandal that I think the Vatican finally decided it had to act.

HAGERTY: Carey points to assemblies in recent years where keynote speakers have called for an end to patriarchy. They have said they can no longer be obedient daughters of the church. And then two years ago, Carey says, one speaker said many women's orders have become, quote, "post-Christian."

The sisters have to speak up when they feel the Vatican is wrong, counters Sister Nancy Schreck. She adds that their disagreements reflect the larger tension between Rome and the U.S. church. And no matter what the outcome of these inquiries, she says, they will not back down.

Ms. SCHRECK: We've just come too far to step back into something that we wouldn't believe in.

HAGERTY: The Vatican has not said when it will issue its findings and decide the future of American sisters.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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