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Area nuns stunned by Vatican 'crackdown'; 'Doctrinal assessment' chastises organization

American nuns have been on the radar of Vatican doctrinal enforcers for years.

In 2001, Vatican leaders met with representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to discuss whether the umbrella group of 1,500 or so leaders of religious communities of women across the country was clearly conveying official church teaching, especially on controversial topics such as the church's all-male priesthood.

It turns out the answer is no -- at least, in the eyes of the Vatican.

A "doctrinal assessment" released earlier in April accuses the group of promoting talks that contradict Vatican teaching, as well as "radical feminist themes" incompatible with Catholic faith.

The assessment, which also included the appointment of Archbishop Peter Sartain of the Archdiocese of Seattle to oversee a "renewal" of the conference, has ignited yet another firestorm within the U.S. Catholic Church.

Some Catholics have rushed to the defense of the sisters, while others have applauded the Vatican's action as long overdue.

Shonnie Finnegan said she was angered by what she termed a "crackdown" on nuns.

"It's the authoritarian nature of the all-male hierarchy attempting to control women," said Finnegan, who attends St. Joseph University Church Parish in Buffalo.

Jamie Manson, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter who spoke Saturday in the University at Buffalo's Newman Center, said women religious "go to the broken places where very few us dare to go, and they see Jesus in those places."

Manson urged about 100 listeners to publicly support the sisters and not stay silent.

In a question-and-answer session following Manson's talk, one member of the audience labeled the Vatican's move "witchhunts of the convents."

"I almost feel like we're back in the Inquisition," said the woman, who requested that her name be withheld because she does ministry work that involves the Catholic Church.

The assessment is the latest evidence that the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, is growing more reactionary, Manson said in an interview.

But Grand Island resident Liz Zilbauer said women religious, too, often have shifted to "their own agenda," and she welcomed efforts by the Vatican to bring them back in line with official church teaching.

"They are there to fulfill the work that is the church's work, first and foremost," said Zilbauer, a member of St. Joseph Cathedral Parish, who noted that the more orthodox orders of women religious are the only ones growing in numbers in the United States.

Other conservative Catholics maintained that the conference is among several groups that have long been pushing for woman's ordination.

"That issue was settled by John Paul II, and they act as if it's still open for discussion," said a Town of Tonawanda Catholic who supported the Vatican assessment. The man did not want his name used because he was concerned about backlash from local women religious.

The conference, which represents most of the 900 or so sisters in Western New York and about 45,000 women religious nationwide, issued a statement expressing shock about the assessment but otherwise saying it would wait until after a meeting of its national board in late May before commenting further.

"We don't want to make this any more polarized than it already is," said one local sister, who spoke to The News on the condition of anonymity.

The sister labeled the assessment "heartbreaking" and "mind-boggling."

Written by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and based on an examination of several years of conference statements and annual events, the document criticizes the conference for being "silent" on issues such as abortion and euthanasia while at the same time allowing speakers at its assemblies to make doctrinally problematic statements and "formal refutation" of church teachings.

The doctrinal assessment of the group is separate from another inquiry initiated by the Vatican in 2009, known as the "apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious."

The findings of those visits to nearly 400 institutes of women religious were submitted to the Vatican's Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in January, but they have not been made public.

Several sisters who have personally attended conference assemblies said they were puzzled by the findings of the doctrinal assessment, given what occurs in the meetings.

"There's no outward attacks on the church or on the power of the bishops. It's basically centered on how can we live our lives better, how can we serve others better, how can we serve the church better," said another woman religious who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're all in a quandary as to what on earth are they talking about."

Topics at the three- to four-day assemblies are "all over the map" but never political, she added.

The local sister also took issue with the term "radical feminism," which is mentioned in bold on the third page of the assessment.

"I would like someone to define that for me. I have no idea what that means," she said. "I'm definitely for the empowerment of women. If that makes me a radical feminist, then I'm a radical feminist."

Women religious also acknowledged that the church's pro-life teaching with regard to abortion is rarely a subject at the conferences and assemblies, primarily because there's not much to discuss.

"I don't know anyone in that room who would be a proponent of abortion, but we don't need anyone to stand up and tell us that," said one sister.

The meetings, she added, are designed not as instruction in doctrine or theology, but more to stimulate thought and provoke discussion.

Sister Nancy Hoff, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas-New York, Pennsylvania, Pacific West Community, said conference meetings deal mostly with developing leadership skills and learning more about justice.

Daily Eucharist is offered, and the bishop of the diocese where the meeting is being held is invited, she said.

"It's not like it's some subversive group," said Hoff. "We're really not a threat to the church."

Nationally, some pundits have speculated that the harsh assessment is retribution for nun support of President Obama's health care reform measure, which was opposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Everyone can speculate about what's the origin of this," said Hoff. "Where does this come from? I really don't know."

But in a column for the National Review Online, writer and Catholic theologian George Weigel commented that the conference has been operating outside of the boundaries of church orthodoxy for decades.

"The shock in all of this, therefore, is not the shock the LCWR unpersuasively confessed when the Vatican decision to take it into receivership was made public. The shock was that the Vatican had finally acted," Weigel wrote.

Sartain, the Seattle archbishop, was appointed to oversee the organization's activities for as long as five years and review its links with other organizations such as Network, a liberal Catholic lobby group.

Sartain will also be involved in changing statutes and programs and approving speakers at conference events.

"Women religious sisters are members of the church. I don't think we're people who need to be monitored," said Hoff. "It's very disturbing, I have to say."