The Vatican orthodoxy watchdog announced Wednesday an overhaul of the largest umbrella group for nuns in the United States, accusing the group of taking positions that undermine Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain was appointed to oversee changes in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which will include rewriting the group's statutes, reviewing all its plans and programs -- including approving speakers -- and ensuring that the organization properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.
The Leadership Conference, based in Silver Spring, Md., represents about 57,000 religious sisters and offers programs ranging from leadership training for women's religious orders to advocacy on issues of social justice. Representatives of the Leadership Conference did not respond to requests for comment.
The report from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the organization faced a "grave" doctrinal crisis, in which issues of "crucial importance" to the church, such as abortion and euthanasia, have been ignored. Vatican officials also castigated the group for making some public statements that "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."
Church officials did not cite a specific example of those public statements but said the changes would include a review of ties between the Leadership Conference and NETWORK, a Catholic lobby for social justice. NETWORK played a key role in supporting the Obama administration's health care overhaul despite the bishops' objections that the law would provide government funding for abortion.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, said the timing of the report suggested a link between their health care stand and the Vatican crackdown.
"I can only infer that there was strong feeling about the health care position that we had taken," Campbell said. When the Vatican-ordered inquiry was initially announced, many nuns and their supporters said the investigation was an insult to religious sisters, who run hospitals, teach, and play other vital service roles in the church. Conservative Catholics, however, have long complained that the majority of sisters in the United States have grown too liberal and flout church teaching.
The report released Wednesday paints a scathing portrait of the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious as consistently violating Catholic teaching.
Investigators cited a speech by Sister Laurie Brink at an annual assembly that argued that religious sisters were "moving beyond the church" or even beyond Jesus." Brink is a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She did not respond to an email request for comment.
Nick Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former dean of Duquesne University Law School, said that he has worked over the years with many nuns and that the description in the report does not reflect his experience with them. Cafardi is an Obama supporter.
"I don't know any more holy people," Cafardi said of American religious sisters. "I see a lot more holiness in the convents than I see in the chancery."