Relations between the Vatican and U.S. nuns under investigation seem to be worsening after the sisters said Monday that initial talks with Rome about a resolution to their standoff were “difficult” and that comments by several U.S. bishops have not made negotiations easier.
The statement by the board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, as well as subsequent remarks by the nun who heads the group, may herald a longer, broader struggle inside the church.
“We have never considered ourselves in any way unfaithful to the church,” Sister Pat Farrell, head of the nuns' group, told the National Catholic Reporter.
“But if questioning is interpreted as defiance, that puts us in a very difficult position.”
Farrell said her group hoped to “help create a safe and respectful environment.” Such questioning “can only take place in a climate of mutual trust,” she added.
But she said the lack of trust was evident June 12 when she and executive director Sister Janet Mock met with Cardinal William Levada, who heads the Vatican's doctrinal office and is overseeing an overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The Vatican announced in April that Pope Benedict XVI had authorized a takeover of the group, which represents about 80 percent of the nation's 57,000 nuns and sisters.
The Vatican's “doctrinal assessment” said the group was not sufficiently promoting orthodox teachings on sexuality and gender and was spending too much time focusing on social justice issues.
The Vatican officially has been scrutinizing the nuns for several years — and has viewed U.S. nuns with suspicion for decades — but its takeover was a surprise.
The nuns requested a meeting with Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, who Benedict named to direct the Vatican effort.
After talks in Rome, Farrell and Mock said the meeting had been an opportunity for “open dialogue.”
A Vatican spokesman said the meeting took place “in an atmosphere of openness and cordiality.”
Levada later said the talks may be a “dialogue of the deaf,” and that the nuns are associating with people who “aren't representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity.”
Sartain said the probe was aimed at the nuns' group, not nuns in general.
The group rejected efforts to separate it from the wider community of U.S. nuns, which it said has “keenly felt” the impact of the investigation.
The outpouring of support shows others are concerned “about how to live as people of faith in the complexities of these times,” the group said.
It will meet in St. Louis in August, when its entire membership will discuss the next steps to take.