American nuns accused of straying far from Roman Catholic doctrine will decide at a national meeting next week whether they should accept or resist a Vatican-ordered overhaul.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. sisters, will gather for the first time since the Vatican said the sisters have been promoting "radical feminist themes" about the priesthood, artificial contraception and homosexuality. The report, issued in April, prompted an outpouring of support for the sisters nationwide, including parish vigils, protests outside the Vatican embassy in Washington and a resolution in Congress commending the sisters for their service to the country.
The nuns will discuss their next steps in private sessions at the assembly, which starts Tuesday in St. Louis.
"One of our concerns is that questioning is seen as defiance. It's not healthy as a church," Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference, said in a phone interview with reporters. "Our intention, our sense of our own fidelity, is that we continue raising and responding to questions according to our own consciences and according to new information arising."
The Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, began its review of the religious sisters' organization in 2008, following years of complaints from theological conservatives that the nuns' group had become secular and political while abandoning traditional faith and ignoring key issues such as abortion.
After the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles as they sought to more fully engage the modern world. The nuns said prayer and Christ remained central to their work as they focused increasingly on Catholic social justice teaching, such as fighting poverty and advocating for civil rights.
Vatican investigators praised the nuns' humanitarian work, but said the conference had "serious doctrinal problems." Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain has been appointed to oversee a full-scale reform of the conference, including rewriting the groups' statutes, reviewing its plans and programs, approving assembly speakers and ensuring the group properly follows Catholic ritual.
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who oversaw the Vatican doctrinal review and will help with the overhaul, has said "there's been a lot of just denial" by the conference about its problems. In an interview last week with National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program, he said there was no "middle ground" on core church teaching.
The sisters face a limited range of options for how they can respond since the Vatican created the organization.
Farrell would not discuss details of what the sisters will consider, since the conference makes decisions as a group.
Sartain offered to travel to the meeting but was told "it would not be helpful," said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh. As is customary, a representative of the Vatican office for religious orders, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, will attend. Sartain is expected at a board meeting of the sisters' organization immediately after the full meeting.
The sisters are expected to announce the outcome of their discussions on Friday.