ST. LOUIS — Nearly 900 Roman Catholic nuns will gather in St. Louis this week to discuss their future relationship with the Vatican.
Ordinarily, this annual assembly of the country's largest umbrella group for women's religious communities wouldn't draw the attention of the world's press. But in the spring, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog office issued a report that questioned the organization's fidelity to some church teachings, accused it of "serious doctrinal problems" and announced that three U.S. bishops would temporarily take the group's reins in order to reform it.
This week, the members of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious — which represents 80 percent of the country's 57,000 Catholic nuns — will discuss their options, which could range from accepting the reforms to severing their official connection to the Vatican.
"We're hopeful it will be a time of dialogue and increased understanding," said Sister Louise Gallahue, leader of the Daughters of Charity in the Province of St. Louis. "Everyone involved wants to see this as communication with church authorities and not in conflict with them."
Since the Vatican report was released in April, the rift has resonated with some American Catholics who feel bishops have become too focused on gay marriage and abortion. Many took issue with the Vatican report that denounced the sisters' group — which represents nuns who work with the poor and sick — for being "silent on the right to life from conception to natural death" and for leaving "the Church's biblical view of family life and human sexuality" off its "agenda."
"You see a difference in the theology of the sisters who are on the margins, who live with the people, whose theology is informed by the work they do," said Jennifer Reyes Lay, program coordinator for the St. Louis-based Catholic Action Network. "And then the theology of people who hold positions in the hierarchy who aren't as connected to people and who can maintain black and white guidelines. It gets messier when you're on the ground."
Reyes Lay said her group, working with a national organization called the Nun Justice Project, had held weekly vigils in support of the nuns outside the Cathedral Basilica in the spring. The group plans to welcome the St. Louis-bound nuns Tuesday at five locations inside Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and outside the conference hotel.
One of the main problems the Vatican had with the Leadership Conference for Women Religious is its choice of speakers at their annual assemblies. Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who conducted the Vatican's assessment of the group, wrote in his diocesan newspaper in June that the group's speakers often "explore themes like global spirituality, the new cosmology, earth-justice and eco-feminism in ways that are frequently ambiguous, dubious or even erroneous with respect to Christian faith."
The Vatican's April report said the speakers "manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors."
This year's keynote speaker is Barbara Marx Hubbard, whom spiritual wellness author Deepak Chopra called "the voice for conscious evolution of our time," according to her website.
Hubbard defines conscious evolution as "a spiritually motivated endeavor," whose "precepts reside at the heart of every great faith, affirming that humans have the potential of being co-creators with Spirit, with the deeper patterns of nature and universal design."
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"The promise of Conscious Evolution is nothing less than the emergence of a universal humanity capable of guiding its own evolution into a future of unimaginable co-creativity," according to Hubbard's website.
The Vatican's April report also noted "a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR."
The nuns and their supporters say the act of questioning and debating church teaching is not the same as disobeying it.