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What pressure from the Vatican is doing to American nuns

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20 2014 4:10 a.m. MDT

Sister Anne Nasimiyu, of Kenya, right, and Sister Lucy Marindany, of Milwaukee, Wis., join other members of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) at their national meeting Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012 in St. Louis. They met to decide how to respond to rebukes from the Vatican.

Seth Perlman, Associated Press

Facing declining numbers and challenges from the Vatican, American nuns are reassessing their work on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which brings together representatives of more than 80 percent of America's nun population, is leading the debate over the role of the country's nuns. In preparation for the organization's annual assembly last week, Pew Research Center published a summary of current events impacting the community.

Pew reported that tension between American nuns and Vatican leaders has been evident over the past five years, with the group enduring investigations and pressure to reform.

"While the church's specific concerns with the nuns are complex, a few major areas were highlighted in a 2012 Vatican document, which said the LCWR was 'silent on the right to life from conception to natural death' and that Roman Catholic views on the family and human sexuality 'are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teachings,'" the article explained.

The LCWR has resisted the Vatican's interference, most recently by awarding its Outstanding Leadership Award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson has been singled out for criticism from the church after gaining notoriety for her writings on feminist theology, the National Catholic Reporter explained.

In her acceptance speech, Johnson criticized the amount of time and resources that the Vatican has dedicated to policing the LCWR.

"When the needs of the suffering world are so vast; when the moral authority of the hierarchy is hemorrhaging due to financial scandals and to many bishops' horrific dereliction of duty in covering up sexual abuse of children … the waste of time and energy on this investigation is unconscionable," she said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could be partners, not adversaries, for the good of the church and the world."

Religion News Service reported that the Vatican's ongoing investigation, which began in 2009, escalated in 2012 with the appointment of Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain as overseer. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has asked for a "rewrite of the group's charter and approval of all speakers at future assemblies," RNS explained.

"In addition to Vatican scrutiny, nuns also face a big challenge in their dwindling ranks," Pew noted. Using data from Georgetown University, Pew reported that "the total number of nuns, also called religious sisters, in the United States has fallen from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014."

The decline should concern people even outside the church, given the long history the American nun community has of offering aid to suffering people. Nicholas Kristof, in his New York Times column this weekend, called nuns superheroes, profiling several of the most famous women among their ranks.

"Forgive us for having sinned and thought of nuns as backward, when, in fact, they were among the first feminists," Kristof wrote. "In a world of narcissism and cynicism, they constitute an inspiring contingent of moral leaders who actually walk the walk."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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