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Andrew Medichini, Associated Press
Sister Sharon Holland reacts during a press conference at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. The Vatican went out of its way Tuesday to mend fences with American religious sisters, thanking them for their selfless work caring for the poor, gently suggesting ways to survive amid a decline in numbers and promising to value their "feminine genius" more.
There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this report. Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on. —Sister Sharon Holland

VATICAN CITY — A sweeping Vatican investigation of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States that began five years ago over fears they had become too feminist and secular ended up mostly praising the sisters Tuesday — a major shift in tone and approach under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.

The report thanked the sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor and promised to value their "feminine genius" more, while gently suggesting ways to serve the church faithfully and survive amid a steep drop in their numbers.

The overwhelmingly positive report was cheered by the sisters themselves, dozens of whom swarmed the Vatican news conference announcing the results in a rare occasion of women outnumbering men at the Vatican.

"There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this report," Sister Sharon Holland told reporters. "Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on."

The report was most remarkable for what it didn't say, given the criticism of American religious life that prompted the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI to launch the investigation in 2009.

There was no critique of the nuns, no demands that they shift their focus from social justice to emphasize Catholic teaching on abortion, no condemnation that a feminist, secular mentality had taken hold in their ranks.

Rather, while offering a sobering assessment of the difficult state of American congregations, the report praised the sisters' dedication and reaffirmed their calling in a reflection of the pastoral tone characteristic of history's first Jesuit pope.

It was a radically different message than that of another Vatican office that investigated an umbrella group of the sisters' leaders.

That investigation, conducted by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, resulted in a Vatican takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2012. The doctrine office determined that the LCWR, which represents the leaders of 80 percent of U.S. nuns, took positions that undermined church teaching and promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

The Vatican's congregation for religious orders has long sought to distinguish its broad investigation into the quality of life of American sisters from the more narrow doctrinal assessment carried out by the orthodoxy office.

But both investigations began within months of one another and resulted in tremendous feelings of betrayal and insult from the sisters.

The probes also prompted an outpouring of support from rank-and-file American Catholics who viewed the investigations as a crackdown by a misogynistic, all-male Vatican hierarchy against the underpaid, underappreciated women who do the lion's share of work running Catholic hospitals, schools and services for the poor.

Theological conservatives have long complained that after the reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, women's congregations in the U.S. became secular and political while abandoning traditional prayer life and faith. The nuns insisted that prayer and Christ were central to their work.

Holland, who heads the Leadership Conference, acknowledged that the investigation was initially met with apprehension and distrust, particularly among elderly sisters who "felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting."

But she said the results showed that the Vatican had listened and heard what the sisters had to say.

Asked if the change in tone reflected Francis' new leadership, Holland said "I'm willing to give him all sorts of credit."

"He's been a great encouragement and hope to a lot of us," she said.

The report outlined the bleak reality facing American women's congregations now: The current number of 50,000 U.S. sisters represents a fraction of the 125,000 in the mid-1960s, although that was an atypical spike in U.S. church history.

The average age of U.S. nuns today is mid-to-late 70s. They are facing dwindling finances to care for their sisters as they age and haven't had much success in finding new vocations. The report asked the sisters to make sure their training programs reflect church teaching and ensure their members pray and focus on Christ.

It stressed an appreciation for their work and expressed hope that they take "this present moment as an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust" with the church hierarchy.

The report noted many sisters have complained that their work often went unrecognized by priests and requested improved dialogue with bishops to clarify their role in the church and give them greater voice in decisions.

The report noted that Francis, who has pledged to bring more women into decision-making positions in the church, has recently asked the Vatican to update a key document outlining the relationship between bishops and religious orders.

Given that the report didn't find any major problems or recommend any major changes in the way U.S. religious live out their vocations, the question arose about whether the tensions the investigation produced — not to mention the time, cost and effort involved — were worth it.

"I would say it was worth it," Holland said. "We benefited in ways we didn't know we would benefit."

Signaling that the change in the Vatican's tone might also extend to the LCWR crackdown, Holland said she was "working hard and working well" with Vatican-appointed delegates who took over the Leadership Conference and that the process might end sooner than originally expected.

"We're moving toward resolution of that," she said

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