Nuns walk alongside pilgrims as they travel up a road to the site where Pope… (Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated…)
Sister Simone Campbell doesn't wear a habit.
A nun for more than 40 years and an attorney for 35, the executive director of a Roman Catholic social justice lobby called Network doesn't feel she should wear one.
Her voice mail refers to her simply as "Simone," and she hasn't worn the long, gray dress habit since her early days as a nun.
Such an approach doesn't sit well with some Catholics.
"Love the traditional nun ... I really would like to see the habit back," Patricia Earp, a Catholic, said on Twitter.
The tweet was prompted by a recent Vatican report that upbraided the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, accusing them of deviating from church doctrine and promoting "radical feminist themes." The organization represents more than 80% of the nuns in the United States.
The report has unleashed a torrent of comment, much of it on the Internet, about the role of nuns in American life. Some Catholics called for more nuns to return to the cloister. Some praised the nuns. "They have taught me to value community, family, social justice for all, compassion, and well-being for the less able!" RisaDuSoleil tweeted.
The report from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the church's orthodoxy watchdog — was publicly released last month by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The report said that although the women's leadership group had been vocal about social justice issues — the report praised the nuns' work with the needy — the group had been unacceptably silent on other issues, notably opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. The Vatican ordered the nuns to focus more on promoting church orthodoxy.
Reactions to the analysis have included standard letters and phone calls as well as Facebook posts and Twitter hash tags.
"Fifty years ago, a document like this would have been published internally and then trickled down," said Sister Janice Farnham, a retired professor and historian at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.
Farnham said she read about the report on the BBC's wire and not through the "traditional avenues of the church."
The document quickly reached the masses through Internet links and re-posts.
Social media are the perfect place for people to weigh in when they feel voiceless, said Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything."
"Everyone who is baptized is part of the church, but sometimes Catholics don't feel that they have venues in which they can express their views," he said.
Martin started a hash tag (#whatsistersmeantome) to thank nuns for dedicating their lives to the communities in which they work and to separate the comments from the rest of the twittersphere.
The conversation soon grew to include voices supporting orthodox, habit-wearing orders.
Jacob Biddle tweeted, "Sisters to me mean habited women who fight heresy and the devil, not embrace them like LCWR."
Robert Salazar tweeted a link to a cloistered community in New Jersey and praised its work. "Great sisters — obedient to God and His Church."
Some associated with the LCWR don't agree with the claim that they've strayed from church doctrine.
"For me, to follow Jesus was to engage in my community that struggled for civil rights," said Campbell, whose organization, Network, was singled out for criticism in the Vatican's review.
"To nourish my faith was to nourish my quest for justice, and my community does that."
The assessment, based on a two-year investigation, shook those affiliated with the conference and brought attention to how nuns conduct themselves. For example, some take a more activist role to their work, while others may focus on a more contemplative life.
"There is room for both kind of sisters," Martin said. "The problem is some Catholics think that being a traditional sister is the only way."
The various orders — though having pledged the same principal vows of poverty, chastity and obedience — have differing opinions on the Vatican's assessment.
The report "hasn't affected us at all. We are not associated with the group," said Sister Philomena Murphy, sister superior of the Congregation of the Sisters of Nazareth. The habit-wearing congregation runs a senior home in Los Angeles.
The conference has yet to discuss its next move, but continues to welcome the public's comments, in any tone or form, Campbell said.
"It's a stretch — holy moly — but it's a way forward if we move across these polarized divisions."