A nun watches Pope Francis hold Mass in Vatican City last month before his… (Christopher Furlong / Getty…)
ROME — Pope Francis has backed the Vatican's doctrinal crackdown on a major group of American nuns, reasserting the Roman Catholic Church's conservative approach to various social issues in a move that could cool the warm reception he has received from some liberal Catholics since taking office last month.
The Vatican said in a statement Monday that Francis had reaffirmed the doctrinal evaluation and criticism of U.S. nuns made last year by the Holy See under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The assessment accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization that represents most U.S. female Catholic orders, of promoting "radical feminist themes" and ignoring the Vatican's hard line on same-sex marriage and abortion.
At the time, the Vatican dispatched an archbishop to rewrite the group's statutes and set up reeducation programs to bring nuns back into line, alleging that leaders of U.S. orders had challenged the church's teachings on women's ordination and ministry to homosexuals.
The move was denounced by Pat Farrell, then the head of the organization, as creating "pain and scandal." Protest vigils were held outside churches, and a petition attacking the Vatican's decision attracted 50,000 signatures.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious represents about 57,000 sisters, or 80% of U.S. nuns.
On Monday, officials from the conference met with Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, the head of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, the Vatican's envoy to the nuns, was also present.
Mueller reminded conference officials that organizations such as theirs "are constituted by and remain under the direction of the Holy See," the Vatican's statement said, and that Francis had "reaffirmed the findings of the assessment and the program of reform" prescribed for the nuns.
In a short statement after the meeting, the conference said only that "the conversation was open and frank. We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the church."
Sartain, who is being assisted by two U.S. bishops, is still in talks with the conference and has yet to impose changes.
Kenneth Briggs, the author of a book about the Vatican's clash with U.S. nuns, said Francis' backing of the Holy See's unyielding line was "a major blow" to prospects for more dialogue.
"It seems like the Vatican has put a more appealing salesman in charge of the same old product," Briggs said.
Since his election, Francis has won positive reviews for his informal style, his off-the-cuff homilies and his desire to reach out to the poor. But he has long been known for his conservative views on social issues.
Father James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest in the United States who led a Twitter drive last year to defend the nuns, said it was too soon to say whether Francis, the church's first Jesuit leader, was shutting the door on dialogue.
"Given the long history of the LCWR investigation, it's not surprising that Pope Francis is asking the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith] to continue its work. It would have been odd for him to halt things at this point, so early in his job," Martin said. "But given that he himself is a member of a religious order, I would imagine that the sisters will get a sympathetic hearing from him."