Nuns greet Pope Francis as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for his… (Valdrin Xhemaj / EPA )
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.
In a statement issued Monday, the Vatican said Francis had “reaffirmed” the doctrinal evaluation and criticism of U.S. nuns carried out last year by the Vatican under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The assessment accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization that represents most U.S. female Catholic orders, of promoting “radical feminism” and of 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. Peter Sartain, the archbishop 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, adding that Francis had "reaffirmed the findings of the assessment and the program of reform" prescribed for the nuns.
In a short statement following 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.”
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