Catholic nuns across the United States say they hope to defuse a head-on conflict with the Vatican over allegations their national leadership group has become too liberal and secular, but will not back down from their core mission.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which held a national meeting this month in St. Louis that attracted a record 900 members, decided to try to head off more conflict with the Vatican through continued dialogue, said Sister Mary Hughes of Amityville, who was at the conference and recently ended a three-year term as one of the group's top three leaders.
The clash has left the future of the nuns' group unclear. In the most extreme case, the group could decide to dissociate itself from the Vatican. For its part, the Vatican has threatened to withdraw its recognition of the group, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. nuns.
"We hope it doesn't reach that," said Hughes, who is also head of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville. "It's women who really love the Church and who desire to be in an organization recognized by the Church."
In a statement, the group said it "will proceed with these discussions as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission."
The Vatican launched an investigation of the group in 2008 and issued a scathing report in April accusing it of promoting "radical feminism" and failing to support official Church teachings on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and the all-male priesthood. The Vatican ordered a special delegate to intervene and oversee the group.
The nuns deny they oppose official Church teachings, and contend they are merely implementing the directives of the 1962-65 Vatican II Council aimed at moving the Church more into the modern world. As they shed their habits, the sisters expanded their traditional work in schools and hospitals to include advocacy on issues such as the environment, nuclear weapons, poverty and social justice.
In an interview, Hughes said the Vatican is misinformed about the nuns. On issues such as same-sex marriage, she said, the group has not issued any official positions.
On abortion, she said, nuns help fight it by working in programs such as Birthright that help pregnant women seek alternatives to abortion.
But she said dialogue with the Vatican over the years has failed to address Rome's concerns. "Clearly tensions have risen to a point where they are not healthy," she said.
After the group's meeting Aug. 7-10, leaders met with Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, designated by the Vatican to oversee the rewriting of the organization's statutes, review its plans and programs, and approve speakers at its events.
Hughes didn't attend that meeting because she had just stepped down from her post, and was briefed by the group's leaders, who "felt their first dialogue was very positive."
In a statement, Sartain praised the nuns' work and said, "We must also work toward clearing up any misunderstandings, and I remain truly hopeful that we will work together without compromising Church teaching or the important role of the LCWR."
Some church experts said it is unclear whether the conflict can be amicably resolved. The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C., said that while neither side wants a "train wreck," avoiding one will require compromise.
If the concerns about the nuns emanated from American cardinals, as some suspect, the Vatican might back off, Reese said. But "if it came from the Pope, there's not going to be any backing down."
Vatican says nuns do not always have the Eucharist at the center of their lives.
Nuns say they do, noting that at the national conference in August, a huge ballroom was packed every day for 7 a.m. Mass.
Vatican alleges group at times promotes "radical feminism" that is "incompatible with the Catholic faith."
Nuns such as Sister Mary Hughes of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville say that for some sisters the term "radical feminism" might mean espousing equality between men and women.
Vatican says nuns do not always support Church's official teaching on all-male priesthood.
Nuns may question such Church doctrines, but Hughes says, "to raise a question is not the same thing as defiance."
Vatican says group has been "silent" on the abortion issue.
Nuns responded that they fight abortion not just by political lobbying, but through programs such as Birthright that help pregnant women seek alternatives to abortion.