VATICAN CITY - The Vatican said Monday that Pope Francis supports the Holy See's crackdown on the largest umbrella group of U.S. nuns, dimming hopes that a Jesuit pope whose emphasis on the poor mirrored the nuns' own social outreach would take a different approach than his predecessor.
The Vatican last year imposed an overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious after determining the sisters took positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." Investigators praised the nuns' humanitarian work, but accused them of ignoring critical issues, including fighting abortion.
On Monday, the heads of the conference met with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who is in charge of the crackdown. It was their first meeting since Mueller was appointed in July.
In a statement, Mueller's office said he told the sisters that he had discussed the matter recently with Francis and that the pope had "reaffirmed the findings of the assessment and the program of reform."
The conference, for its part, said the talks were "open and frank," and noted that Mueller had informed them of Francis' decision.
"We pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church," the conference said on its website.
The Vatican crackdown unleashed a wave of popular support for the sisters, including parish vigils, protests outside the Vatican's embassy in Washington, D.C., and a U.S. Congressional resolution commending the sisters for their service to the country.
Following Francis' election, several sisters had expressed hope that a Jesuit pope devoted to the poor and stressing a message of mercy rather than condemnation would take a gentler approach than his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Francis has called for a more "tender" church and one that serves society's poorest — precisely a message American sisters have stressed in their ministry in hospitals, hospices, soup kitchens and schools that serve some of the most marginalized in the U.S.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author who has been a staunch supporter of the U.S. sisters, cautioned against reading too much into the Vatican statement.
He noted that Francis' first appointment to the Vatican bureaucracy was that of the Rev. Jose Rodriguez Carballo as the No. 2 in the Vatican's congregation for religious orders. Rodriguez Carballo had been superior of the Friars Minor branch of the Franciscan order that was founded by the pope's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted himself to helping the poor.
Martin said it would have been unusual for Francis to undo a process that has been years in the works and that as a Jesuit he is "naturally going to be sympathetic" to the challenges faced by members of religious orders, such as those represented by the nuns' conference.
As part of its imposed reforms, the Vatican appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops to oversee a rewriting of the conference's statutes, to review its plans and programs, approve speakers and ensure the group properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.
The conference represents about 57,000 sisters, or 80 percent of U.S. nuns. It has argued that the Vatican reached "flawed" conclusions based on "unsubstantiated accusations." The group's officers have said they would participate in discussions with Sartain "as long as possible" but vowed they would not compromise their group's mission.