The leaders of the nation’s largest group of nuns sidestepped a confrontation with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, announcing that they would “dialogue” with the archbishop appointed by the Vatican to take over their group, but not “compromise the integrity” of their mission.

Sister Pat Farrell, the departing president of the nuns’ group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), said at a news conference recently that the members of her organisation wanted to be “recognised as equal in the church,” to have their style of religious life “respected and affirmed,” and to help create a climate in which everyone in the church can talk about “issues that are very complicated.”

“Their expectation is that open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understanding between the church leadership and women religious,” the nuns said in a statement, “but also to creating more possibilities for the laity, and particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.”

Some Vatican officials have already indicated exasperation with the nuns’ insistence on perpetual dialogue. They say that church doctrine is not open for dialogue. Cardinal William J. Levada, an American who until June was in charge of the church’s doctrinal office, called the nuns’ approach a “dialogue of the deaf.”

‘Wrong and a humiliation’

The decision to seek a dialogue came after more than 900 nuns spent four days doing what they call “listening to the Holy Spirit” inside a hotel ballroom. They represent about 80 per cent of the 57,000 Catholic nuns in the United States. They were responding to an edict issued in April by Cardinal Levada’s office, which ordered three American bishops to rewrite the Leadership Conference’s statutes, evaluate its programmes and publications, and revise its liturgies and rituals.

The Vatican accused the group of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” and “corporate dissent” against church teachings, like those prohibiting the ordination of women to the priesthood, same-sex relationships and artificial birth control.

Many nuns said they regarded the Vatican’s assessment as not only wrong, but also “a public humiliation,” said Sister Mary Waskowiak, a Sister of Mercy, in a news conference.

They said they did not want to respond with anger because they believed in dialogue as the best method for resolving problems. It is what the sisters say they practice within their own communities when they have differences, and they said they wanted to see this method serve as a model for others in and outside the church.

Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Jesuit School of Theology/Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., who recently received an award from the nuns’ group, said in an interview: “There is definitely a desire to de-escalate the conflict, because fighting is not what we’re about. But there are also non-negotiables,” she said, including the belief that God speaks through many people, not just through the bishops.

Archbishop Sartain praised the nuns in a statement 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 L.C.W.R.”

Some church analysts said the nuns’ group may be able to stall because the leadership in the Vatican is in flux and the overhaul is supposed to take five years. Cardinal Levada has been succeeded by a German, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller. He has called for the nuns to uphold church doctrine, but he has also said that he desires “mutual trust” with them. The standoff between the Vatican and the nuns has become a proxy for the struggle between the church’s right and left flanks. — New York Times News Service

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