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Clash of the titans: Vatican takes on reforming US nuns

LCWR, Tony Gentile / Reuters, file

Sister Janet Mock, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), is among a delegation meeting Cardinal William Joseph Levada on Tuesday.

ROME - What do American nuns do when they are accused of being radical feminists? They respond as radical feminists might: by challenging the male authority face-to-face.  

Sister Pat Farrell, head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group that represents 80 percent of the U.S.'s 57,000 Catholic nuns, traveled to Rome to confront accusations that her organization promotes "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." 


Farrell met American Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on Tuesday.  The gathering was aimed at reconciling their differences, but it has the potential to permanently alienate many American nuns from the Holy See. 

From the beginning, the meeting was fixing to be a titanic clash between strong-willed servants of God.  

On one side next to Farrell sat Sister Janet Mock, the group’s executive director.

Opposite them, Cardinal Levada was joined by Vatican-appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain, who has been named to oversee the overhaul of the the LCWR.  Sartain has been given the power to rewrite the group's statutes, its meeting agendas and liturgical texts. 

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Alessandro Speciale, the Vatican Correspondent for Religion News Service, said the discussions – held in private – were unlikely to have been amicable.

The Catholic Church accused the nation's largest organization of American nuns of espousing "radical feminist" ideas. MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell discusses the charges with Sister Jeannine Gramick, who was once silenced by the Vatican, and Jeff Stone, communications director of Dignity USA.

"It will (have been) a deaf argument," he told NBC News.  "They will both try to force their message across, but it's unlikely to be a friendly chat."  

Both sides emerged from Tuesday's meeting without giving much away. 

Farrell told journalists outside the Vatican she had an "open dialogue" with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and found the support in America "very affirming."

Likewise, the Vatican did not go into much detail on the meeting's outcome, but said the gathering had happened in an "atmosphere of openness and cordiality."  

Catholic nuns group 'stunned' by Vatican scolding for 'radical feminist' ideas

What is almost certain is that Farrell, a determined representative of thousands of American nuns, asked Levada to reconsider the damning assessment his office issued about her group. The report followed a two-year investigation into the nuns' outspoken social and political outreach, which has often differed from the Vatican's official position.

Tensions between the American nuns and the Vatican have been simmering for years, and stem from the open discussion among LCWR's members of sensitive issues such as gay marriage, contraception and on the ordination of women.

On April 18, the Vatican harshly criticized the group, and accused it in a statement of perpetuating "a distorted ecclesiological vision, and (having) scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church's Faith."

Magisterium, the official teaching authority of the Catholic Church, is made-up of the pope and bishops.  Ecclesiological refers to the nature and functions of the church.

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In his first ever Twitter message, Pope Benedict XVI announced a new online portal that aggregates the Vatican's various media on one website. The Tweet from the pope was sent from and ipad.

The Vatican then appointed a trio of bishops to deal with the differences with the LCWR.  

The LCWR's official response came more than a month later, but it was just as strong-worded.

The nuns said that the Vatican's charges are based "on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization."

Whatever happened behind closed doors at the Vatican on Tuesday, the meeting will eventually help the world's estimated 1.2 billion Catholics understand whether the Vatican and the American nuns can reach a compromise – or, as seems more likely, remain poles apart.  

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