Under Pope Francis, Vatican changes its tone toward American nuns

The Vatican ended its crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the major umbrella group for American nuns. Under the previous pope, an investigation and overhaul was launched against the group for straying from church teachings. To discuss the significance of the move, Judy Woodruff talks to Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press.

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    There was an important and surprising change from Vatican City today. It has ended a crackdown placed on the major umbrella group for U.S. nuns.

    The group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had been accused under the previous pope, Benedict, of straying from church teaching and overemphasizing social justice. The Vatican's earlier actions were seen as especially tough on women in the church.

    Pope Francis met with some of the sisters for nearly an hour today.

    A look at the significance and what this was all about with Rachel Zoll. She's national religion writer for Associated Press.

    Rachel Zoll, thank you for being with us.

    First of all, remind us, what was the origin of this dispute between Women Religious and the Vatican and the previous pope?

  • RACHEL ZOLL, Associated Press:

    Well, the investigation started about seven years ago.

    And the Vatican never said specifically why they started it, but it emerged from tensions over church teaching and the modernizing reforms of the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council convened, and the church went into the modern era. The nuns followed them along. They shed their habits. They took on higher-level professional jobs in academia, and they focused on social justice issues, such as fighting poverty and fighting war.

    And what happens is that theological conservatives within the church started becoming concerned. They wondered if and very openly questioned whether the sisters had left behind the kind of traditional prayer life that was so important to the church, and many people openly questioned whether the sisters had actually been violating church teaching in some of the programming and some of the issues that they had emphasized.


    So what proportion of the Women Religious of the nuns were affected by the action the Vatican took a few years ago?


    Well, there were two separate investigations that ran parallel. One was for this organization called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It's an umbrella group for the heads of women's religious orders.

    And, separately, but parallel, there was an investigation, or a review, called an apostolic visitation of all the women's religious orders in the United States. And while both of these investigations differed in some ways, they did also together look at the fidelity to church teaching of the sisters in United States.


    So many women were affected by this. So what is the significance then of what the Vatican announced today?


    What happened today was very much an abrupt about-face from the tone of the investigation itself.

    In 2012, the Vatican's Doctrine Office announced that they were mandating a reform, a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. And they issued a report that was very harsh in its condemnation. They said that the programming for this organization was undermining church teaching on issues such as same-sex relationships and the priesthood, that they had given platform to people who had been — gone too far in terms of their questioning of church teaching.

    And the phrase that stuck out for a lot of people was that they were accuse of promoting radical feminist themes in some of their programming. Now, the leaders of the organization themselves said that these conclusions were deeply flawed, that, yes, that they were — there was questioning of church teaching, but it was well within the bounds of fidelity to the church.


    So, just in a nutshell, today's announcement means what?


    That the Vatican review is over, that the oversight that the bishops themselves had taken of the organization is over, that the Leadership Conference is free to go forward and do the programming and the work that they want to do.

    There's one caveat, though, and that is that within the very short report that was released from the Vatican today about what is going to happen, there was some talk of some continuing review of the — whether or not their programming was doctrinally sound.

    It's not clear what that means. However, most people feel that the that the investigation itself is over and that this is good news for the nuns.


    Well, the fact that you described it as an about-face is significant and certainly bears watching going forward.

    Rachel Zoll with the Associated Press, we thank you.


    Thank you.

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