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Saturday, August 11, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

'Radical' group of U.S. nuns plans talks with Vatican liaison

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
The New York Times

ST. LOUIS — The leaders of the nation's largest group of nuns sidestepped a confrontation with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, saying Friday that they would "dialogue" with the Seattle 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, said at a news conference that the members of her organization wanted to be "recognized 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."

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

The board of the nuns group is to meet Saturday with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the Vatican appointee charged with overhauling the nuns' group.

The nuns' decision to seek a dialogue came after more than 900 nuns spent four days doing what they call "listening to the Holy Spirit" at round tables inside a hotel ballroom. They represent about 80 percent of the 57,000 Catholic nuns in the United States.

They were responding to an edict issued in April by Levada's office, which ordered three U.S. bishops, led by Sartain, to rewrite the Leadership Conference's statutes, evaluate its programs 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, such as those prohibiting the ordination of women to the priesthood, same-sex relationships and artificial birth control.

In a statement Friday, Sartain praised the nuns' contributions to the country and said he would work to address the issues raised by Levada "in an atmosphere of prayer and respectful dialogue."

But he added that the two sides "must work toward clearing up any misunderstandings" without compromising either the role of the nuns or the teachings of the church.

Many nuns said they regarded the Vatican's assessment as wrong and "a public humiliation," said Sister Mary Waskowiak, a Sister of Mercy, in a news conference Thursday.

The nuns 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 said they practiced within their own communities when they had differences, and they said they wanted to see this method serve as a model for others in and outside the church.

Sister Sandra Schneiders, professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Jesuit School of Theology/Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, 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, and that truth is something to be discerned and not handed down.

"We don't believe all the answers are in," she said.

Gretchen Gundrum, the organizer of I Stand With the Sisters, a group formed in Seattle in April to support the nuns, said she was encouraged by Sartain's statement.

"I hope that the archbishop and the rest of the hierarchy will come to a deeper understanding of how the sisters see themselves and their mission," she said.

The group is planning a march in Seattle on Sunday to support the nuns, she said.

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. Levada has been succeeded by a German, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller. He has called for the nuns to uphold church doctrine, but he has said 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. As the nuns were reminded this week, many Catholics who want to see their church overhauled are looking to the nuns to be their voice.

"Our church has become so judgmental," Thomas Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal Catholic media outlet, said in a speech to the sisters Thursday. "We get edicts of judgment after edicts of judgment. Who's there to say we love you, we support you, to say we understand your pain?"

But it is the job of the Vatican's office to rein in those who dissent, said Ann Carey, author of "Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities," who is covering the nuns' conference for the conservative National Catholic Register. "When they see someone trying to lead the laity in the direction of changing church teachings, to me that's a legitimate concern."

Seattle Times staff reporter Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.

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