By Mary Wisniewski
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - The largest group for American nuns begins a four-day meeting in St. Louis on Tuesday to consider a response to the Vatican's decision to assign effective control of the group to a trio of bishops because the nuns had strayed from church doctrine.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is conducting its first national assembly since church leadership accused the group of focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough opposing abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia.
The Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith also criticized the group for remaining quiet as some nuns publicly challenged U.S. bishops on matters of church doctrine, including ordination of women and public policy.
The Vatican has put the organization under the effective control of three U.S. bishops, who have the power to rewrite its statutes, meeting agendas and liturgical texts. The decision has led to protests and vigils across the country in support of the nuns.
The organization represents 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. Roman Catholic nuns, and about 900 sisters from 320 communities are registered to attend, according to the LCWR president, Sister Pat Farrell.
Farrell said in a press call last week that the conference will include "time for prayer and communal reflection and thoughtful consideration and, very importantly, time to listen to one another." She said the LCWR finds it "absolutely critical" to get a sense of how the membership is thinking.
"One of our concerns is that questioning is seen as defiance," Farrell said.
MAYBE NO DECISION
It is possible that no decision will be reached by the end of the Assembly, but private sessions will give leadership a sense of the "leaning" of the group, Farrell said.
In early June, LCWR issued a statement calling the Vatican's rebuke "unsubstantiated" and "the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency."
Some nuns have suggested that the LCWR, which was founded in 1956 at the request of the Vatican, might dissolve its official ties with the church and become an independent nonprofit group. Others have said that the best course may be to stall and hope Vatican scrutiny will fade with time.
The U.S. bishop assigned to supervise reform of the group, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, will meet with LCWR leaders soon after the Assembly, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both sides have tried to be "prayerfully collaborative," Walsh said.
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, who is assisting Sartain in reviewing the group's work, disputed the idea that the Vatican action was a crackdown.
Blair, in an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," said it was meant to be an effort to work with the group "to have them enter into dialogue with us in order to remedy what we feel are serious doctrinal concerns."
But Blair, who conducted the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, said that "no middle ground" is possible on matters of faith and morals.
John Gehring, Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group, said he did not think the LCWR would make a "quick, snap judgment." He called the gathering "the most important meeting in the history of the LCWR."
"Catholic sisters face a defining moment and want to remain true to their broad social justice mission in a time when the church is increasingly conservative and narrowly focused on issues like same-sex marriage," Gehring said. "There is a lot at stake."
The conference opens Tuesday evening and concludes Friday. Farrell is expected to speak at a press conference Friday afternoon.
(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Vicki Allen)