By Mary Wisniewski
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - More than 300 supporters of a group of U.S. Catholic nuns accused by the Vatican of straying from church doctrine held a vigil on Thursday evening near the St. Louis Arch, across the street from the site of a massive meeting of the group.
Their message: Don't mess with the nuns.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is conducting its first national assembly since Catholic Church leaders accused the group of focusing too much on social justice issues like poverty and not enough opposing abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. About 900 nuns are attending the four-day assembly.
At the vigil in front of the 178-year-old Basilica of St. Louis, men and women held signs saying "Thank you sisters" and "Nunsense not nonsense" as passing cars honked in support. Many attendees wore light blue, a color associated with the Virgin Mary.
"I think the Vatican chose the wrong group of people this time," said attendee Marg Beckmann, a 78-year-old Catholic from Illinois.
Another attendee, Sharon Tebbe, 69, of the St. Louis area, said she believed women should be able to be priests.
"I support the nuns and their rights to express themselves," Tebbe said. "I appreciate all they do to educate our children, to care for our sick and to help our poor."
The Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has rebuked the LCWR for remaining quiet as some nuns publicly challenged bishops on matters of church doctrine, including ordination of women, which is prohibited. The assessment also complained of "radical feminist themes" in some LCWR programs.
The Vatican has put the organization under the effective control of three U.S. bishops. The decision has led to protests across the country in support of the nuns.
The organization represents 80 percent of the 57,000 Roman Catholic nuns in the United States.
In between speakers and prayer services at the assembly, the nuns were meeting in private sessions to talk about how they should respond to the Vatican assessment. LCWR members gave no sense Thursday of what that response will be, saying they preferred to wait until the "discernment" process is complete.
LCWR President Pat Farrell will give a press conference Friday afternoon, but it is possible that no decision will be reached by the end of the assembly.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan)