April 15, 2013; The Washington Post

For anyone who was wondering whether this Pope would lighten up on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), that wait is over. He has no plans to do so, and in fact has reaffirmed Pope Benedict’s Critical Doctrinal Assessment, which charged the umbrella group that represents 80% of the nuns in the U.S. with staying silent on such issues as same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and the male-only priesthood, and promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Representatives of the LCWR met Monday, April 15 with Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, who was appointed last year to oversee a five-year process of rehabilitation in hopes that the nuns can be brought into line with the male hierarchy of the church and at that meeting were informed that Pope Francis has reaffirmed the reprimand and need for investigation.

An article in the New York Times a year ago stated, “The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that ‘disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.’ During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it—support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.”

Some had hoped that Pope Francis’s own experience in the Jesuits, a men’s order devoted to the poor and powerless, might dispose him to back off the Conference. After all, according to the Daily Beast, it was James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America, a magazine on Catholic issues, who has waged a campaign on behalf of the LCWR. He told the Daily Beast that, “There is a danger of backlash because of the esteem [in which] so many Catholics hold nuns. For many Catholics, sisters are the glue that holds the church together.” The LCWR agreed, and they issued a statement condemning the Vatican’s criticism after last June’s first meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith LCWR. “Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency,” they said at the time. “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.”

But Father Martin does not necessarily think that this last meeting indicates that the issue is dead, saying, “Frankly, it would have been surprising had Pope Francis halted the long investigation of the LCWR, since he’s brand-new in his job…the appointment of the head of the Franciscans to a high post in the Congregation for Religious, which oversees religious orders, and the fact that the pope is a member of a religious order, makes me confident the Catholic sisters in this country, who have made inestimable contributions to the life of the church, will get a fair hearing.”

We’ll see.—Ruth McCambridge