“People are stunned,” said Sister Pat McDermott, president of the 3,500-member Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, based in Silver Spring. “They’re outraged, angry, frustrated, they don’t know where this came from and how to hold it.”
Thousands of people joined a Twitter drive to support the Leadership Conference, which represents more than 80 percent of American nuns. Using the hashtag #whatsistersmeantome, one person wrote of the nun who “was the rock of our Catholic campus.” Another man tweeted about how his father lost his own mother at 13. “It was the Mercy sisters who consoled and loved him onward.”
The conflict highlighted the deep divisions among American Catholics about such issues as sexuality and the male-only priesthood, as well as about how much church leaders should focus on clarifying Catholic doctrine and how much on caring for the poor.
While experts said nuns generally have focused more on such issues as poverty and health care — and less on doctrine — they are not homogenous. Traditional, habit-wearing nun groups are growing more than less traditional orders these days, and reaction to the Vatican move among nuns was “all over the map,” said Mary Gautier, a researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, a Catholic school.
The Vatican report took the nuns to task for making “occasional public statements” that disagree with the bishops, “who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”
The group condemned by the Vatican represents a wide range of prominent nuns, also called women religious, from Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, which runs 2,000 hospitals and other health facilities, to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is to implement the Vatican action. They both declined to comment.
Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain has been assigned to oversee a “reform” of the Leadership Conference, which may involve changing the group’s statutes and who speaks at events.
Tensions have publicly flared recently between the bishops and the leadership conference — along with a few other large prominent nun-led groups — over public-policy issues. Some bishops were angry when the leadership conference supported the White House’s health-care reform, which the bishops’ conference had vigorously opposed. The bishops also have focused on opposing a White House mandate that employers, including religious ones, offer birth control, while the nuns accepted a compromise from President Obama.