Vatican censures 'feminist' nuns for supporting US healthcare reform

Holy See faces new PR disaster as it orders a crackdown on what it views as liberal dissenters

Rome

The Vatican, already battered by child abuse and financial scandals, faces another public relations disaster after censuring "feminist" nuns in the US, allegedly for their support of the Obama health reforms.

Leaders at the Holy See are demanding radical change at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents the majority of women's religious orders in the US, after it backed the new health policy, including controversial rules on abortion and contraception, in what observers see as part of a growing crackdown on liberal dissenters. It also accused the group, which has around 1,500 members, of "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith". It noted the rebellious sisters were daring to "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops... the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals".

The Vatican's key watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made this week's portentous declaration following an investigation by Bishop Leonard Blaire, of Toledo, Ohio. The Congregation said that the LCWR "does not promote Church teaching" on questions of human sexuality, in addition to being "silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia". No one at the Vatican was available to comment yesterday. The LCWR, meanwhile, said its presidency "was stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment".

Vatican sources, reported in Italy's La Stampa, said the stance of the nuns had caused such concern that Archbishop Peter Sartain from Seattle had been appointed as a special delegate to review the rules, organisation and liturgical texts of the women's group, as well as scrutinise its affiliation to other organisations. The affiliated group thought to be causing the most concern is Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, based in Washington. Network backed the Obama administration's healthcare overhaul, despite the bishops' warning that the bill would provide government funding for abortion.

Sister Simone Campbell, the group's executive director, told the Christian Science Monitor she thought the report was prompted by the healthcare changes, noting that the review began in 2009 and continued until June 2010, coinciding with the bill's passage. "Our position on healthcare was the application of the one faith to a political document that we read differently than the bishops," she said. Vatican expert Robert Mickens of The Tablet newspaper said the situation followed attacks on dissenting Irish priests and formed part of "a crackdown against any forms of dissent particularly in the US and Western World". "Make no mistake, these crackdowns come from the very top," he said. "And what's so frightening is that while these attacks on the liberal leftwing are going on, Pope Benedict continues to cosy up to the far-right, anti-semitic Society of Saint Pius X's."

The Society, founded in 1970 by the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was kicked out of the Catholic church and shunned by moderate and mainstream Catholics. But observers believe Pope Benedict, 85, sympathises with many of the radical group's policies.

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