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Vatican continues crackdown on U.S. nuns under Pope Francis

NEW YORK - The Vatican official overseeing the crackdown on the largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns is pressing forward with the overhaul under Pope Francis.

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, reprimanded officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for planning to honor a theologian who had been criticized by U.S. bishops and said the sisters must show more willingness to cooperate.

Mueller made the remarks in a meeting last Wednesday with the group's leaders in Rome. He apologized repeatedly for speaking so bluntly, while reminding the sisters their organization held its status within the church only through Vatican approval.

"The LCWR, as a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See, has a profound obligation to the promotion of that faith as the essential foundation of religious life," Mueller said, according to a copy of his speech posted Monday on the Vatican website. "We are looking for a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration."

The nuns' group said in a brief statement Monday that the meeting with Mueller and his staff was "respectful and engaging," but the sisters would not comment further. The cardinal's remarks were first reported by The National Catholic Reporter.

The reform order was issued in 2012 under now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, after an investigation concluded the nuns' group had taken positions that undermined Roman Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." Investigators praised the nuns' humanitarian work, but accused them of focusing too much on social justice and ignoring critical issues, such as fighting abortion.

The nuns' group rejected the Vatican findings as "flawed" and based on "unsubstantiated accusations." Some sisters had hoped for a new approach under Pope Francis, a Jesuit who has stressed mercy over morals and has made social justice issues his top priority.

In last week's meeting, Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he supported the conclusions of the Vatican review.

"The issues raised in the assessment are so central and so foundational, there is no other way of discussing them except as constituting a movement away from the ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord," Mueller said.

The Leadership Conference, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. nuns, plans to give its outstanding leadership award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian and author of "Quest for the Living God." U.S. bishops said the book contained "misrepresentations" and doctrinal errors, but Johnson has defended her work. Mueller didn't mention Johnson by name, but said the choice of honoree will be "seen as a rather open provocation."

The award will be conferred at the August assembly of the Leadership Conference. Mueller said that after the event, the nuns must be sure to submit their plans for awards and major meetings ahead of time to Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, whom the Vatican has appointed to oversee the reform. Mueller said Sartain was informed of the choice only after the decision had been made.

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