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Vatican Tries To Mend Fences With American Nuns

The Vatican issued a report praising the work of U.S. nuns — a relief to those worried that a probe started in 2008 would be critical of a perceived liberal streak among American nuns.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There were words of appreciation today for American nuns from the Vatican. This comes at the end of an investigation that many U.S. Catholics had feared would criticize American nuns as too liberal. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli says the report seems to reflect a more inclusive approach by Pope Francis than that taken by his predecessor.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The Vatican press conference was packed, and it was a rare occasion where women outnumbered men. Dozens of American nuns came to hear the final results of an inquiry known as an apostolic visitation. It had caused resentment and mistrust among many American religious women toward the Catholic Church's male-dominated power structure. Sister Sharon Holland is president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents the leaders of 80 percent of U.S. Sisters. She acknowledged that when first announced by the Vatican, the investigation had caused apprehension.

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SHARON HOLLAND: Some congregations reported that their elder sisters felt that their whole lives has been judged and found wanting.

POGGIOLI: The final report, she added, has put those fears to rest.

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HOLLAND: Today, we are looking at an affirmative and realistic report which we know is based on the study of written responses and on countless hours of attentive listening.

POGGIOLI: The inquiry was launched in 2008 during the papacy of Benedict the 16th by the Vatican Office for Religious Orders. It's then-head, Cardinal Franc Rode, had voiced concern over what he called American nuns' secular mentality and a certain feminist spirit.

Traditionalists had complained that many American nuns were liberal activists and didn't always follow Catholic teaching.

But the final report contained none of the judgmental tone or disciplinary measures that many Catholics had feared. The 10-page-long report expresses appreciation for the dedicated work of nuns in education, health and among the poor. It quotes Pope Francis's major document so far, "The Joy Of The Gospel," seven times and repeatedly stresses his call for a more inclusive presence of women in church decision-making. Sister Sharon Holland was asked if the conciliatory tone and content of the final report reflects Pope Francis's influence.

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HOLLAND: I'm willing to give him all sorts of credit.

POGGIOLI: But the report also addresses some of the major challenges facing women's orders in the U.S. There are currently 50,000 nuns compared with 125,000 at their peak in the 1960s, and their median age is mid to late 70s. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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