VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Tuesday sought to deny there were any internal divisions over its crackdown on the largest umbrella group of U.S. nuns after a top Vatican official complained that the Holy See's reform project had caused him "much pain."
The head of the Vatican's office for religious orders, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, was quoted over the weekend as saying his office wasn't consulted or even advised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about its decision to overhaul the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of American sisters.
The Congregation last year placed the Leadership Conference under the authority of a U.S. bishop after determining that the sisters took positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
Braz de Aviz was quoted by the National Catholic Reporter as telling an international gathering of sisters in Rome on Sunday that he only learned of the Congregation's crackdown after its report had been completed. He said he told the then-prefect of the Congregation, U.S. Cardinal William Levada, that the issue should have been discussed with his office but wasn't.
Braz de Aviz was quoted as saying he hadn't spoken out publicly before about the lack of consultation because he "didn't have the courage to speak."
On Tuesday, the Vatican said Braz de Aviz's words were misinterpreted.
"The prefects of these two congregations work closely together according to their specific responsibilities and have collaborated throughout the process," the statement said.
It said Braz de Aviz and the current prefect of the Congregation, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, met Monday and reaffirmed their commitment to renewing religious life in the U.S. as well as to the Vatican's reform plan for the Leadership Conference.
While remarkably blunt and forthcoming, Braz de Aviz's revelations about the internal divisions sown by the stealth nature of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are not new.
In 2009, the Congregation announced it had created a new church structure to make it easier for Anglicans upset over the progressive trends in their church to convert to Catholicism.
The Vatican's office for relations with Anglicans and other Christians wasn't consulted, much less advised, about the initiative.
The retired head of that office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has since become one of the most vocal proponents for a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy so that its departments actually work together rather than against one another.
The Vatican's crackdown on the Leadership Conference unleashed a wave of popular support for the sisters, including a U.S. Congressional resolution commending the sisters for their service to the country. It also cost Braz de Aviz's deputy his job: Archbishop Joseph Tobin was removed as the No. 2 in the Vatican's congregation for religious orders after he — like Braz de Aviz — spoke publicly about the need for the Vatican to mend fences with American sisters. Tobin is now archbishop of Indianapolis.
The sisters' hopes for a change in approach with the arrival of Pope Francis — a Jesuit dedicated to the poor — were dashed last month when Mueller said he had discussed the crackdown with Francis and that the pontiff had reaffirmed the original findings and reform plan.
In its statement Tuesday, the Vatican said Braz de Aviz and Mueller "reaffirmed their common commitment to the renewal of religious life, and particularly to the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and the program of reform it requires, in accordance with the wishes of the Holy Father."
As part of its imposed reforms, the Vatican appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops to oversee a rewriting of the conference's statutes, to review its plans and programs, approve speakers and ensure the group properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.
The conference represents about 57,000 sisters, or 80 percent of U.S. nuns. It has argued that the Vatican reached "flawed" conclusions based on "unsubstantiated accusations." The group's officers have said they would participate in discussions with Sartain "as long as possible" but vowed they would not compromise their group's mission.
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