Francis Calls Off the Nun Police

In what might be his most impressive practical measure to create a new atmosphere in Roman Catholicism, Pope Francis has quietly called an end to what almost has to be called an inquisition of American nuns accused of too much interest in social justice concerns and too little subservience to the political priorities of the (all-male) hierarchy. Here’s how the New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein describes the detente:

The Vatican has abruptly ended its takeover of the main leadership group of American nuns two years earlier than expected, allowing Pope Francis to put to rest a confrontation started by his predecessor that created an uproar among American Catholics who had rallied to the sisters’ defense.

Anticipating a visit by Francis to the United States in the fall, the Vatican and the American bishops were eager to resolve an episode that was seen by many Catholics as a vexing and unjust inquisition of the sisters who ran the church’s schools, hospitals and charities.

Under the previous pope, Benedict XVI, the Vatican’s doctrinal office had appointed three bishops in 2012 to overhaul the nuns’ group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, out of concerns that it had hosted speakers and published materials that strayed from Catholic doctrine on such matters as the all-male priesthood, birth control and sexuality, and the centrality of Jesus to the faith.

But Francis has shown in his two-year papacy that he is less interested in having the church police doctrinal boundaries than in demonstrating mercy and love for the poor and vulnerable — the very work that most of the women’s religious orders under investigation have long been engaged in.

Francis also spent some serious time with four leaders of the previous hounded nuns’ group, and made it pretty plain where his sympathies lay.

The friendly resolution came as a great relief to the sisters and their supporters, who had feared that the Vatican could dissolve the Leadership Conference or take permanent control of it, said the Rev. James Martin, editor at large with the Jesuit magazine America, who wrote often about the conflict. “What you see with the sisters is true courage, which is being faithful to the church authority and also to who they are,” he said.

Francis is sure to disappoint many of his progressive fans, particularly non-Catholics, and his innovations continue to be in matters of emphasis and integrity, not so much doctrine. But in creating a climate more conducive to free expression, and in relaxing a previously ever-intensifying Vatican insistence on patriarchal culture war, the Pontiff has certainly opened many doors to reform.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.