ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - Hundreds of U.S. Catholic nuns meeting in St. Louis for their annual convention face a major decision about the future of their organization the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In April a Vatican mandate ordered that the group place itself under the direction of the Bishop of Seattle and reform their programs to come closer to Catholic teachings and dogma.
The sisters who are leaders in their own individual orders must decide how to proceed whether inside or outside the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. The mandate indicated their conferences promoted "radical feminist" ideas and did not spend enough effort condemning gay marriage, abortion and certain forms of church prohibited contraception.
One of the speakers Thursday, Jamie Manson, a lay minister and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, warned, "The institutional church is wanting to scale back into what I think will look like a sect...very exclusive in membership, very counter cultural in a way they are offering refuge to those who are afraid of the world, afraid to engage people and are afraid of these movements of women's liberation and radical feminism and gay liberation and things like that."
Sisters from a variety of backgrounds pointed out their work is more on the edge of human despair and difficulty that the ministry of the bishops. "I think what we try to do is work with the people...especially the needy," said O'Fallon, MO Sister Ellen Orf. She added, "I think the Vatican is much more concerned about the dogma and that's not really where we are."
"The Church's mission is based on the gospel of Jesus, to heal, to teach, to reach out to those who are most oppressed ..to offer a word of encouragement," explained Sister Pat McDermott of Silver Spring, MD. "That role in the church is sacred to us, it is valuable to us, it's the heart of who we are and it is the heart of who we will be," she added.
Sister Donna Markham of Cincinnati is hopeful a dialogue will take place where both the nuns and the bishops listen to each other. "It's only going to work when we acknowledge our ministerial experiences are different and when we realize we have something to learn from each other, both sides," she suggested.
Sister Markham also warned the debate over the future role of U.S. sisters could have a major impact on the Catholic Church. "I think we have a decision to make now as to whether we as church are going to replicate the vitriolic polemic that is plaguing our culture today or whether we're going to model reconciliation and healing for our church in the world."
Some lay groups have held vigils in support of the sisters. One was scheduled for Thursday night in St. Louis by the Catholic Action Network.