The national assembly is the first since a Vatican review concluded the Roman Catholic sisters had tolerated dissent about the all-male priesthood, birth control and homosexuality, while remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion. Officials at the Holy See want a full-scale overhaul of the organization under the authority of U.S. bishops.
The 900 sisters at this week's meeting in St. Louis "are asking God to show us to the next best step we can take," said Sister Mary Waskowiak, director of development for the Mercy International Association in Burlingame, Calif. The executives of the group have called the Vatican report flawed.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 American sisters. The rebuke from the Holy See, issued in April, prompted an outpouring of support for the sisters nationwide, including parish vigils, protests outside the Vatican embassy in Washington and a resolution in Congress commending the sisters for their service to the country. A spokeswoman for the nuns group said Thursday they had received more than 1,500 cards from supporters from around the world, some of which were placed on tables at the meeting.
"Thank you for all you do to support the needy and underserved in our world," read one.
"Have courage! It doesn't have to be this way," read another.
The Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, began its review of the organization in 2008, following years of complaints from theological conservatives that the nuns group had become secular and political while abandoning traditional faith.
After the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles as they sought to more fully engage the modern world. The nuns focused increasingly on Catholic social justice teaching, such as fighting poverty and advocating for civil rights, but insisted they had kept prayer and Christ central to their work.
Vatican investigators praised the nuns' humanitarian efforts but said the conference had "serious doctrinal problems" and promoted "certain radical feminist themes" that undermine Catholic teaching. Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain has been appointed along with two other American bishops to oversee rewriting the groups' statutes, reviewing its plans and programs and ensuring the group properly follows Catholic ritual. One part of the Vatican censure focused on the speakers the nuns had selected for their annual meetings. The keynote address this year was from a woman who described herself as a futurist who leads a movement called "conscious evolution."
The sisters face a limited range of options for how they can respond to the assessment from Rome, given that their organization was created by the Vatican. The president of the nuns group, Sister Pat Farrell, is expected to make an announcement Friday as the meeting ends. She has indicated in her public remarks this week that the sisters may not formulate a definitive response.
Sister Mary Rose, a Connecticut nun for 51 years, believes the nuns can resolve their disagreements with church leaders.
"I think we probably have differing perspectives. We come from a lived experience that is different," she said. "But I think we have the same goal in mind, which is the following of Jesus Christ. I'm convinced the spirit will lead all of us."
Associated Press writer Jim Salter reported from St. Louis. AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported from New York.