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US priests reportedly behind Vatican crackdown on nuns

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Cardinal Bernard Francis Law prays during the Eucharistic celebration with the new cardinals on November 21, 2010 at St. Peter's basilica at The Vatican.

A Vatican crackdown launched last month on the largest leadership organization for U.S. nuns reportedly was spurred on by American Catholic officials worried the nuns aren't vocal enough on conservative social issues.

On April 18, after a three-year investigation, the Vatican’s doctrine watchdog appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the nuns' organization and reform its programs to adhere more closely to "the teachings and discipline of the Church." 

The issues raised by the Vatican include the nuns' lack of outspokenness on issues such as gay marriage, abortion and contraception. Another concern is related to the conferences organized by the group featuring "a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

In a statement, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization representing 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the U.S., said it had been "taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate."

The Vatican’s initiative was triggered by U.S. Archbishop William E. Lori's petition to investigate the nuns, according to the National Catholic Reporter and the British Catholic weekly The Tablet. Lori was recently appointed by the pope to lead the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

According to those same reports, Cardinal Bernard F. Law -- disgraced former archbishop of Boston -- was "the person in Rome most forcefully supporting Bishop Lori’s proposal." After media reports revealed he had permitted priests accused of sexually molesting children to continue serving, Law resigned in 2002. Pope John Paul II appointed Law as archpriest of the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome in 2004, but he resigned from this position in November 2011 when he turned 80, the age most cardinals retire. 

Stephen J. Boitano / NBC via Getty Images file

Archbishop William Lori

Other American churchmen in Rome, including Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal James Stafford, reportedly backed the investigation, according to the Religion News Service. The probe was led by former archbishop of San Francisco Cardinal William Levada, who has served on the Vatican's doctrine congregation since 2005.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would not comment on the role of U.S. priests in the investigation into the nuns.

The Americans in Rome wouldn't have had the authority to start the investigation themselves, but they could lobby the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the Vatican's doctrine watchdog -- for it, religion journalist and Vatican expert David Gibson told msnbc.com. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the head of this congregation before he was elected pope in 2005.

Gibson, a Religion News Service correspondent, said the crackdown shows that concerns about poverty and economic inequality are taking a backseat in the church.

“There’s so much riding on the gay marriage battle, and on abortion rights, and on contraception that [bishops] want everybody in the church to be doubling down on those issues and not being distracted by social justice,” Gibson told msnbc.com.

Bishops have been playing defense for years in the wake of the church's sexual abuse crisis, and Gibson said they've been looking for issues on which they can reassert their moral authority.

“These issues are ones they think they can do that on, so they really want to show that... they’re calling the shots,” he added.

The statement issued by the Vatican read that "while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church's social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death."

While church leadership traditionally focuses on matters of doctrine, nuns have long been the public face of the church in the United States. They run the schools and hospitals and are concerned with performing the gospel rather than just preaching it from the pulpit, Gibson said.

American Catholics are showing their support for the nuns, organizing vigils all over the country to advocate for the end of the crackdown. The Nun Justice Project is one organization standing with the nuns against what they call "a prime example of how the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church misuses its power to diminish the voice of women."

An online petition started by Nun Justice had garnered more than 41,000 signatures at the time this story was written. Sister Annmarie Sanders, director of communications for the LCWR, told msnbc.com the organization finds the public support "heartening."

The LCWR will meet starting May 29 to begin its discussion of the Vatican's  doctrinal assessment and the implementation plan put forth by the Holy See. The Vatican has the power to remove the official recognition of the LCWR.

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