VATICAN CITY -- The election of a Jesuit pope devoted to the poor and stressing a message of mercy rather than condemnation has brought a glimmer of hope to American nuns who have been the subject of a Vatican crackdown, according to interviews with several groups. The nuns were accused of having focused too much on social justice at the expense of other church issues such as abortion.
The 2012 Vatican crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns, unleashed a wave of popular support for the sisters, including parish vigils, protests outside the Vatican embassy in Washington and a U.S. Congressional resolution commending the sisters for their service to the country.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered up the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR in 2009 around the same time another Vatican department launched an investigation into the 340 women's religious orders in the country in a bid to try to stem the decline in their numbers. The results of that review haven't been released.
But the doctrine investigation led the Vatican to impose a full-scale reform of the conference after determining the sisters had taken positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." Investigators praised the nuns' humanitarian work, but accused them of ignoring critical issues, including fighting abortion.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. bishops' conference, said he expected Pope Francis would bring "freshness" and understanding to the debate with the Leadership Conference, given Francis' own experience as a Jesuit familiar with the problems of life in religious orders. Francis also ran the Jesuit province in his native Argentina in the early years of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, which kidnapped and killed thousands of people -- including some priests -- in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.
Dolan said: "I think the greatest thing he's going to bring is to say to everybody `Be not afraid. We're friends. We're on this journey together. We can speak openly to one another. We both have things to learn. We both have changes we need to make and let's serve one another best by being trusting and charitable yet honest to one another."'
Dolan said it was "too early to say" whether Francis would take a softer approach on the crackdown than his predecessor, German theologian Pope Benedict XVI and his then-chief doctrinal watchdog, Cardinal William Levada, who has since retired.
Sister Nancy Sylvester of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Monroe, Mich., who has held leadership posts in U.S. sisters' groups, said she has been encouraged by Francis' emphasis on the poor.
"I am really trying to be hopeful," Sylvester said. She said there were signs in Francis' public comments as pope and his track record "that he would be much more sympathetic to women religious."
"He's an intelligent man, his experience clearly has changed him and I think those are good signs," Sylvester said in a phone interview.
U.S. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who preceded Dolan as head of the U.S. conference bishops, said he didn't expect any major shift in the process and said Francis' Jesuit background would actually bring the Vatican's reform greater credibility to its critics.
"He is a religious who governed a province through a lot of these difficulties," George said in an interview. "It's one thing to be for the poor, it's another thing to be for the poor in a way that compromises the teaching of the church. He showed that. And if anybody can bring credibility to the religious superiors ... it will be a religious pope."
The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a Jesuit priest when the Vatican in 1989 imposed a similar crackdown on the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious orders, purportedly because it relied too heavily on Marxist interpretation of social ills -- a victim of the Vatican's overall crackdown on liberation theology at the time in the region.
Bergoglio is no friend of liberation theology, the Latin American-inspired view that flowered in the 1970s and 1980s that Jesus' teachings imbue followers with a duty to fight for social and economic justice. He has disavowed it as a misguided strain of Catholic tenets.
But that doesn't mean he rejects the ultimate goal. Francis' addresses and homilies as cardinal often referred to the need for the church to focus on the world's economic failings and growing divides between rich and poor -- a theme he made clear would be a priority now that he is pope in his homily at this week's installation Mass.
In that homily and in one two days earlier, Francis also gave a hint about how he might exercise the power that he now wields: with tenderness and mercy, not condemnation and punishment.
"I think we too are the people who, on the one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand at times like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others," Francis told parishioners at the Vatican's St. Anna church on Sunday. "And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think - and I say it with humility - that this is the Lord's most powerful message: mercy."
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a social justice lobby founded by nuns four decades ago, said "it can make a big difference" to have a pope who knows about life in religious orders.
"This is a time of wait and see. I've talked to a lot of people are more hopeful than they have been in a very long time," said Campbell, who was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention that nominated President Barack Obama for a second term. "There is a huge hunger for spiritual leadership, real spiritual leadership, and I hope it goes to that and not to the internal political fights. ... This has always been about an internal political fight. It's never been about faith."
Campbell said no one expects church officials to ever announce they would drop plans for the overhaul, even if they decided the approach was misguided. "They'll never say this is a bad idea. That will never happen," Campbell said. "The most we can hope for is that the Italian method is followed where it quietly slips to the background and life goes on."
But Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, a theologian at Boston College, a prominent Jesuit school in Massachusetts, argued that there is some evidence Francis could take a hard line with American sisters. Jesuits have a different approach to religious authority than many sisters do, grounded in obedience to a superior, she said.
"I would think Pope Francis would have the same understanding," Hinsdale said. Religious sisters' vow of obedience "operates more through the community, more democratically," Hinsdale said.
"He's clearly a theological conservative," Hinsdale said of Francis. "He's religious himself, however he's a Jesuit."
Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops were named by the Vatican to oversee rewriting the Leadership Conference's statutes, 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.
The Leadership Conference 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.
The LCWR declined a request for an interview but said in a statement their conversations with Sartain continue. "We look forward to continuing to work with the Vatican for the good of the whole church," the group said.
Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for Sartain, said the archbishop was not available for an interview. However, Magnoni said "no one knows at this point whether Pope Francis' election will have an effect" on the reform. At a Seattle news conference last week on Francis' election, Sartain said he had no reason to believe his role overseeing the changes would be different under the new pontiff.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of "The Jesuit Guide" who has been an outspoken supporter of U.S. sisters in the wake of the Vatican crackdown, said Jesuits have traditionally worked closely with sisters and even helped found their religious orders.
"Since the pope's first homily focused specifically on `tenderness,' we may see that his application of church rules will be a little more gentle," he said.