The Vatican congregation in charge of religious life dropped a bombshell earlier this year when it announced a major apostolic visitation of American women religious orders.
Shock waves rippled through the larger of the two umbrella organisations which represent women religious in the United States. The selfconsciously progressive Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) accounts for 95 per cent of US women religious. The remainder – who wear habits – belong to the Council for Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), which broke from the LCWR in the 1970s and received official Vatican recognition in 1992.
Prominent members of the LCWR immediately expressed dismay at the news. “We cannot, of course, keep them from investigating,” wrote Sister Sandra Schneiders, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in a letter to friends. “But we can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are: uninvited guests who should be received in the parlour, not given the run of the house.” Less than a month after the visitation began, indignation turned to anger when the members of the LCWR learned that the organisation was also facing a separate doctrinal assessment by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). While the visitation sets out to understand the causes of the decline in vocations, the CDF has the narrower remit of investigating the theological positions of the LCWR. This is a crucial distinction to bear in mind.
On January 30 Mother Clare Millea, the international head of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was named as the head of the visitation. Round-cheeked under her coif Mother Clare looks like the antithesis of a Grand Inquisitor.
Her spokeswoman, Sister EvaMaria Ackerman, a former journalist and director of consecrated life for the Diocese of St Louis, addressed journalists at a press conference at the national shrine, explaining the shape and purpose of the visitation. Over approximately two years, in a four-stage process, she said, Mother Clare would gauge the “quality of life” of those religious in apostolic life, “actively engaged in service to Church and society”.
Sister Eva-Maria, a younger Sister, whose dark hair is visible under her modern habit, is an Alton Franciscan, a congregation attached to the CMSWR. Mother Clare’s congregation, which is also habited, belongs to both the LCWR and the CMSWR.
Several hours before the press conference the leaders of the two conferences received letters from Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, informing them of his decision to appoint Mother Clare and launch the visitation.
Explaining the purpose of the visitation, Sister Eva-Maria said: “The goal of this study is to ‘look into the quality of the life’ of women religious in the United States. In doing so, we hope to discover and share the vibrancy and purpose that continue to accomplish so much as well as to understand the obstacles and challenges that inhibit these individuals and institutions, thus limiting their growth and/or redirecting their resources and outreach.” Small-scale visitations are a normal part of religious life. They function as a way of ensuring the health of individual communities or even whole congregations. This one is different. For a start, it is being run by a woman, a first in the history of Vatican-commissioned visitations. It is also the first large-scale visitation focusing not just on one order or congregation but on the whole of American female religious life.
Rocco Palmo, an American Catholic blogger and journalist, says the apostolic visitation of women religious probably most closely resembles the controversial 2005 visitation of American seminaries as a result of clerical child abuse. Over 200 seminaries with some 4,500 students were investigated from 2005 to 2006 amid accusations that the inquiry served as an excuse to hunt out gay seminarians and priests.
On February 20 the LCWR circulated a statement on behalf of its board which said: “The planned visitation comes as a surprise to the conference and its purpose and implications for the lives of US women religious remain unclear.” It continued: “The LCWR board noted that the unanticipated news of the visitation has evoked a variety of responses in women religious, has generated many questions on what the visitation might involve and has prompted deliberations on how best to proceed with it. In addition to offering resources to members in preparation for the visitation, the board encouraged leaders to reflect on the stories of heroic service and creative fidelity of their own members.” Women religious have played a significant role in American Catholic history. It is not an accident that the first two American-born saints to be canonised were women religious. From St Elizabeth Ann Seton to St Frances Xavier Cabrini and St Katharine Drexel to St Théodore Guérin, consecrated women have shaped the American landscape. Plucky, pioneering and pious, they helped to build much of the Church’s infrastructure over the last 200 years.
Ann Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, an 1997 investigative work into the lives of American female religious, says the visitation should have surprised very few people.
She says: “The fact is, people who have been watching the deterioration of many women’s religious orders in this country were not at all surprised. Indeed, many Sisters themselves have asked and prayed for Vatican attention to the condition of women’s religious communities.” Long after publishing the book Carey still receives letters and phone calls from Sisters unhappy with how their communities have developed but unable to do anything about it. In some cases, she says, they were subjected to feminist liturgy and revised feminist breviaries. In others, leaders were so determined to push through a progressive agenda that they ignored the complaints of other members.
In the last 40 years, Carey says, religious women have increasingly abandoned their communities physically, while still belonging to them, to live in flats and work for nonCatholic institutions.
She says: “More serious is that fact that some Sisters dissent from the Church’s moral teaching and even advocate openly for causes like abortion access and gay marriage. Most serious is the fact that some Sisters no longer believe in some basic tenets of the Catholic faith and are not even practising Catholics.” Both Rocco Palmo and Ann Carey believe that the Symposium on Religious at Stonehill College in Massachusetts last autumn was a watershed moment for the Vatican. Speakers included Cardinal Rodé, Carey and Sister Sara Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity (which belongs to the LCWR). The speeches offered a scathing indictment of consecrated life in the United States.
Sister Sara, who teaches at St Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York, and is a well-regarded academic, came under fire last year after publishing a book defending the male priesthood – a position she had rejected in the past. At the conference she was heavily critical of the direction of women’s religious life. Slight, her eyes hidden behind enormous glasses, she nevertheless cut an imposing figure. She implied that some Sisters treated their communities like a hotel and criticised both major groupings of women religious for focusing on political issues rather than the needs of the Church.
She said: “It is puzzling and a cause for embarrassment that two of our national leadership conferences focus so resolutely on the world’s agenda and global issues and give so little attention to the urgent needs of the Church. Why do they seem to care more about the future of the earth than the future of the Church? If it is not a matter of ‘either-or’ but of ‘both-and’, what accounts for their selective emphasis?” At the end of the talks, the audience were invited to make suggestions. Two Sisters stood up and asked the cardinal for an apostolic visitation. One was Sister Sara.
At Stonehill Cardinal Rodé said that there were too many women religious in the United States to attempt a visitation. But according to the December decree for the visitation he met the Pope shortly after his American visit and expressed his concerns.
Women religious constitute by far the largest group of the Catholic population of the United States in vows. They have also experienced the most significant decline in members of any Church group since the numbers peaked in 1965, just after the Second Vatican Council.
Whereas the numbers of religious priests and religious brothers declined by 30 and 36 per cent respectively, the number of Sisters was down by 54 per cent in 2000, according to the Centre for Applied Research in Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown.
Nine out of 10 of America’s female religious are over 60, the latest CARA study of vocations said. According to the report, the newer Sisters favoured traditional prayers and devotions, and valued the liturgy and community life.
Even as the wells of religious life are drying up, the image of the parish Sister handing out prayer cards to the kids who were good at Mass or teaching English to a bunch of rowdy girls, helping out at a hospital, working with the poor or taking part in a peace march have left a mark on Catholic consciousness. So it is unsurprising that the visitation has piqued public interest in America. It even made the front page of the New York Times in July.
The visitation is not technically an investigation. Rather, it is a study of religious life in the United States. But it has come to be seen an aggressive probe by both its supporters and detractors.
On the wilder fringes of the Catholic blogosphere Mother Clare has been advised both to bring “vampire-killing kit” when she visits some more experimental communities and accused of being in charge of a Vatican-sponsored witch-hunt.
It is far too simplistic to view the visitation as a war between habited and non-habited Sisters or Vatican conservatives versus American progressives. Nevertheless, most coverage has been cast in those terms.
Sister Sandra Schneiders, a poised, elegant woman who carries herself with an air of authority, believes the visitation is “a fake war stirred up by the Vatican at the instigation of the frightened”. She has compared the CMSWR unfavourably to the LCWR, suggesting that the latter has followed faithfully the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis.
“We are different from ‘apostolic religious congregations’ (of whom the Vatican is much more approving) as the mendicants were from Benedictine monks,” she said. “The big difference is that they read Perfectae Caritatis and did what it asked: deepened their spirituality (I hope) and did some updating – shorter habits, a more flexible schedule, dropping customs that were merely weird, etc. We read Perfectae Caritatis through the lenses of Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium and we were called out of the monastic/apostolic mode and into the world that Gaudium et Spes declared the Church was embracing after centuries of world rejection.” But other members of the LCWR leadership and commentators on the internet forum of the National Catholic Reporter have taken a more cautiously positive view of the visi tation. On A Nun’s Life, a blog about female religious life run by the IHM Sister Julie Vieira, the comments have been noticeably more measured. Next to an article drawing attention to the visitation, Sister Julie voiced her fear that some people would like to turn the inquiry into a witch-hunt against non-habited Sisters. But she said she saw it as “a good thing” that “can truly benefit women religious in the US, the Church, and the people whom we serve”.
One commentater calling herself “A newly consecrated virgin” wrote: “Far from being a ‘witch-hunt’, I think the visitation is a sign of the Church’s pastoral concern for reli gious Sisters. If nothing else, it shows that the Vatican values apostolic women’s religious life just as much as it values seminary formation. I think that the confidentiality probably exists to protect everyone involved, and to foster an environment of honesty. If a religious congregation were having problems, it would undoubtedly be easier to address and solve them in a nonpublic forum, apart from unnecessary external criticism.” In the visitation’s first stage Mother Clare Millea met more than half the superiors general of the almost 400 institutes across America on a voluntary basis. From March to May she talked to almost 50 superiors general in Rome where she is based, meeting more upon her return to the United States. She had heard from over 200 superiors general before the end of the first phase.
Two weeks ago Mother Clare circulated the visitation’s instrumentum laboris, or working document, insisting that every Sister in every community receive a copy and reflect on the questions that it posed.
Again, she emphasised the need for confidentiality. Visitors, Mother Clare wrote, “will be bound by confidentiality” and those Sisters wishing to express their opinion can bypass their leaders and write to her directly.
Like the commenter on Sister Julie’s blog, Ann Carey believes this confidentiality exists so that Sisters who might otherwise be too frightened to criticise their leaders are able to describe their life in community with complete honesty.
With the publication of the instrumentum laboris the visitation entered its second and most laborious phase. The Sisters have some time to contemplate the questions in the document, which cover everything from religious identity to disciplining dissenting members and community prayer practices. Then, at the beginning of September, superiors general will be sent an extensive questionnaire which they are required to answer. During this period Mother Clare will also be recruiting volunteers from the communities to assist the actual visitations.
In mid-February, the CDF announced that it would be looking into doctrinal issues faced by the LCWR. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition, as the New York Times reminded its readers), announced that he had appointed Ohio Bishop Leonard Blair to lead a doctrinal assessment of the Sisters.
The LCWR leadership received a letter informing them of the CDF probe based on doctrinal concerns expressed in 2001 which had yet to be settled. Sister Lora Dambroski, the group’s president, was unavailable to answer my questions as the organisation was holding its annual assembly in New Orleans. In a statement released after the gathering the LCWR Sisters said they would cooperate with both the assessment and the visitation but only if “those conducting the inquiries alter some of the methods being employed”. They also objected to not knowing where the funding for the studies was coming from and that “their orders will not be permitted to see the investigative reports about them that are being submitted directly to the Vatican”.
Called into life by Pope Pius XII in 1952 and officially established in 1956, the LCWR has had a historically fraught relationship with the Vatican. As Ann Carey explains: “I do think that the Sisters were not well respected in the past. It was really unfair the way in which the male hierarchy treated them. But I think that Americans tend to overreact and that’s what we are dealing with here; a severe overreaction to earlier mistreatment. The difficulty is that there are now Sisters moving outside the Church and Rome has finally realised.” Like many of their generation, a number of women religious embraced feminism, Liberation Theology, progressive political causes and esoteric spirituality. Many openly dissented against Humanae Vitae and other Church teaching. In the late 1980s members of the LCWR and their male counterparts discussed a future of religious life in which they envisaged religious communities evolving into ecumenical organisations, open to married couples “and people of different genders and sexual orientation” with optional vows.
A couple of run-ins with the CDF in the 1990s and a vocal culture of “loyal dissent” laid the groundwork for the doctrinal warning for the LCWR leadership in 2001, according to Carey. Even after the warning, she says, they continued to invite dissenting keynote speakers to their annual gatherings, most notably the Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink.
Sister Laurie, a distinguished-looking woman with high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes, gave a controversial keynote address to the LCWR in 2007, in which she described four different “general ‘directions’ in which religious congregations seem to be moving”. Of the four, “sojourning” was perhaps the most surprising option Sister Brink presented to the assembly.
She said: “The dynamic option for religious life, which I am calling ‘sojourning’, is much more difficult to discuss, since it involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion.
“Its search for the holy may have begun rooted in Jesus as the Christ, but deep reflection, study and prayer have opened it up to the spirit of the holy in all of creation. Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is post-Christian.” Describing a Sister who had explained that she “was rooted in the story of Jesus” but had “moved beyond Jesus”, Sister Laurie said that the “Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative for these women”.
She continued: “With these insights come a shattering or freeing realisation – depending on where you stand. Jesus is not the only son of God. Salvation is not limited to Christians. Wisdom is found in the traditions of the Church as well as beyond it. Sojourners have left the religious home of their fathers and mothers and are travelling in a foreign land, mapping their way as they go. They are courageous women among us and very well may provide a glimpse into the new thing that God is bringing about in our midst.” After Sister Laurie’s speech many observers concluded that a doctrinal assessment was inevitable. But the CDF probe has come as a shock for some LCWR members.
As Sister Ann Marie Mongoven, another Sinsinawa Dominican, wrote from the LCWR’s New Orleans assembly last week: “We did what the Church asked us to do and we have been renewed in faith and hope and love. I am convinced that the quality of our lives today is more deeply rooted in the Gospel values than it was in an earlier time.” It is too early to say what conclusions will emerge from the visitation or out of the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR. It is even less clear what sort of measures the different Vatican dicasteries will be able to take once they have completed their assessments. For the time being, America’s women religious must stand a while longer at a major crossroads in their history.