In showdown with American sisters, the Vatican blinked

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 16, 2014

The Vatican blinked.

After a 3-year study of American women’s religious orders, undertaken because of problems that are both grave and obvious, the Congregation for Religious has released a report that avoids direct criticism of religious orders, instead suggesting that the communities should evaluate themselves.

But for Catholics who long for a genuine revival of religious life in America, today’s report should not be too disheartening. First, because we knew this was coming. Second and more important, because another Vatican inquiry, aimed specifically at the Leadership Conference for Women Religious (LCWR), is still underway. This battle isn’t over yet.

When the process began, “battle” seemed to be exactly the right word to describe it. Cardinal Franc Rodé, who was then the prefect of the Congregation for Religious, explained that an investigation was needed because of serious flaws in religious communities. He pointed to the sharp decline in the number of women religious serving in the US, and observed that some orders has “simply acquiesced to the disappearance of religious life or at least of their community,” while others “have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church.” For their part, some of the most influential women religious in the US signaled their resentment of the Vatican’s inquiry and encouraged others not to cooperate with the apostolic visitation.

But within months it became clear that the Vatican—or at least the Congregation for Religious—had no stomach for confrontation. When an American prelate, Archbishop Joseph Tobin, became secretary of that Congregation in 2010, he wasted no time in saying that American sisters had nothing to fear from the investigation—that the Vatican wanted to pursue a “strategy of reconciliation.” Soon thereafter, in January 2011, the Brazilian Archbishop (now Cardinal) João Braz de Aviz replaced Cardinal Rodé as prefect of the Congregation, and announced that he saw a need to “rebuild trust” with women religious because of “some positions taken previously.”

For all practical purposes, then, the Congregation for Religious had made it quite clear three years ago—before the apostolic visitation was concluded—that there would be no severe criticisms, no serious calls for reform. So the gentle, non-confrontational tone of the final report cannot be attributed to the influence of Pope Francis; the course has been charted long ago.

“Sorry, folks, this is not a controversial document,” said Mother Mary Clare Millea, who had been appointed by the Vatican to conduct the investigation, at the December 16 press conference unveiling the final report. By all accounts she had done her work diligently and fairly, securing information about hundreds of religious communities despite widespread resistance. She submitted her report to the Congregation for Religious in January 2012. Nearly two full years passed before the Congregation released its own final report, based primarily on her findings. Evidently no one felt a great sense of urgency about the project.

That final report emphasizes the “profound gratitude” that the Church owes to the women religious who have done so much to shape the life of America’s Catholic community. The report takes a long-term perspective, and states:

Throughout the nation’s history, the educational apostolate of women religious in Catholic schools has fostered the personal development and nourished the faith of countless young people and helped the church community in the USA to flourish.

It is indisputably true that for most of the nation’s history, women religious dominated the field of Catholic education. But the report breezes past the alarming disappearance of the sisters from parochial schools—and the resulting collapse of many such schools-- over the past 40 years or so.

The Vatican briefly acknowledges that the number of women religious has plummeted in the US—from about 125,000 in the 1960s to about 50,000 today. But the report tries to soften the force of that spectacular decline by saying that the boom in religious life during the 1960s was a “relatively short-term phenomenon.” Indeed it was; a more demanding study would have asked why. Was Cardinal Rodé right to say that some communities were committing a form of institutional suicide? That question is unanswered in the Vatican’s report.

Also unanswered in Cardinal Rodé’s warning that some communities of women religious had so thoroughly embraced radical theological ideas that they had placed themselves “outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church.” Yet anyone who reads the Vatican report carefully will find, nearly hidden by the gentle language, clear indications that Cardinal Rodé’s fears were justified.

Thus for example, in calling upon the religious communities to evaluate themselves, the Congregation for Religious suggests:

  • …measures need to be taken to further foster the sisters’ intimate relationship with Christ and a healthy communal spirituality based on the Church’s sacramental life and sacred Scripture.
  • …review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.
  • Caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith.

If some religious communities live a communal spirituality that is not based on the sacraments and sacred Scripture; if some are not in harmony with the most fundamental Catholic teachings; if some have displaced Christ—then those communities have very serious problems. The Vatican report offers useful guidelines for communities that are willing to undertake reform.

Unfortunately, the communities most in need of reform are precisely the ones least likely to heed this gentle message from the Vatican. So we are left to hope that, in its dealings with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will not pull its punches.

Or perhaps, in the longer run, we can rely on the likelihood that when the most fractious religious orders die out—as the actuarial tables say they will, and soon—the problems will die with them.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Dec. 22, 2014 4:40 PM ET USA

    No "report" is ever going to address ecclesial reality until it addresses the pervasive refusal to honor the meaning of the Crucifixion. Every soul sins, and every soul is delusional about having sinned, and every soul creates belief systems to support self-esteem in such a way that does not involve faulting oneself for anything evil. The ecclesial culture that gutlessly continues to avoid ever mentioning the very concept of the sin of pride needs to change.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Dec. 16, 2014 10:01 PM ET USA

    That which is rewarded will be repeated. I'm dizzy from seeing "LWCR delenda est" change to to "illi oportet esse adulatos"

  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 16, 2014 9:32 PM ET USA

    The CARA numbers are much larger in losses than you indicate. CARA reports 180k nuns in 1965 and by 1985 the number had dropped to 115k. All told from '65 to today it has been a 72% decreases. Between 1970 and '75 alone, they suffered a 15% drop in numbers. Here's the link. http://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/requestedchurchstats.html

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Dec. 16, 2014 5:50 PM ET USA

    I wrote a book (and certainly not a sugarcoated one) on a troubled LCWR community and I am not as disappointed as you. The document released today truly does refer to many of the most serious problems, albeit in the form of positive guidance and with a lot of sugarcoating. Some of these groups are really teetering in terms of their ecclesial communion. The goal of this document had to be drawing them back, NOT becoming the last straw that toppled some groups out of the Church.