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Catholic World News News Feature

Apostolic visitation of US nuns is making waves July 02, 2009

A front-page New York Times story on the Vatican's concern about women's religious orders in the US offers a strong indication that the apostolic visitation announced earlier this year is being taken seriously-- both by the Holy See and by American nuns.

The fact that the Vatican is concerned about religious life in the US is not news. In February it was made public that the Congregation for Religious had ordered an apostolic visitation of the American religious orders. Then in April the Vatican followed up with a second announcement: the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is also under scrutiny because of its support for causes (such as the ordination of women) that are at variance with Catholic doctrine.

But the thrust of the July 2 story by reporter Laurie Goodstein was not report breaking news. Rather it was to put the old news in context, giving readers a better sense of what those earlier announcements mean in practice. The Vatican inquiries, the Times story indicated in the opening paragraph, have "startled and dismayed nuns who fear they are the targets of a doctrinal inquisition."

Well, they are.

In the case of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the Vatican has been explicit in saying that doctrinal issues are the central concern. According to the Times, the Vatican complained several years ago that the LCWR "had failed to 'promote' the church's teachings on three issues: the male-only priesthood, homosexuality and the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the means of salvation." But that is a very delicate way of stating the problem. It would be less genteel, but more accurate, to say that the LCWR is charged with openly opposing Church teaching on those issues.

Sister J. Lora Dambroski, the LCWR president, told the Times that she plans on "clarifying some misperceptions" about her group's statements and activities. If she means that the LCWR will issue a forthright endorsement of Church teaching, she will surely satisfy the Vatican's demands. But if she means that the group plans to continue issuing carefully hedged statements, while actively encouraging dissenters, the Vatican scrutiny will be redoubled-- as well it should be.

As for the broader investigation of American religious orders, the Times conveys the suspicion among some American nuns that "the real motivation is to reel in American nuns who have reinterpreted their calling for the modern world."

Once again, those fears are warranted. Catholic religious orders have a great deal of autonomy in directing their own activities, but they remain-- like all Catholics-- subject to the guidance of the hierarchy. The Vatican's concern about American religious life, as revealed by Cardinal Franc Rodé last year, is that some women's orders may have changed so radically that they have broken free of the gravitational pull of Catholicism, and begun living apart from the Church.

It's interesting, in this context, that Sister Sandra Schneiders, a leading figure in resistance against the Vatican inquiry, says that the ideas of many women religious and that of Vatican officials are "just not on the same planet." Schneiders has been urging women religious not to cooperate with the apostolic investigation, and the Times discloses that only 55% of American religious orders have responded to inquiries from the Vatican's delegate, Mother Clare Millea.

"Church historians said that the Vatican usually ordered an apostolic visitation when a particular institution had gone seriously astray," the Times tells us. Just so. The women's religious orders in the US are dwindling in numbers; they are down to just about one-third of the membership they claimed a generation ago. Many of them are drifting away from the Church; they cannot bring themselves to issue a clear statement of support for contested doctrines. And a substantial number of religious superiors are not even willing to cooperate with a Vatican appraisal of their orders' spiritual health. The Holy See has ample reason for concern that American women's religious orders have "gone seriously astray."

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