The Latest Vatican Critique of U.S. Nuns

Her hands were impossibly clean. Her habit smelled of sunshine. Sr. Cyrena Harkins, RSM was the principal of St. Richard’s School and the sculptor of my early Catholic formation. When our baby brother was badly burned, the sisters at St. Dominic’s hospital nursed him back to health. Later, in another state, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa added to the certainty that “Jesus loves you because I’m here to show you so.” Millions of Catholics have similar happy memories of America’s religious sisters. Today, millions more have rarely seen a sister in a school or hospital or soup kitchen.

Last December, the Church released its five year study of American women religious. The inquiry was prompted by concerns of a “secularist mentality.” In the turbulent decades since the 1970s many religious congregations faltered; some failed altogether.

Anyone familiar with the heart wrenching destruction of the IHM Sisters of California by Rogerian psychological experiments knows of the pressure that many vowed women suffered. The Second Vatican Council was viewed by some as an invitation to dismantle religious discipline in search of new “structures.” Others were simply victims—as were many lay people—of the culture war that still rages today.

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By the 1990s a virulent wave of dissent engulfed most of the houses of women religious. Prominent professors and “femilogians” openly espoused new theologies. Sister Sandra Schneiders, a professor of New Testament Studies at Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, author of New Wineskins: Re-Imagining Religious Life Today told a conference of dissidents “Scripture is violently sexist—the problem is in the texts” and, “we reject a woman made from man, subject to man….”

Lured by FutureChurch and other heterodox organizations, “self-actualization,” “sensitivity training” and new-age trans-humanist horizons, too many women marched out of their convents and into the chaos.

The loss to the sisters themselves and to the Catholic community is incalculable. A Pew Research project reports that from its peak of 180,000 sisters in 1965 (16 percent of the world’s religious women), American women religious today are numbered at only 50,000, despite a national population growth of 100 million souls.

New vocations do sprout in those congregations that managed fidelity to their original charisms. But far too many are troubled by internal divisions or have derailed into dissenting camps with an outward mission of “peace and justice” that has scant focus on Jesus Christ. It’s little wonder that the latter group attracts few vocations. More often than not, the image of women religious today is an elderly woman demanding “women’s ordination” or an angry feminist theologian whose theological writings spurn all authority.

Enter Rome. In 2008, after years of soto voce exchanges, the Church announced an official investigation: The Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America. Its stated purpose was “to look into the quality of the life of religious women in the United States” under the guidance of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL). Visitations are described as part of normal governance to “evaluate an ecclesiastical entity in order to assist the group in question to improve the way in which it carries out its mission in the life of the Church.”

CICLSAL understood that the investigation would cause some discomfort:

We initiated the Visitation because of our awareness that apostolic religious life in the United States is experiencing challenging times. Although we knew that any initiative of this magnitude would have its imperfections, we wished to gain deeper knowledge of the contributions of the women religious to the Church and society as well as those difficulties which threaten the quality of their religious life and, in some cases, the very existence of the institutes.

The visitations spanned three years and included evaluations of nearly 400 houses. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life selected an American, Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., as the Visitator.   A “sister-to-sister” model was suggested.

Mother Millea and her team made on-site visits to twenty-five percent of the institutes and conducted a comprehensive questionnaire of major superiors. Data gathered included details of communal and spiritual life and ministry work. The evaluations included members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) who represent eighty percent of American women religious, and the newer Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). Cloistered communities were exempt.

In 2009, one year after the announcement of the Apostolic Visitation, a separate inquiry into LCWR alone was initiated by Rome. It is unclear whether or not preliminary reports from the Visitation conducted by Mother Millea revealed issues particular to LCWR that required this additional level of investigation.

More likely, the known irregularities within LCWR were legion. This includes years of open, public dissent from Church teaching; thus a deeper investigation and plan for reform of LCWR was needed.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued its Doctrinal Assessment to LCWR in 2012 including mandates for reform of its statutes and by-laws. The Assessment was reconfirmed by Pope Francis in 2013. Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle oversees this renewal effort. Thus far the LCWR has rejected the reforms.

Cardinal Muller, prefect of the CDF, frankly acknowledged that tension in April of 2014 during a meeting with LCWR leadership. “We are aware that, from the beginning, LCWR Officers judged the Doctrinal Assessment to be ‘flawed and the findings based on unsubstantiated accusations.’ ” Incredibly, the LCWR’s choice of speakers for their recent meetings—in particular St. Joseph sister Elizabeth Johnson whose writings have received criticism from the USCCB’s doctrine committee—violated the requirements such that Cardinal Muller judged it an “open provocation against the Holy See….”

This Doctrinal Assessment and required reforms (still not accepted by LCWR) are not part of the December 2014 report on the Apostolic Visitation. One wonders if secular publications understand that there are two separate inquiries into American women religious. Before the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation was issued in December, several outlets predicted an authoritarian male dominance stance toward America’s consecrated women. Once the Report was published, these same outlets applauded it as an “olive branch” or “conciliatory” in tone or even as Pope Francis’ gentle hand balancing the heavy hand of the CDF. The Economist wrote that the Report represented a reversal of Pope Benedict’s “castigating tone” to Pope Francis’s “supportive” approach. Those who assume that Pope Francis would “support” a feminist-focused life for women religious have overlooked his plain statement, “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of female machismo because a woman has a different make-up than a man.”

The sisters themselves rejoiced when the Report was received. The findings praise consecrated women for their courage and selflessness. It highlights the contributions they’ve made to American history, especially in education and healthcare. There is a clear concern for the dearth of vocations which threaten the survival of some institutes: “Some institutes reported that they have suspended vocation efforts for a variety of reasons, the most common being the declining membership….”

Interestingly, the Report observes what to many members of LCWR must be a painful truth,

Vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life.

There is also a pointed note against an eco-pantheism. In an era where new-age mysticism tantalizes many, the Report warns,

Caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith. Truly, the Word of God is the one through whom the cosmos is created and sustained in being since “all things have been created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things have their being” (cf. Col. 1:16f). This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.

Significantly, the section on prayer calls on communities to “evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer. We ask them to discern what 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.”

The Report is appreciative and tender; it certainly does not “castigate.” Yet, it does not gloss over the difficulties facing women religious. Nor does it pretend that those who have strayed from authentic prayer and communal life can go their own way—and survive.

Perhaps it is wisdom that the Report stops short of directives. It favors language such as “This Congregation asks…” and urges “evaluation” where changes are clearly intended. Unlike the direct reforms required in the LCWR Assessment, the Report reflects the Congregation’s expectation that consecrated women will welcome the path to a renewed vocational life lived in communion with the Church.

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Postscript: The Church has called for a celebration of a Year of Consecrated Life, November 30, 2014 to conclude on February 2, 2016, World Day of Consecrated Life.

(Photo credit: Sr. Elizabeth Johnson photographed in August 2014 by NCR reporter Dan Stockman at the LCWR conference in Nashville.)


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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