By Valerie Schmalz
Does the Vatican have nuns on the run with a Vatican investigation of U.S. orders of religious women and a separate doctrinal inquiry into the largest umbrella group of American women Religious?
Or is the reaction in blogs, news reports and a spate of essays in America, Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter just a well-orchestrated public relations campaign by a small group of dissident nuns and their allies?
“To put it bluntly, I feel that American women Religious are being bullied,” wrote “Sister X” in an Oct. 9 essay in Commonweal. “It is the ecclesiastical analogue of a grand jury indictment,” assayed Sister Sandra Schneiders, a professor in the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in an Aug. 17 column in the National Catholic Reporter.
On Nov. 3, Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, issued a statement defending the visitation as a way “to encourage vocations and assure a better future for women Religious.”
The author of a book on women Religious told Our Sunday Visitor that most appreciate the visitation’s potential to offer support and guidance.
“My sense is that many — likely a majority — of sisters welcome the visitation and the opportunity to assess and improve religious life,” said Ann Carey, author of “Sisters in Crisis.”
She said she recently received an e-mail from one Religious who wrote: “One should not suppose that sisters who write or speak publicly against the visitation represent ‘most sisters.’ There is always the ‘silent majority’; in fact, the visitation may give members of this group a new opportunity to be heard.”
The two investigations were announced in quick succession. One is the apostolic visitation, which encompasses all apostolic (not contemplative) women religious institutes, numbering about 400 and encompassing 59,000 members.
The second is a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), one of two umbrella organizations canonically created to represent American religious orders to the Vatican. A primary reason for the investigation is positions in opposition to the magisterium that speakers and members have taken at national conferences. Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink, in the keynote address to the 2007 LCWR assembly, proposed one option for religious life would be “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.”
In announcing the inquiry last February, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Prefect Cardinal William Levada said it follows concerns expressed in 2001, specifically questions about whether LCWR accepts three areas of Church teaching — the disordered nature of homosexuality, that ordination to the priesthood is reserved to men, and that salvation is only through Jesus.
Women Religious are split between two groups in the United States: the LCWR, which includes about 90 percent of the members, and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), created in 1992 to provide representation for traditional orders.
An August study showed 91 percent of sisters who have professed final vows are age 60 or older. “Recent Vocations to Religious Life: A Report for the National Religious Vocation Conference,” conducted by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., also found that the exception to declining vocations are traditional orders where members wear a habit, live in community and engage in devotions including Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass.
In terms of the visitation, “the Holy See is interested in the overall picture of religious life in the United States, and is seeking to understand and appreciate the joys, struggles, vibrancy and difficulties faced by congregations of women Religious,” Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Kieran Foley, the Apostolic Visitation Office’s assistant for communications, told OSV.
Cardinal Rodé appointed Mother Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to serve as the apostolic visitator. Questionnaires sent to each order’s superiors are due late this month, the second of four phases of the inquiry. The questionnaire includes topics of the aging population of members, prospects for the future, vocations, formation programs to meet contemporary needs, forms of community life and vows, Sister Foley told OSV.
At the conclusion, Mother Millea will prepare a confidential report on each order and on the state of women’s religious life in general to Cardinal Rodé. In his statement, he said some information from the report would be made public.
Sister Sara Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity, who teaches dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., said the visitation “will be very fruitful. The sisters who are taking it seriously — it gives them a new opportunity to discuss with others their present situation. Any evaluation is somewhat frightening, but also tends to be an occasion for a useful self-study.”
Communities have undergone change throughout the life of the Church, said Sister Nancy Usselmann, provincial treasurer for the Daughters of St. Paul, which belongs to the CMSWR. Just as it was important to shake out the inordinate focus on arcane practices that had grown up before Vatican II, now, “It is good to look at the future of religious life in the United States,” Sister Nancy said.
Some were startled that the Vatican decided to become involved. “I don’t think anything substantive is going to come out of it,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C. “They will have a big investigation. Piles of paper will be created, and it will all be sent over to Rome where it will take them five years to digest it, and that will be the end of it. By the time Rome is done with this, half the sisters they are investigating will be dead.”
“Why now? Why 40 years after the horse left the barn?” asked Donna Steichen, author of “Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism.” “I think it’s something that had to be done. I think it’s too late for the orders that have committed suicide. I think it is tidying up.”
Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.
After more than a week of publicity sparked by photos of a Dominican nun serving as an abortion clinic escort, the Sinsinawa Dominican congregation in the United States denounced Sister Donna Quinn’s actions and affirmed its acceptance of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life.
Sister Quinn had been serving as an escort for women entering the ACU Health Center in Hinsdale, Ill., for about six years, said Amy Keane, who has been praying outside the clinic since it opened 11 years ago.
“Several months ago, the leadership of the Sinsinawa Dominicans was informed that Sister Donna Quinn, acted as a volunteer escort at a Chicago area clinic that, among other procedures, performs abortions,” said a statement issued by the Sinsinawa Dominicans on Nov. 2. “Congregation leaders have informed Sister Donna that her actions are in violation of her profession as a Dominican Religious. They regret that her actions have created controversy and resulted in public scandal. They are working with Sister Donna to resolve the matter appropriately.”
“Sister Donna Quinn has been very public for years about her support of abortion rights, so it’s unlikely that her order is just now discovering her position on the issue,” said writer Ann Carey. “Her order’s statement signals that the apostolic visitation of U.S. sisters has made religious orders acutely aware that the Vatican is now paying close attention to Religious who give public scandal and who oppose Church teachings in a number of areas. I think the publicity about Sister Donna’s longtime activities certainly should quiet any questions about why the Vatican has undertaken the apostolic visitation.”