US nuns investigated by Vatican

Sister Sandra M. Schneider writes in NCR Today to answer questions about the apostolic visitations by authorities in the Roman Catholic Church:

Two sets of questions concerning U.S. women religious are roiling the waters in and outside the church today: 1) Why are religious disturbed about the apostolic visitation? 2) What is the real motivation for this investigation?

Why are the religious disturbed?

The current “Apostolic Visitation” is not a normal dialogue between religious and church authorities. It is the ecclesiastical analogue of a grand jury indictment, set in motion when there is reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a prima facie case of serious abuse or wrong-doing of some kind. There are currently several situations in the U.S. church that would justify such an investigation (widespread child sexual abuse by clerics, episcopal cover-ups of such abuse, long term sexual liaisons by people vowed to celibacy, embezzlement of church funds, cult-like practices in some church groups) but women religious are not significantly implicated in any of these. Religious are disturbed by the implied accusation of wrong-doing that the very fact of being subjected to an apostolic visitation involves, especially because the “charges” are vague or non-existent.

What is the motivation?

The motivation for the visitation remains very vague. Perhaps the most commonly voiced hypothesis of both lay and religious, is that the purpose of the investigation is to ascertain the size and status of the financial assets of religious orders of women in order to enable the U.S. bishops to take possession of those assets to pay their legal debts. Even if there is no validity to this hypothesis (and I dearly hope there is not) it is distressing that Catholics’ confidence in their hierarchy has been so eroded that they suspect their bishops of wishing to further impoverish religious orders struggling to support their elderly and infirm members. Another frequently voiced hypothesis, with perhaps more credibility, is that Cardinal Franc Rodé, the head of Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, wants to mandate for all women religious a return to pre-conciliar lifestyles akin to those in his eastern European homeland under Communism. Again, the suspicion is not without some basis in remarks the cardinal has made publicly, but there is no proof of such an intention and, in any case, such a move would surely occasion far more trouble than the Vatican probably wants to deal with.

Mary E. Hunt writing at Religion Dispatches is clear that “The Vatican is investigating US Women religious, concerned that nuns are not in line on issues like same-sex love, women’s priestly ministry, and interreligious dialogue. But this time they’ve gone too far.” She concludes:

The Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (at the behest of Franc Cardinal Rode in December 2008) initiated the probe into the more than 350 US congregations of women. Mother Mary Clare Millea, leader of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, carries the awkward title of “Apostolic Visitator.” She was deputized by Rome to lead the four-step process that culminates in her confidential (the nuns will not see it) report to headquarters.

The initial step of meeting with leaders of the various communities has been followed by the recent publication of an Instrumentum Laboris that details the kinds of issues to be probed in the second phase; a questionnaire that leaders will be asked to answer for their groups. Then some groups (the ones whose answers may diverge from the Vatican’s norms, we may presume) will get a personal visit from a Vatican-approved investigator who has signed a loyalty oath to assure orthodoxy. The results of the whole study will be reported by Mother Millea to the Cardinal. After that, it is anyone’s guess. Oh, and the communities being investigated are asked to provide hospitality for the visitors they have not invited, and if possible, pay for their travel. Yes, something is radically wrong with this picture.

At first blush, one might be duped into thinking that the Vatican really wants the progressive religious communities to thrive and grow so that their work with migrants and other poor people, their ministries in hospitals and education, their work in parishes and base communities, their courageous efforts to support women who need reproductive health care, their work on farms and in retreat centers might flourish. Guess again.


More on the investigation by Daniel Burke at Ethics Daily:

An umbrella group of Catholic nuns (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) has asked the Vatican to disclose why it is being investigated and who is funding the probe, and questioned why the sisters will not be allowed to see the final investigative report submitted to church leaders.


In a statement released Monday (Aug. 17), the LCWR requested that “those conducting the inquiries alter some methods being employed.”

“Among the expressed concerns are a lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources for the studies,” the LCWR statement said. “The leaders also object to the fact that their orders will not be permitted to see the investigative reports about them that are being submitted directly to the Vatican.”

With about 1,500 members who are elected leaders of their religious orders, the LCWR represents about 95 percent of the estimated 59,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S.

Past coverage by The Lead here.

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