(WOMENSENEWS)–The Vatican’s investigation of American nuns enters its second year, with few nuns willing to openly discuss what they think about it.
Numerous requests for interviews by Women’s eNews were declined, both by nuns who oppose the investigation and those who support it.
But if the Catholic press is any guide, most leaders of religious orders are opposed to the investigation that a church authority in Rome has said concerns irregularities or omissions in American religious life.
In November, Cardinal Franc Rode, head of the Vatican’s council on religious life, told Vatican Radio what prompted the probe. "Most of all, you could say, it involves a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit."
Many Catholics take comments like that to mean that the process is meant to examine how religious orders have interpreted Vatican II, the prominent church council convened by Pope John XXIII in the 1960s that revolutionized the modern church.
After Vatican II, many nuns stopped wearing habits, left convents to live independently and pursued careers in academia and social work to the exclusion of their traditional work in the church’s hospitals and schools.
In the decades that have followed, some nuns have replaced the traditional daily prayers, known as the breviary, with one that mentions more women. Some have opposed the church hierarchy’s teachings on controversial issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and women’s ordination.
The Vatican’s three-part investigation involves interviews with the heads of the religious orders, a questionnaire that covers many aspects of an order’s religious life and on-site visits at certain orders.
Connecticut native Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, heads the operation. Though the order’s leadership council is headquartered in Rome, it has branches in 12 countries.
Loaded and Open Question
There are 59,000 nuns in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, one of the main sources of statistical information on Catholic life. The Leadership Conference for Women Religious represents between 85 percent and 90 percent of them.
How many oppose the investigation?
With both sides of the investigation wanting to say they speak for the majority of American nuns, that’s a loaded and open question.
The Center for Applied Research’s executive director, Sister Mary Bendyna, said the center had not surveyed nuns on their attitudes toward the visitation.
Accounts in the religious press suggest the majority of the 1,500 leaders of the 330 orders that compose the leadership conference have not complied with the Vatican’s requests for information.
"We cannot, of course, keep them from investigating," wrote Sister Sandra Schneiders in a private e-mail, which later became widely circulated when published by the National Catholic Reporter. Schneiders is a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif. "But we can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house."
However, the comparatively conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which is based in Washington, D.C., is complying. And the visitation does have some supporters.
"Things have gotten to the point now that many of the women’s orders are not following church guidelines for religious orders," said Ann Carey, author of the 1997 book "Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities" and the moderator of a Yahoo discussion group for nuns who support the investigation. Carey says the people who’ve joined the group worry that "their leadership is moving away from the church."
Group to Connect Sisters
Those who favor the investigation say members of the leadership conference do not speak for all the nuns within their orders. They argue that conservative nuns are marooned within the ranks of more liberal religious women. Carey said she started the Yahoo discussion group in December to connect these sisters with each other. As of late January, the group had 101 members.
Several conservative nuns also spoke at a symposium held in 2008 at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, a gathering that Rode later said was influential in his decision to launch the investigation.
The social upheavals of the 1960s made the decade "exactly the wrong time for the (Vatican II) Council to have occurred," said Sister Elizabeth McDonough, who teaches canon law at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, in a paper delivered at the symposium.
Sister Sara Butler, a professor of dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., said U.S. religious life has been split over church hierarchy’s authority. "On the one hand, there are the ‘conservatives’ who accept the church’s hierarchical structure, teaching authority and jurisdiction," she said in a paper also presented at the symposium. "On the other hand, there are ‘liberals’ (or perhaps, ‘radicals’) who distinguish between the church as ‘the People of God’ (whom they profess to love) and the ‘institutional church’ (from which they feel alienated)."
Later in her presentation she asked, "Is it time, perhaps, for a formal ‘visitation?’" She didn’t grant an interview to say whether she supports the investigation.
The investigation is scheduled to conclude in 2011 with Mother Mary Clare Millea making a report to Rode’s council on the status of the country’s religious orders and her recommendations.
How the results will affect the lives of U.S. nuns is anyone’s guess.
"That’s the $64,000 question," Carey said.
Claire Bushey is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She writes about workers rights at Hard Labor, found here: http://www.trueslant.com/clairebushey. Her Web site is http://www.clairebushey.com.
For more information:
Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States
Stories About the Apostolic Visitations of U.S. Women Religious, National Catholic Reporter
2008 Stonehill College Symposium on Apostolic Religious Life papers
Sisters Supporting Apostolic Visitation Yahoo group