American Nuns and the Vatican: More Pain than Promise

The other shoe dropped on December 16, 2014 at a press conference announcing the “final report” on at least one phase of the long-simmering Vatican struggle with U.S. Catholic sisters.

It was not a red Prada slipper, and the devil is still in the details.

Despite herculean efforts to make nice, the 12-page report and its presentation reinforce the Roman Catholic Church’s patriarchal power paradigm. And although many have hailed the report as a sign of the Vatican’s warming toward women, I am not convinced.

Six Years of Scrutiny

The first shoe dropped in 2008 when Cardinal Franc Rodé announced an Apostolic Visitation of active women’s religious communities. The goal of the inquiry—akin to a grand jury—was “to look into the quality of life of apostolic Congregations of women religious in the United States.”

The benign-sounding rhetoric was, to those in the know, an unmistakable signal of disapproval of how women religious were living increasingly self- and community-directed lives.

The Visitation was in no way experienced by the subjects or meant by the perpetrators “to convey the caring support of the Church in respectful, ‘sister-to-sister’ dialogue, as modeled in the Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth” as one “eyebrow-raising paragraph” in the report asserted—this revisionist history is pure fantasy.

Rather than do it themselves, the men deputized Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., to direct written materials and in person visits from 2009-2012 to more than 400 “entities” of religious communities in the United States.

While some of the visits were cordial enough, according to reports, there was never any illusion about why they took place or who ordered them. The nuns under study had no part in the overall process, no say in when, whether, and with whom they would share their lives. Instead, they were expected welcome “visitators” into their midst and to engage in data-gathering conversations which would be reported to Rome—and have the privilege of paying for it as well.

Ironically, the women reported that they became closer to one another within and among communities as well as to other lay Catholics—not that this was Rome’s intent.

Many of the women’s communities took deep offense at the notion that men in Rome would dispatch underlings to investigate their lives and lifestyles, especially their prayer and ministries. Nonetheless, because women’s religious communities belong to the kyriarchal structure of the church there was pressure to participate or suffer unnamed consequences.

As it played out, Mary Clare’s report was secret, hence the so-called “final report” is without any data to back it up, save the most easily quantifiable numbers of people, visits, and the like. Individual reports will go to “those Institutes which hosted an onsite visitation and to those Institutes whose individual reports indicated areas of concern.”

No one expects those to be love letters.

We Are (Still) All Nuns

As I have written here at RD (See, “We Are All Nuns” and other stories. -The Eds) the Visitation was not the only inquiry launched six years ago. The Visitation was prompted by the same kinds of concerns about progressive theological explorations, failure to fall in lockstep with the institutional church on moral issues, and some hint of “radical feminism” that motivated the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to conduct its ongoing doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

The Vatican “resolved” the LCWR matter in 2012 by naming an “Archbishop Delegate, assisted by two Bishops, for review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work of the LCWR.” Peter Sartain and two auxiliary bishops were named to do the work.

In 2014, the LCWR presented their Leadership Award to theologian Elizabeth Johnson, whose work the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops charges “differs from authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.” (I sincerely hope that it does.) Regardless, the award was enough to wake up the gentlemen to the fact that their “review, guidance and approval” were not necessary to the orderly functioning of LCWR.

This prompted yet another salvo from Rome, saying that now the women really must submit.

So goes the Roman blustering, ineffective in practice, but enough of a nuisance to distract attention, cost money, and sap energies all of which would be better spent doing the corporal works of justice and mercy to which the nuns are committed.

A Cloistered Culture

Abundant speculation surrounded the resolution of the Apostolic Visitation, which seemed to have fallen into oblivion with Pope Francis’ relatively warmer approach.  Some thought that the Vatican would be content to focus its scrutiny on the LCWR, maybe split the difference, and let the Apostolic Visitation fade. The pedophilia scandal and its cover-up, along with financial and membership losses, have so weakened the institution’s moral standing that any critique of the social justice-seeking nuns was plainly out of order.

Vigorous pushback by the nuns and other Catholic lay people, especially the Nun Justice Project of which I am a part, was an attempt to end clerical dominance and to reshape the top-down structure of the church, as much as it was a defense of the women religious’ right to live by their own lights. While women religious do seem to have won a victory in the latter case, nothing has shifted in the direction of a horizontally integrated model of church.

The recent press conference was an occasion, live-streamed around the world, to showcase an alleged newfound rapport between the Vatican and the U.S. nuns. It succeeded as theater, but as a model for future Catholicism it left me with more questions than answers, more pain than promise. Up jump the details.

“The Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America” was signed by Cardinal João Bràz de Aviz and Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo on September 8, 2014. But why did it take three months to announce it?

One can only speculate that the creaky wheels turn slowly in Rome. Some jockeying for position was involved, not to mention the time needed to plan face-saving remarks and try to get everyone on the same page. Still, three months? Why were there no embargoed advance copies of the text—for either the press or for the subjects of the report itself?

Of course this was the Vatican’s report, not the still-secret data that Mother Millea submitted, so no one can validate anything. So much for transparency going forward.

Much Air, Not Much Light

The press conference itself was odd on many fronts. I was reminded of a world I do not inhabit in which women and men call one another “mother” and “father” when none of them seem to have children. The very anachronism of that in-house jargon cued me to the kind of walled-off discourse (and culture) that allows unjust treatment to fester.

I would have hoped, naively to be sure, for a robust apology on the part of the Vatican officials, a gracious but cautious acceptance of it on the part of the women religious, offer of restitution by the men, and a common plan to make sure that no such egregious act is ever perpetrated again. Nunca mas, or so I dream. Nevertheless, this formula—used so effectively in dealing with abusers and abused—is the most relevant parallel I can find to understand what occurred in this case.

Instead, the two prelates delivered themselves of sonorous but largely vapid discourses. The Prefect acknowledged that some institutes chose “not to collaborate fully in the process” (maybe more than you will ever know, Cardinal Braz de Aviz), but called for the whole church to engage in “full reconciliation, which will offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion to all.”

Not so fast, Sir, since not all of us caused the nasty breach in the first place. Besides, future “communion” must reflect the full agency of all involved, impossible under present conditions for women in canonical communities as long as these kinds of shenanigans go on.

The Secretary was left to repeat what was already known about the Visitation process without offering much content of the report. Perhaps this is because there is not much content, or at least not much that is new or helpful for creating the next phase of religious life set in an egalitarian church.

Rather, he offered “the Congregation’s response to the Visitator’s General Report” with the sociological information of high median age/low number of new members.

He avoided discussing the sticky wickets about Christo-centric prayer as opposed to the spiritual eclecticism that many religious favor, the need for theological formation along the Vatican’s own lines not the broader, more useful ecumenically sensitive courses that characterize some programs, and a reinforcement of top-down authority patterns that many religious communities have long left behind in favor of mature, respectful consensus building, collective approaches to adult human relating.

All of this is in the report and surely will be disputed. No wonder they did not release the report in advance of the press event. There wasn’t much news that could be shared without airing differing views, something this group avoided like sin.

Let’s be frank: differences started the whole Visitation ball rolling in the first place, but the very process precluded discussing them openly among equals.

The women’s statements illuminated another problematic dimension of the whole sorry affair, namely, the ways some women are, and allow themselves to be, used in patriarchal power pyramids.

Mary Clare Millea led the way by thanking the gentlemen profusely and without the least hint of irony for their “deep trust,” for agreeing “to let us establish” a process for women’s own investigation. Thanks? She singled out one man who “showed great sensitivity,” others who “brought the Visitation to its completion.” She praised them for “hearing our voices…responding to us with sensitivity, respect and clarity…inviting us to continue our open and honest dialogue with one another….”

What planet was she visiting when thousands of lay Catholics, including a lot of nuns, called foul on this whole process?

Willingness to collaborate obviously got her the job and prompted her to take it in the first place. Her words had a plaintive quality; she was, after all, thanking the churchmen for things that any human being should do.

Could they have pulled off the Visitation without women’s willing participation? I can only wonder what, if anything, Mary Clare heard from the nuns who were so aghast at the Visitation, and whether in retrospect she had any regrets about her role.

Sharon Holland, I.H.M., current president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had the unenviable job of saying something from the perspective of the majority of American nuns while her own organization is in receivership. She wisely reflected on her own experience, and gamely laid out some of the report’s elements such that women religious can “feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.” Hers was a delicate dance done with a certain grace. But it is hard to pirouette with an elephant in the living room—in this case the LCWR’s censure by another Vatican office.

Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., rounded out the many ways women figure in these complex patriarchal paradigms. She played a spoiler role, affirming the Vatican’s less than condemnatory report on the nuns, but claiming that her group, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), knew all along that things were hunky-dory.

After all, they, the self-proclaimed real McCoys of American nuns, have bucked the feminist-seeming trends and are sitting pretty for the future. Her members’ median age, she claimed (the numbers are disputed by some experts) is twenty years younger than the national average (53 versus 70+). Her sisters are encouraged to embrace a self-less spirituality in which, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20). It is religious life as the Vatican would have it.

For all the feel-good efforts of the day, this presentation gave me the distinct impression that the speaker may have gone a little off script to distance herself from the aggregate. In so doing, she tried to position the CMSWR as the future and LCWR as the past—despite the fact that she represents a fraction of the whole of women religious. I am sure the Roman officials smiled on her. While variety is good, efforts like this to promote one way to be religious and eclipse go against the grain.

Feminine Genius or Feminist Genius?

A close look at the text leaves me disconcerted on three additional fronts.

First, there is the essentialism. Women’s “feminine genius” is a patriarchal fiction. Yet, it is trotted out time and again by Pope Francis and those who would curry his favor. In this report, “competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding ‘the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.’” (EG, 104)

Any feminist genius will say that such nuancing is no substitute for a full-throated affirmation of human equality uttered with sleeves rolled up to create egalitarian civil and ecclesial structures. Anything less is bogus. Every time such code language is used, feminist geniuses will be happy to flag it for what it is.

Second, the document sets women in canonical religious communities against one another and over against other laywomen. If “competent women religious” are to be pseudo-clericalized as the next step forward, I say, no thank you.

The goal of progressive Catholics who have supported the nuns in this skirmish is not to make some of them equivalent to clerics in decision-making. Rather, it is to flatten out a hierarchal model of church so that all adult members can participate fully. Privileging women religious is an attempt to co-opt them.

Note the Vatican’s careful effort to claim an “essential difference” (par. 3) between vowed religious and their associates or co-members. This is purposely divisive as women’s religious communities are finding creative and life-giving ways to share their ministries and goods broadly. Just as I hope LCWR will not fall into the trap of being compared to CMSWR, neither should the rest of us take the bait nor allow ourselves to be divided over different lifestyle decisions and community connections. There is plenty of ministry and justice work for all.

Third, “follow the money” has never been better advice.

I found the financial discussion to be the most distressing part of the report. Among the reasons given why many congregations do not have sufficient resources to care for their sisters—including many elderly sisters who volunteer instead of getting paid, women who work with poor people and are not highly remunerated, for example—is “the long-term consequences of women religious having been undercompensated for their ministry over an extended period of time.” (par. 9)

Whose fault was that?

Another reason given is that “Some sisters serving in ecclesial structures receive relatively low salaries or have lost their positions in the downsizing of the institutions they serve.” (par. 9)

Well, those would be churches for the most part.

These statements astonish in their baldness. It is the institutional church that “undercompensated” women religious for generations. In parishes and schools, priests and nuns inhabited entirely different economic circles, with nuns modeling simple living before it was fashionable while many priests drove late model cars, had housekeepers, and lovely quarters.

Reparations are in order. How about some millions of the Vatican’s newly found “hundreds of millions of Euros” (their creative accounting is a subject all its own) going to women’s religious communities to make up for centuries of economic injustice? If not, let every Vatican official take a vow of silence about women’s economic choices.

Watching this unsavory chapter of church history unfold, I am reminded of how batterers often return home with flowers to win back the women they have beaten. So the cycle starts again, with kind words and pledges to do better next time. But the battering (or “assault,” as Thomas C. Fox wrote this week in NCR) begins again.

The time for serious change is dangerously overdue in Roman Catholicism: I refuse to be a bystander, and I encourage others to join me in taking action.