Vatican Study of Women Religious: Investigation or Witch Hunt?

At the end of last week, Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, member of the American province of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, announced that the Vatican has initiated an apostolic visitation of institutes for women religious in the United States. Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, has been appointed as the apostolic visitor for the study.

In the announcement, Sister Eva-Maria stated:

We hope to discover and share the vibrancy and purpose that continue to accomplish so much, as well as to understand the obstacles and challenges that inhibit these individuals and institutions, thus limiting their growth and/or redirecting their resources and outreach.

The purpose of this study, according to the Vatican, is to examine the quality of life in communities of women religious and discover possible reasons for decrease in numbers over the past 40 years.

While this all may seem well and good, it is interesting that this investigation comes on the heals of an investigation of US seminaries undertaken in response to the sex abuse scandal. Many criticized that investigation as a “witch hunt” meant to snuff out homosexual priests.

So, will this “visitation” of congregations of women religious be an investigation or a witch hunt?

A good indicator might be to look at the woman selected as the apostolic visitor, Mother Mary Clare Millea. Mother Millea is superior general of conservative, habited order. This type of order is clearly unrepresentative of a vast majority of congregations of women religious in the US which no longer require sisters to don the habit and, many times, promote progressive values.

You would think Pope Benedict or Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, would have appointed someone who is more representative of women religious in the US. After all, Mother Millea’s order has a mere 145 professed sisters in the US compared to the more than 4,500 Sisters of Mercy or the 7,000 Sisters of St. Joseph (both non-habited, progressive orders).

As the results of this study are never going to be publically released (unlike the seminary study), we may never know what the purposes of the study were meant to be. However, if the Vatican moves to reinstate the habit or force more conservative ideals on communities of women religious, surely the voice of the Mother Millea’s 145 sisters will pale in comparison to the voices of the majority of women religious in the US who will oppose such measures.

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