Winners and Losers in the “Visitation” of American Nuns?

Pope Francis: Winner

When not busy sending dogs to heaven (oops, not really) or brokering the restoration of US-Cuban diplomatic relations, the pope made a key personnel change that resulted in the deft handling of what could have been a PR disaster for the Vatican.

Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the Francis appointee who succeeded Cardinal Franc Rodé as head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, walked back Rodé’s ominous “visitation” of what he called “a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain feminist spirit” into a virtual love-fest between the Vatican and U.S. nuns. Sister Sharon Holland, who represented the much-maligned Leadership Conference of Women Religious at the press conference announcing the report, said the nuns “felt appreciated and trusted to carry on.”

American Nuns/LCWR: Mostly Winners

For American nuns, the relatively positive conclusion of the visitation signaled a lifting of some of the storm clouds that had gathered over U.S. religious orders since both the visitation and the investigation of the LCWR were announced in 2009. The final report, while praising American religious for their work, does, however, contain some cautions reflecting the Vatican’s concerns about nuns’ embrace of less traditional understandings of Christianity. It asks them to “carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.”

And in a nod to the more traditional sisters of the conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, who assert that their communities of habited nuns are the future of women religious, the report noted that potential nuns “often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women.”

Conservatives: Losers

The big losers in the somewhat anti-climatic conclusion of the visitation were the conservatives who pushed for and bankrolled it in the first place. The visitation was backed by conservative prelates like former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who after hightailing it to Rome just before subpoenas came down in his diocese’s massive sex abuse case, was head of the congregation for consecrated life, and Archbishop William Lori, former head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Conference. And the investigation was reportedly funded in part by the Knights of Columbus, which has close ties to Lori, who serves as its supreme chaplain, and funnels money to a host of ultra-conservative causes.

Not since Sheldon Adelson poured $15 million into Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid have conservative donors wasted so much money on a conservative Catholic cause.

Conservative Arguments: Big Losers

Not only did the Vatican not give the nuns the dressing down that conservatives were looking for, but the final report explicitly rebutted a central contention of Catholic conservatives: that the drop-off in the number of nuns is due to the modernization of the many orders who left their cloisters and shed their habits to tackle social justice problems in the real world. The report said that “the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history.”

In seeking a condemnation of American nuns, conservatives were hoping for the ultimate denouement of feminism, of women leaving the home (abandoning convents for the real world), wearing whatever they wanted (giving up the habit), and insisting on their equality with men (insisting on their equality with men) by taking a leadership role in society. Instead, they got an acknowledgement from the Vatican that women’s contributions to the church were often undervalued and a call for “a more incisive female presence in the Church.” Maybe they can get their money back.

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