Final report on Vatican’s Apostolic Visitation of U.S. women religious to be released on Dec. 16

The report from the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is the culmination of six years of information gathering and study

(Ann Carey/National Catholic Register) | On Dec. 16 the long-awaited Vatican report on the 2009-2011 apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious will be released at a press conference in the Holy See Press Office, according to a Canadian priest associated with the Vatican.

Father Thomas Rosica told a reporter for the Detroit Free Press about the Dec. 16 event after a Dec. 2 talk he gave at Christo Rey High School in Detroit. Father Rosica is president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, and chief executive officer of Salt and Light Television in Canada.

Then, on Dec. 3, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) informed its members that LCWR had received a Dec. 2 letter from Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, OFM, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, announcing the press conference.

The letter said that along with officials of the congregation for religious, others present for the press conference will be Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, who was appointed apostolic visitator and conducted the visitation; LCWR president, Sister Sharon Holland, IHM; and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, SV, chairperson of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the other superiors conference of U.S. women religious.

That final visitation report has been expected ever since the secretary of the congregation for religious told reporters in January that the final report likely would be made public before the Year of Consecrated Life began Nov. 30.

The apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious had been initiated in late 2008 by then-prefect of the congregation for religious, Cardinal Franc Rodé, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. The prefect indicated concern over declining vocations and what he called a “secularist mentality” in some religious orders. The visitation was announced in January of 2009, and Mother Mary Clare completed her final reports in January, 2012.

This blogger learned that many sisters had appealed to the Vatican over the past several years for a visitation of religious orders because of deep changes to their orders’ charisms and ministries, liturgical abuses, questionable theological formation, and diversion of orders’ funds to purely secular causes. Many sisters were also deeply distressed when their superiors took public positions in opposition to Catholic moral teachings.

Apparently the Vatican had been listening, for a questionnaire sent to the superiors of the approximately 400 orders of apostolic women religious in the U.S. by the visitation office asked pertinent questions about ministries, liturgical practices and spiritual/theological formation. It also asked for financial statements and demographic information about sisters’ ages and living arrangements.

This crucial financial and demographic data was needed to understand the gravely underfunded retirement needs of U.S. sisters, for the National Religious Retirement Office projects a $9.6 billion retirement deficit for religious orders by the year 2030.

Apostolic visitations are a normal practice in religious orders, and the questions asked by the visitation office were canonically and legally licit. However, resistance to the visitation surfaced almost immediately with the Feb. 27, 2009, publication of an e-mail by feminist theologian Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM.

Sister Sandra warned against sisters cooperating with the visitation, which she called “intimidating” and “hostile.” She urged “nonviolent resistance” on the part of the sisters and declared that U.S. sisters had “birthed a new form of Religious Life,” thus dismissing the role of church authority—as defined clearly in Canon Law—to determine what is and is not proper form and practice of religious life.

Other influential people joined the resistance, as described in the recently-released book, “Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation” (University Press of America, Inc., Lanham, MD, 2014), which I reviewed in my Nov. 17 blog.

That book details a coordinated campaign by some sisters to create resistance to the apostolic visitation, claiming the process was too intrusive and even suggesting the Vatican and the U.S. bishops were after the sisters’ assets. That campaign of resistance was successful to a degree, for many superiors of women’s orders refused to complete the questionnaire, and according to the Sisterhood book, some even legally separated their canonical congregations from their civil corporations to shield their orders’ assets.

In an attempt to make the questionnaire more acceptable to those critics, Mother Mary Clare eventually withdrew three parts of the questionnaire about demographics, occupations, properties and finances—all extremely pertinent to that looming retirement deficit.

No accurate figures were ever released by the visitation office about how many orders refused to return the visitation questionnaire, but it is known that about 100 orders received a team of visitors from the visitation office. Most of those visitors were other women religious, and even critics of the visitation agreed that the on-site visits were friendly and handled with respect and consideration.

Any sister was invited to share her thoughts and/or concerns about her order with the visitation office or a visitor on a confidential basis, but some sisters reported intimidation by their superiors, who warned sisters not to make any complaints about their order. Some superiors even held debriefing meetings in which sisters were supposed to report on their interactions with the visitors.

Given all of these efforts at interference with the apostolic visitation, it seems prudent to question just how comprehensive and accurate a final report could be, even with the enormous effort put into the process by Mother Mary Clare and her team, for they could work only with the information they were given.

Additionally, while the visitation was ongoing, both Cardinal Rodé, who had initiated the visitation, and his secretary retired from the congregation for religious. Their replacements indicated little sympathy for—or clear knowledge of—the motivation for the visitation, and it is the new officials who produced the final report.

Whatever the conclusion of the final report, the visitation has clearly prompted cooperating sisters to honestly assess their own orders, and some sisters have reported a renewed spirit because of that exercise. Since the final report will be only a general assessment—not a commentary on individual orders—only time will tell whether the concerns expressed by individual sisters will be quietly addressed by the Holy See.

[Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register, ©2014.] 

About Ann Carey 16 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).