Vatican Report on US Sisters Largely Positive, But Concerns Remain

The six-year apostolic visitation process closes with praise and gratitude for the sisters’ work, while encouraging continual renewal and self-evaluation.

The final report of the apostolic visitation of US women religious was released December 16 at a morning press conference at the Vatican Press Office. The report had a positive tone that was very complimentary of women religious in general, but it also noted some significant areas of Vatican “concern.”

The visitation was initiated in late 2008 by the former prefect of the Vatican’s congregation for religious, Cardinal Franc Rodé, who spoke of the lack of vocations, the rising median age, and a secular mentality among some women religious. Mother Mary Clare Millea, a Connecticut sister who is superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was appointed apostolic visitor.

Mother Clare and her team of about 70 visitors made on-site visits to 90 orders containing about half of the 50,000 women religious in the US, and data was gathered from all the women’s orders. Mother Clare submitted a general report and individual reports on each order to the Vatican in early 2012, and a final report from the Vatican has been expected ever since.

The apostolic visitation is distinct from the Vatican’s “doctrinal assessment” and subsequent calls for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization consisting of leaders from most of the Catholic female religious communities in the US. That assessment, begun in 2008 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and culminating in a 2012 document calling for the reform and renewal of the LCWR, was reaffirmed by Pope Francis in 2013.

Presenting at the December 16 press conference were the current prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, and the congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, OFM. Also present were Mother Clare and the leaders of the two superiors’ conferences for women religious, Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, of the LCWR, and Sister Agnes Mary Donovan, SV, of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

The speakers at the press conference downplayed the controversy that erupted among women religious when the visitation was first announced in January of 2009. At that time, some of the most vocal sisters—such as Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, and Sister Joan Chittister, OSB—railed against the visitation as an unwelcome intrusion by the Vatican into the lives of sisters.

This cult of personality, along with a contingent of canon lawyers affiliated with the Resource Center for Religious Institutes and some leaders of the LCWR, played a major role in convincing some sisters not to cooperate with the visitation. Additionally, rumors circulated that the Vatican wanted to monasticize apostolic religious and that the US bishops were after the sisters’ financial assets.

After the on-site visits were made, reactions to those visits were overwhelmingly positive, even from sisters who had been critical of the visitation, and the mood softened considerably. However, some orders never did submit the data that was requested by the visitation office.

At the press conference Cardinal Braz de Aviz acknowledged the push-back on the visitation and invited those sisters who refused to cooperate to reconsider and engage with the congregation for religious. He explained that, like the apostolic visitations of Australia and Ireland, the visitation of sisters was designed to listen and to show love, understanding, and the “heart and face of the Vatican.”

The 10-page report presented a general overview of information gathered during the visitation, and the cardinal explained that confidential individual reports would be sent to each of the orders that received an on-site visit, as well as to orders where reports indicated “areas of concern.” He did not say what oversight would be given to those orders that had raised concern.

Those concerns were not specified in the report, but it stressed self-evaluation and dialogue “in the light of Church guidelines for religious life.” The report itself referenced several Church documents on religious life, including: Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican II document on consecrated life; “Fraternal Life in Community,” a 1994 instruction from the congregation for religious; Vita Consecrata, Saint John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic exhortation on consecrated life; and “The Service of Authority and Obedience,” a 2008 instruction to religious from the congregation for religious.

Several “requests” in the report do hint at specific problems that were found, however, and one is formation of sisters. It notes that young people entering religious life have weak theological and spiritual formation, so religious institutes must evaluate their programs and provide “solid” formation.

Another area of concern is obviously liturgical, for the report noted that, while written guidelines may direct sisters for “reception of the sacraments and sound spiritual practices,” actual practice may be another matter. The report asks orders to take measures “to further foster the sisters’ intimate relationship with Christ and a healthy communal spirituality based on the Church’s sacramental life and sacred Scripture.”

The report also noted that aging orders try to carry on their mission by training laity who share in the life of the community to some degree, but it emphasized that “the essential difference between the vowed religious and the dedicated lay persons” be respected. This seems to refer to the practice in some orders of incorporating lay associates or “co-members” so deeply into the life of the order that there is no difference between vowed and unvowed members.

Some doctrinal matters also were raised, with the report saying “caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith.” This seems to be a reaction to some of the creation spirituality popular in women’s orders, resulting in this specific directive in the report:

“This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes 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.”

The report seems to have walked the fine line of appreciating the dedication and work of women religious while at the same time gently pointing out some very real “concerns.” What the report does not say is what teeth the report’s “requests” will have and who will be responsible for oversight, questions of very real significance to the sisters who are living with those “concerns.”

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