Dolores Liptak, a Sister of Mercy of the Americas, was invited by Mother Mary
Clare Millea, ASCJ to be a consultant for the recently concluded apostolic visitation of US women
religious. Sister Dolores specializes in the history of
the Catholic Church in United States and holds a doctorate in American history
from the University of Connecticut.
author of five books and the editor of several more on women religious, Sister
Dolores consults with many religious orders. She helped organize the Archivists
for Congregations of Women Religious and served as the group’s first president,
editor of its newsletter, and board member for many years. She also was one of the originators of the
History of Women Religious Network. She
is an adjunct professor of Church history at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
in Cromwell, Connecticut.
Dolores spoke with Ann Carey for Catholic
World Report about her perspective on the apostolic visitation of women
religious, which was launched in 2008 and which concluded with the presentation
of its findings to Archbishop Joseph Tobin, secretary of the Vatican’s
Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, in early 2012. During those
years, the visitation received considerable criticism from those who saw it as
an attempt by the Vatican to attack or control women’s religious communities. Last
published a report by Carey on the controversy surrounding the visitation
and the resistance to it demonstrated by many congregations. Carey also discussed
the visitation with Mother Mary Clare Millea in
an interview published by CWR last month.
Sister Dolores Liptak, RSM
Why do you think Mother Clare
asked a historian to consult for the apostolic visitation? What did she hope
that your perspective would add to the process?
Sister Dolores: What
initially surprised (and delighted) me was that Mother Clare recognized how
important history was. Naturally, I agreed with her and was more than happy to
share my knowledge of American Catholicism and the experience of US women
religious. From the start, I learned that she did this so that she could
sufficiently understand the full context of the visitation project. She
recognized that her responsibilityto become acquainted with the quality of
life of today’s sisterscould be sidetracked if she didn’t approach it by way
of the overall story of apostolic women religious within the US Catholic
CWR: What did this tell you about Mother Clare’s
perspective on the visitation?
Sister Dolores: She
clearly had great respect for the congregations she was commissioned to
visitwhether they were the largest congregations or the hundreds of smaller
onesand she wanted to see the treasure of wisdom and goodness with which they
began their enterprises, as well as what they presently rely upon. Moreover,
she wanted those who would be working with her on the project to be prepared in
this regard as well.
Mother Clare throughout the three years of the study confirmed this. To my
mind, this approach helped her to recognize the significance not only of change
over time, but of the great diversity that had developed among the more than
400 congregations that were to be the focus of our study. It was an honor to
help everyone involved to work toward the same goal.
in planning for the major conference that was held in St. Louis to train
religious who were to be the official visitors, Mother Clare turned to
and asked me to be one of the key presenters at the conference. She also
insisted that my talk be added to the visitation's website, where it
much of the duration of the visitation.
short, I realized that, at every phase of the project, Mother Clare appreciated
how the knowledge of history could be a useful guide to the future. To her
mind, no one could sufficiently value the contributions of women religious
unless they understood them as mainstays of the building of the American
Catholic Church according to their own particular charisms.
CWR: As a historian and an
archivist, what motivated your interest in the apostolic visitation?
Sister Dolores: As a
historian and archivist, I have always valued written records, i.e., primary
materialscensus data; church registers, including sacramental ones; meetings
of official visits; pastoral letters; papal documents; correspondence, etc.for
what each of them independently provides. These sources not only reveal
situations at one particular time, but also clarify present perceptions and
realities as these shape future generations.
I knew that the Church has always seen records as a precious deposit. From the
time of the appointment of the first chancellors of dioceses, the keeping of
records became the essential task of chanceries. The priority of the Church, in
other words, has always been to maintain and protect the records of the past
for the sake of the people whose spiritual lives the Church must continue to
safeguard and advance.
early decades of the 20th century, secular historians began to realize the
treasure that such records could offer (the French Annales school was the first
to develop this approach). Many of those trained in other sciences also saw
their use, especially in discovering patterns and other significant data. What
they contributed to the historical field was called quantitative history,
“history from the bottom up,” or “new left” history. Some Church historians
began to adopt this methodology, using records in this new way. For the first
time, they could make such sources “speak,” come alive, as it were.
have to say that this desire to understand the past as it was actually seen by
its participantsfamous or otherwiseis what interests me now about the Vatican
move toward recording religious life in some concrete way. I know that the
records that this venture has gathered, while perhaps occasioning a rather
strong negative response, will serve the future very well.
CWR: So, how does such an approach help us
understand the current situation in religious life?
Sister Dolores: If
such rich information is ignored, even today’s confusing situation will not be
addressed. Statistics tell their own story of growth or declineone that might
be ignored if the “homework” of the visitation were not done. How else will we
or future generations come to understand the amazing statistical aberrations that
typified the 1960s and extended into this century? How will we understand the
present phenomenon in which some communities are experiencing an upward climb
after decades of decline, while others continue to experience downward trends? What has happened to bring us to this moment?
Why had the bubble burst in the first place? Statistical analysis, which was
requested in part A of the visitation questionnaire, can at least supply the
data and provide a “scientific laboratory” in which other, more subtle information
can be gleaned.
when the apostolic visitation process chose to develop several ways of
collecting historical and other statistical data of religious communities, I
was particularly happy to see that happen.
I could see, for example, the value of providing not only a view of one
congregation at a time but also a collective picture of unprecedented, but
mind, this way of discovering specific trends has great possibility for those
of us who believe that the gift of religious life is a fact of Christian life
and that tracing its transition over time can only yield spiritual benefit. My
point is: history, as Pope Benedict XVI has rightly said, can save culture.
Besides, we know that it is people of conscience who shape the best of each new
generation. Memory of how this was accomplished has always been a necessary
aspect of the Church’s development; think of the lives of the saints, for
example. Consideration of what others have done in order to create the culture
is what essentially provides the dramatic change to a way of life that had
begun to sputter.
fact, I believe it is the task of the historian to offer this perspective in
order to help others discover what has happenedand who was at the forefront of
this. Thus, for me, the records generated by the visitation not only have significance
now, but will also necessarily contribute richly to
the understanding of the continuing story of religious life. Not having such an
aid would be a tragic loss, when it is clear to all that the charisms of so
many great congregations need a strong dose of revitalization so that religious
life will continue to be seen as a life apart from other vocations within both
the Church and society.
CWR: Some sisters looked upon the
visitation as an investigation. Do you think the historical process has been
given the credit it deserves in understanding why the visitation was initiated?
Sister Dolores: No, I
don’t think the historical process is ever given sufficient appreciation for
what it has to offer. Not referring to history was surely a mistake for those [who]
believed this visitation was either unnecessary or ill-advised. To my mind,
this immediate negative response can only be characterized as unthinking and
unhistorical. It appears to me that those who spoke out against the visitation,
for example, seemed to respond without considering that the Church has always
resorted to gathering information as part of the process to ascertain the
truthand this for a variety of reasons.
I doubt if anyone of those who objected to the visitation could specifically
refer to examples of Rome using an official visitation in order to correct
congregations of women wholesale, or even to interfere in the internal
governance of certain communities in order to control entire congregations. To
be sure, questions have been raised and visitations used by the Vatican in rare
cases when the Church has needed to understand the rationale behind decisions
made by religious congregationsespecially between bishops or clergy and
congregations (I am thinking here of Mary Ward’s 17th-century English
congregation). Yet I believe one would find it hard to prove that even episodes
such as these represented a Vatican strategy to control sisters, rather than
what the Vatican gave as its rationale for this apostolic visitation: namely,
to develop an understanding of the American sisters’ present quality of
this is the 21st century. One does not engage in such a serious matter as
initiating an official visit without weighing honest, demonstrable concerns or
the proper way of developing a process, including naming an appropriate
visitator, and hoping that the results might prove beneficial to all concerned.
The real question should be: when the visitation was launched, why was it
presumed that the Vatican had not given sufficient forethought to the purpose
of the visitation, let alone to the historical rationale and the logistical manner
of planning it? If only US sisters had been willing to give the Congregation
for Religious the benefit of the doubt regarding such matters.
CWR: Why didn’t sisters recognize
that visitations can be acceptable means to evaluate institutions to which they
Sister Dolores: When I first heard of the visitation, I
immediately thought of my years as an educator, from grammar to graduate
school. We all have memories of the yearlysometimes monthlyprocess whereby
supervisors sent by the school office or the motherhouse came “to observe” us.
It was expected that you or the school or hospital in which you served had to
be evaluated to discern whether the faculty or staff was living up to the
standards of the school or health care system, as well as the diocese. We
understood such visitations to be signs of professional competence, at the very
least. We recognized our need to prove ourselves as competent contributors to
the mission in which we were participating.
Not that we appreciated undergoing the process, but that is human nature,
and such things usually worked out to common benefit.
addition, we saw visits to schools as well as to our convents by supervisors as
something that was articulated either in our customs or in our approved
constitutions. On the other hand, we also knew that our superiors saw themselves
as obliged to visit their membersalways with the good of the congregation in
mind. So there has been a long precedent for the process of visitations, and
most of us accepted the onus it would place on usfor the greater good.
could we not have seen a visitation from Mother Clare, as the authorized
American visitator, in this light? Why did those who objected repeatedly ignore
the fact that she was deputized with legitimate authority to accomplish the
same thing on behalf of the Churchand, ultimately, to remind us of our roles
as religious? Instead, some sisters immediately insisted upon redefining the
visitation and turning it into an “investigation.” Worst were the implications
consistently repeated by sympathetic media channels that the Vatican’s (or
Mother Clare’s) motivation was explicitly to find fault.
not help but ask: how much better would the sisters’ response to the visitation
have been if such an assault was not launched? Sad to say, that opportunity was
lost almost immediately, and because of that alone, I believe much harm was
done to the visitation process. Perhaps
a reminder of the role of any visitationhistorically, professionally,
personallymight have prevented some spokeswomen from going down the
wrong-headed path of destructive response in such a biased fashion.
CWR: So, you saw the visitation as
having merit from the beginning?
Sister Dolores: Yes, I
was in favor of it from the start, for its historical significance, in the
first place. But I was also excited about it for the reason cited in answering
the previous question. I saw it for what I realized was its intention: that
every sister might have a chance to reflect upon her post-Vatican II personal
and collective experience, difficult though that might be. The intention,
clearly stated when the materials were sent out, was that the major superior
(or president) was to see that every sister [in her community] read the
questionnaire and understood the process. It was expected that…this would
encourage the superior/president to [seek] feedback from her members by
subsequent community-wide discussions, in order that her sisters could inform
her of their views and all could come to a consensus on the way she should
all this as a way by which we could collectively offer creative ideas to
improve ourselves regarding two of the problems that I believe have hurt
religious life since the 1960s, namely our newly-styled approaches to community
life and to prayer life.
for too much. I confess that I wanted to see, for example, how both of these
essential elements of vowed lifecommunity life and community prayerwould be
discussed because I personally knew that these essentials had been weakened by
decisions made by all of us in the days and years after “renewal.” It seemed to
me that having to respond to the questions seriously posed by the visitation
(these questions were available on the apostolic visitation website) might be a
fruitful way for individual sisters to ask themselves if what their congregations
had accomplished was as wise as had been first [envisioned] by so many of us at
chapters of affairs [legislative assemblies of religious orders] in the
immediate years following Vatican II.
thought that the questionnaire would spark conversations that would force us
all to answer questions such as: did the renewal we intended actually come
about? Did the changes we set in motion
help our communities actually clarify or further develop our identities? Did the updates that followed our renewing
chapters truly help sisters understand and even live out a strategy whereby
“nuns in the modern world” could be true witnesses to God’s amazing love for
the whole world? Did these changes help sisters find new ways to prove their
love for God and neighbor? Did renewal, finally, help sisters balance the two
most precious aspects of religious life, i.e., contemplation and action?
see it, going back to the source of the “renewal” process as we prepared every
aspect of the visitation, and tracing the ways in which we implemented change,
would be an excellent way for congregations to challenge themselves. It should
have been this way for those who were to answer the various parts of the
questionnaire. Even if such a
soul-searching process was painful in some ways, would it not help the next
generation of sisters find a clearer way to be the same incredibly positive
force within the Church that they had already proven themselves to be in the
CWR: What would you say to people who were critical
of the visitation as being somehow insulting to US sisters?
Sister Dolores: Was
launching the apostolic visitation an insulting thing for the Vatican to do? Not
at all. Sisters should have been ready to accept the idea that they are not
their own final judges; that in any ministry or within any institution, sisters
still live (and will live) in a hierarchal Church. To my mind, it’s only right,
fitting, and proper that we recognize that there should be a framework within
which sisters would expect to be subject to evaluation. Didn’t Socrates say of
humans in general, “The unexamined life is not worth living”? Must we ourselves
be the only judges of our progress? Whether the Vatican requested it or not, we
sisters should have seen questions from legitimate sources outside our own
institutions as appropriate and to be taken very seriously.
CWR: Some sisters have charged that
the men in the Vatican do not understand US women religious. Would you say that
women religious in the US have differed from women religious in other
countries, especially in Europe?
Sister Dolores: This
is a great question. As I studied and taught about the experience of US
sisters, it became clearer and clearer to me that US congregations truly
“started afresh” in developing their own congregational lives. From the very
start, women religious, with the invitation of our first bishop, John Carroll,
took advantage of the amazing reality that religious freedom had been secured
in the new nation and that women were also part of a cultural change of
enormous consequence to them. Carroll merely began the process of calling upon
women to fulfill an unprecedented role within the Church.
fact, even by 1800, there were three congregations serving on the East Coast
and in New Orleans: the Ursuline Sisters were functioning in Louisiana
territory; the contemplative Order of Carmelites at Port Tobacco, Maryland; and
a nascent community of Visitation Sisters in Georgetown, Maryland. Except for
the Carmelites, who remained totally absorbed in contemplative life, [these
congregations] established a pattern whereby their spiritual and apostolic
lives prefigured the contemplative-active model as the usual way of “doing
mission” in the United States.
1830, six more congregations of women had also been established as active
congregations in several of the new nation’s dioceses. To these communities in
particular is given the credit for introducing the apostolic missionary
dimension to religious life. Subsequently, the freedom of sisters to serve the Church
in the works of teaching and health care was never compromised by either Church
or state. In fact, Catholic leaders in every region of the rapidly growing
nation continued to call upon sisters to become the primary exemplars of the
commandment to love one’s neighbor through service.
1900, moreover, there were 40,000 women religious and several dozens of
religious congregations whose mission was to spread the Gospel in various
ministries across the nation. That number would reach more than 180,000 by the
mid-20th century. In other words: here, in this land of religious freedom,
sisters had increased and multiplied, almost completely without government
interference or ecclesial complications. All this while, Catholicsleaders and
laitycheered them on. The progress made by this highly spirited corps of women
religious seemed unstoppable.
CWR: European sisters had a
Sister Dolores: Yes. The sisters who remained in Europe were
much more circumscribed, not only by the political climate in the newly
emerging nation-states or republics, but also by certain prevailing attitudes
about the degree to which religious would be permitted by Rome to assume new
ways of serving God’s people. In some cases, they lived in environments
constantly ravaged by political upheavals, some of which threatened their
personal survival. All the while they worked within a Church that preferred
more restrictive measures to frame their lives as religious. This latter
condition was a result of the Council of Trent (1560s), which limited their
freedoms, presumably for the protection of sisters. Imagine the trauma
religious congregations experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries as their
religious houses were dissolved and some of their members executed (I am thinking
here of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and of other arbitrary
actions taken by political leaders across the European continent to restrict
sisters and suppress convents).
our sisters in Europe did not have the same degree of freedom, within
either the Church or society, as was enjoyed by US sisters. The ebb and
intolerance in Europe continued to take its toll, especially among
Belgian, and French communities, well into the early 20th century.
most “apostolic congregations” in Europe did not experience the freedom
wished for until their members moved to America.
CWR: Did the US bishops recognize
that the American situation was different and look to women religious, either
native-born or immigrant, to help them in undertaking missionary and apostolic
Sister Dolores: Every
US bishop understood the special circumstances that prevailed in the United
States. Each was eager to encourage women to enter (or organize) religious
communities that would become engaged in the corporal and spiritual works of
mercy in their dioceses. Examples abound of the ways in which bishops recruited
and sometimes begged young women to assist them in helping the constantly
mushrooming immigrant populations that settled in their dioceses. Bishops knew
that they simply could not care for their members without dedicated women
willing to take charge of essential educational and health care provisions.
some clashes between superiors and bishops over issues of authority, more often
than not, bishops and new communities worked “hand in hand” together to build
up women’s communities. History records the story of bishops who supported the
sisters’ innovative measures and simply informed Rome that this was “the American
way” of developing a frontier Church.
too, that the US remained a predominantly Protestant nation well into the 20th
century, and Catholics had to live within those constraints, especially
if they were to make themselves credible. Throughout the 19th century, the
accord between bishops and women religious continued to grow, and nuns began to
be appreciated as essential missionaries in their dioceses.
religious continued this way of life well into the 20th century. No wonder they
responded to the brewing challenges presented by racial bigotry, shocking both
the Church and the nation on one particular day in 1965 at Selma, Alabama, when
a small group of sisters joined the protestors, marching with them and readyas
one sister quietly admittedto “spill their blood” for their brothers. From
that point on, sisters were at the forefront of the civil rights and other
movements on behalf of the downtrodden, giving witness to the meaning of
Christian love for the sake of justice and freedom of all. This expression of
apostolic witness was unparalleled and demonstrated the power of sisters, not
only to reprimand a timid America, but to challenge the Catholic Church as
well. Through such acts, sisters were merely responding to the proposal of Cardinal
Suenens, who called upon the “Nun in the World” to prove her dedication to the
Lord in new ways.
CWR: The viewpoint of some sisters today
seems to be colored by bad experiences sisters had with hierarchy in the past.
How widespread and disruptive do you believe the disagreements that occurred
between US bishops and sisters were?
Sister Dolores: As I
mentioned in previous answers, in terms of sisters’ relationship with bishops,
my research verifies that there were definitely multiple examples of conflicts.
But a pattern of accord was far more prevalent than people realize. Otherwise,
how would one explain the phenomenal increase in the numbers of sisters over
the past 200 years?
view, some feminists (seldom are they historians) have made too much of the
disagreements experienced over such matters as property claims or even the
locus of authority. I’ve read too many well-researched articles on this topic
to join them in this point of view. Studies demonstrate that these disputes
happened, to be sure, and I do agonize over what certain superiors and sisters
had to endure at the hand of a particular bishop or priest. No doubt about it,
we can shake our heads in disapproval at such behavior. But for every example
of heavy-handedness that I have read about, I can offer more than one example
of amazing harmony that also existed.
for example, I look at Simon Brute or John DuBois and what their
with Elizabeth Ann Seton made possible. Or I think of the bishop of my
diocese of Hartford, Francis
McFarland, who saw to the building of my congregation's first
motherhouse in the statewhich, by the way, doubled as the cathedral
before he built his
own rectory. There were so many founding bishops who sacrificed so much
the sisters would be properly cared for and so that their people would
of the services of sisters. So this argument ultimately rings hollow to
I know that this kind of cooperation continued well into the 20th century, when
dioceses began to rely more and more upon the services of women religious to
head their schools and health care institutions. If, by any chance, religious
experienced the reverse or were actually “rejected” by a particular bishop,
they easily exercised the very neat technique of simply “moving
on”re-establishing themselves where there was a more congenial atmosphere (and
bishop). This worked perfectly because this was a land of opportunity where
women were free to make such choicesespecially women religious!
another point, however. For all that, women religious could not have gotten
anywhere in the American Church without the blessings of bishops. We have to
remember this and respect the way that bishops and clergy became the patrons of
their success as women religious took on the major responsibilities for
educational, health, and social service institutions. In the long run, in fact,
I know it is safe for me to say that the histories of most communities point to
at least a few bishops who consistently expressed their devotion to the sisters
who served in their dioceses, respected their decisions, and applauded their
CWR: Is it your sense as an
historian that the apostolic visitation already has helped religious orders?
Sister Dolores: Yes,
clearly, the visitation has proven very helpful to a number of congregations.
As this process is drawing to a close, I can say that reviewing their stories,
reflecting on their past and present, did have positive outcomes for many
congregations. For example, sisters who initially admitted concern about the
visitation later expressed gratitude that they had become engaged in the
process. It seemed to me the visitation served these congregations as it should
haveas discernment, sometimes personal, sometimes communal.
addition, another good was achieved when an Internet discussion group was
launched to support individual women religious who were troubled about the way
that the visitation was being “advertised,” or who were concerned that their
own congregations had decided not to support it. It was heartening to see the
number of individual sisters who corresponded on the website or individually
with members of the list. What they offered for reflection was heartfelt and
inspiring. For the first time, too, they
realized they were no longer alone. They attributed this to the effects of the
this process of interaction, I personally was edified. For example, I got to
know some sisters first by their e-mails to the list, then personally. This
often led me to learn about the efforts of individual women religious doing
their best to fulfill their desires to be authentic religious. I grew to
realize the desire of some sisters to once again become what they had professed
to be so very long ago. Yes, in some cases, I saw hope return.
noticed how some sisters were willing to adapt, wherever that did not
compromise their beliefs or the essential meaning of their vowsin other words,
to “sit more comfortably in their skins,” as it were. Such signs proved the
power of the Spirit to make all things new. This greater confidence in
themselves had occurred, I believe, because these sisters also had a chance to
share their stories in their online interaction. In that way, they had been
able to find a way to prove in some constructive way how they desired to remain
faithful witnesses to the Church. Unfortunately, however, this did not happen
to the degree that it should have.
CWR: Mother Clare has said that she
has been assured by the Vatican that the orders of US women religious will get
feedback about the visitation. How important is it historically that orders
receive timely feedback from Church authorities?
Sister Dolores: This
is probably the easiest question for an historian to answer. Immediate feedback is not necessarily helpful
in the eyes of the historian. It will
take time to discern what has actually happened in the post-Vatican II era and
its effect upon religious life in the United States. Fifty to 100 years from now, observers will
be much more advantaged by the results of the visitation study than [we are]
now. Then it will become clear whether or not the visitation helped communities
and the Church.
immediate feedback is given, as some sisters have insisted is the right thing
to do, what will be achieved?
Personally, I can only say what may be obvious: the feedback will not
have much impact. It may be that it will not even be helpful. The communities that fully involved
themselves in the visitation process will probably be happy when they receive
the Vatican response. This will prove constructive and they will be much better
for what they learn about the experience. But what of the communities that did
not honestly believe that it was necessary for them to answer the questionnaire
fullyand, therefore, did not completely fulfill their part in the visitation?
Of what use will feedback be to them? Isn’t that answer already quite clear?
what about those sisters who discovered that their congregations ignored the
visitation process, in whole or in part? Some of these sisters had personally
hoped that their communities could be part of a new venture toward spiritual
renewal as a result of the visitation. Some may also have been counting on
something to alter the present, agonizing situation in which they find
themselves. Now, as they watched the US reaction to the visitation, they
suddenly discovered that their own or other communities were actually
distancing themselves, not only from the visitation, but even from religious
life within the Church itself. Of what use will any kind of feedback be for
these sisters? How will they, in the final analysis, be aided? It appears that the feedback report will do
little to assuage these sisters’ concerns.
me, I do believe that the three years spent on the apostolic visitation were
not spent in vain. The intention of those who directed it was to assess the
quality of life of American sisters. I am quite sure the answer to that
question is much clearer now. True, some sisters are necessarily disappointed
because they had hoped to see positive results in their lifetimes. That being
said, I am aware that there are some communities who have taken the process
seriously and are, therefore, experiencing a new sense of hope about the
future. I am thankful for that. It seems to me that this will be the best
result of the visitation. Still, I know that much more is needed if religious
life in the United States is to be the sign and symbol of God’s love that it
was when the first Ursulines arrived in the French colony of New Orleans, or
the first Carmelites established themselves in the United States.
CWR: How would you sum up your
thoughts about the visitation?
I wish to reiterate my gratitude that there has
been an apostolic visitation and that I was privileged to be part of it. I know
that the way, the truth, and the life are revealed only by a constant pursuit
and a continual reflection on the One to whom women religious have offered
their lives. Studying our history and
reflecting on the way we have continued to live the hopes of our founders is a
wonderful way to open us to the possibility of coming to know the Lord and
follow him. I know that whatever has been done by those who entered into this
process will redound to the good of the Church for generations to come. In the
meantime, I remain hopeful that deep and honest revisioning will slowly emerge,
despite the discord, through the grace of God, whose words re-echo: “Behold, I
make all things new.”