How Is It Going?

An update on challenges to the apostolic visitation of sisters

What ever happened to the apostolic visitation of women religious in the United States that was announced in 2009? Is it still happening? If so, how is it going, and what might be the outcome?

Many people have been asking these questions, for Church officials have had very little to say publicly about the visitation. This silence is common practice with apostolic visitations, which normally are initiated to address problems of some kind. The lack of public discourse, however, should not be translated as inactivity.

In fact, Mother Mary Clare Millea, the American superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who was appointed by the Vatican to conduct the visitation, had personal meetings with more than 100 religious superiors during phase one of the four-phase visitation. In the second phase, orders were asked to respond to a questionnaire about their work, life, and prayer together as well as their financial status. In the third phase, teams of visitors called on nearly 100 congregations of women religious during 2010. That on-site visiting phase of the apostolic visitation was completed in December.

All that now remains to be accomplished is the fourth phase: preparation of a report by Mother Clare that will include results of the interviews conducted by the teams of visitors, as well as information Mother Clare gathered from the other 300-plus congregations that did not receive an on-site visit. During 2011, Mother Clare will write and submit her report to Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Each order of sisters in the US will receive some kind of feedback from that curial office “for the purpose of promoting its charismatic identity and apostolic vitality in ongoing dialogue with the local and universal Church,” wrote Mother Clare in a January 12, 2010 letter to all US women superiors.

While the visitation is on schedule, and anecdotal reports indicate that the on-site visits went very smoothly and amicably, the entire project has faced significant challenges, including confusion about the apostolic visitation and the separate doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; the resistance of some women religious; the manipulation of the visitation process by some religious superiors; and the role the media has played since the announcement of the visitation.

The apostolic visitation and the LCWR

Just over two months after the apostolic visitation of women religious was announced on January 30, 2009, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) revealed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was conducting a doctrinal assessment of that organization. The LCWR is canonically established by the Vatican, as are superiors’ conferences in other countries, and thus is answerable to Church authorities. The LCWR has a membership of about 1,500 sisters who are on leadership teams in their orders. These members lead about 85 percent of the 50,000-plus sisters in this country, so the organization has considerable influence with most orders of women religious.

The doctrinal assessment of the LCWR followed a 2001 warning by the CDF about problems within the LCWR involving Church teachings on homosexuality, the ordination of women, and the central, salvific role of Jesus and his Church. Concerned that the LCWR had not made significant changes in eight years, the CDF appointed Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, a member of the US Bishop’s Committee on Doctrine, to conduct a thorough doctrinal assessment of the LCWR unrelated to the apostolic visitation of US women religious. Bishop Blair completed that assessment in late 2010 and sent his report to the CDF, which will consult with Pope Benedict XVI in deciding any action regarding doctrinal issues with the LCWR.

In spite of the fact that the apostolic visitation and the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR are being carried out by two different curial offices, some biased media reports have treated the two studies as one, often characterizing them as a combined “attack” against US women religious orchestrated by the all-male hierarchy. Likewise, the LCWR has taken a defensive stance, depicting US women religious as victims of the two studies. In her August 13, 2010, address to LCWR annual assembly, outgoing president Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA said women religious were “quavering with the continuing ecclesial inquiries and canonical assessments,” which she listed alongside other cataclysms of 2010 such as earthquakes, the Gulf oil spill, mudslides, sex abuse scandals, and “the quakes that health care reform generated within our Church and country.” She did not mention that she and other prominent sisters had caused that particular “quake” by publicly supporting the health reform bill that the US bishops opposed because it allowed public funding of abortion and did not offer sufficient conscience protection for health care workers.

Resistance of some women religious

This resistance by the LCWR leadership has been shared by some other sisters who have openly criticized the visitation from the time it was announced. They argue that women religious are simply doing what they are supposed to be doing, and they almost totally downplay concern over the rapidly diminishing number of sisters, reports of sisters “moving beyond the Church,” and the divergent lifestyles and ministries adopted by some orders. 

Feminist theologian Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM quickly got the criticism rolling with a February 2009 e-mail to sisters that was widely circulated and eventually published in National Catholic Reporter. Her e-mail characterized the apostolic visitors as “investigators” and “uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house.” She followed that up with a five-part essay published by National Catholic Reporter in early 2010 that characterized the apostolic visitation as a “surprise attack,” a “crime” perpetrated on an “unlikely target.” 

Others, like Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, repeatedly dismissed the visitation by reciting the impressive history of women religious in this country, as if this rich history has not already been told in great detail, or as if past accomplishments should make contemporary sisters immune to any inquiry about their present condition. Sister Joan wrote in an August 11, 2010 column in National Catholic Reporter: “What shall we think about such a time as this when the women religious who have built, carried, led, and staffed every work of the church from the earliest days of this nation to this present time of turbulence and transition are being accused of being unorthodox, unfaithful, and unfit to make adult decisions about what they need to hear and who they want to have say it?”

Sisters directly involved in various meetings about the visitation reported that some canon lawyers had recommended techniques for orders to withhold information from the apostolic visitation. Some—perhaps many—orders sent their constitutions to the visitation office rather than completing the phase-two questionnaire that asked for financial statements and asked questions about how orders see their religious identity, what ministries sisters engage in, how they live the spiritual and common life, how liturgical norms are observed, how their governance is carried out, and what properties they own.

A December 4, 2009 Associated Press article cited interviews with two presidents of women’s orders. Sister Mary Waskowiak, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas—the United States’ largest order of sisters—acknowledged that she did not answer all the visitation questions, saying some were inappropriate and too legalistic. Sister Mary Ann Zollman, president of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said that she did not complete the questionnaire, but instead sent a short cover letter and a copy of her order’s constitutions. Neither sister acknowledged that some religious consider their constitutions to be an ideal open to interpretation, not a document to be strictly observed.

Mother Clare subsequently wrote all US women superiors on November 5, 2009, saying that “many major superiors” had claimed concern about protection of privileged information about their congregation, their members, and their work. She wrote, “After listening to your concerns and after considerable prayer and counsel,” she had decided to drop the three questions that seemed to cause the most difficulty: those regarding the demographic, ministry, and living situations of each member; the list of property owned; and the financial statements. Mother Clare did reiterate, “Our canonical and civil advisors concur that the Apostolic See has the right to all the information contained in the questionnaire.”

This decision to delete the questions obviously was an effort by Mother Clare to preserve good will, but this concession may also have emboldened the push-back and resistance to the visitation and certainly limited its scope. Furthermore, dropping the requirement of providing property and financial information prevents Church authorities from assessing the overall financial health of orders at a critical time, when the sisters’ aging buildings and populations present huge challenges.

Dropping the financial section also allowed concern to grow over evidence that some orders are using ecclesial property for non-ecclesial purposes and improperly transferring property to civil entities without any approbation or oversight by Church authorities. In fact, a workshop was offered on “Going Non-Canonical” at the October 2009 annual conference of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes. That workshop taught participants about the steps taken by the former Benedictine Sisters of Madison, Wisconsin to become an ecumenical, “non-canonical” community. The main workshop presenters were Benedictine Father Daniel Ward, executive director of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes; the civil and canon lawyer who assisted the former Benedictine sisters of Madison in their civil and ecclesial transformation; and Mary David Walgenbach, leader of the new Benedictine Women of Madison, the community now using the former sisters’ property to run a “green” ecumenical center where they invite others to join them to “celebrate Eucharist around a common table.”

Resistance to the questionnaire continued, even with the concession of the deleted questions, and Mother Clare took up the issue with Cardinal Rode. On January 12, 2010, she again wrote the superiors that she had shared with Cardinal Rode her “sadness and disappointment that not all congregations have responded to this phase of dialogue with the Church in a manner fully supportive of the purpose and goals of the Apostolic Visitation.” Cardinal Rode had, she wrote, “encouraged me to ask those who have not yet fully complied to prayerfully reconsider their response.”

The visitation office, which declined to be interviewed for this article, has not revealed how many orders did eventually complete the questionnaire, but there have been no reports that visitors were turned away from any of the orders scheduled for visits.

Dominican Sister Elizabeth McDonough, a canon lawyer with extensive experience in consecrated life matters, confirmed that religious are subject to both internal and external visitation.

“Visitations should address the physical and spiritual well-being of members, as well as practical manifestation of the institute’s charism, including the effectiveness of its actual governance in fostering the following of Christ more closely as fundamental to religious profession.” Sister Elizabeth said.

She added that religious superiors have authority only in the “external forum,” meaning they are strictly forbidden to require a religious to discuss matters of conscience, though any member of any religious institute is always free to share conscience matters with any legitimate ecclesiastical superior or a legitimately designated representative. For example, “Religious have always had the right—at least in theory—to communicate freely and directly with the Holy See without prior intervention or subsequent retaliation by any other ecclesiastical superior,” Sister Elizabeth said. Regarding visitations, she continued, canon law is clear: “Members are encouraged to deal trustingly with visitors and … no one is permitted to divert members from doing so or to impede the scope of a visitation.”

The manipulation of the visitation process

Nevertheless, sisters from various orders report that their leadership approached the visitation with a fear that was fed in part by the LCWR and other outspoken women religious, as well as misinformation in the media. This fear, in turn, caused anxiety among many grassroots sisters. So, too, did pre-visitation “informational meetings” that seemed more like indoctrination sessions; some sisters say they felt intimidated by their leadership, who warned sisters not to answer certain questions from the visitors, not to say anything negative about the order, and not to tell anyone about the visitation, even as their leaders continued to disparage the visitation publicly. 

Likewise, some orders who received on-site visits also scheduled post-visit meetings for sisters to report what they said and heard during their appointments with visitors and to discuss how they felt about the visitation experience. One sister told this writer that these post-visit meetings, which were announced before her order’s visit, made her feel that sisters’ conversations with the visitors would not really be confidential if sisters were expected to report on them to their superiors.

Sister Elizabeth confirmed that a number of sisters from various institutes throughout the US contacted her for advice about whether they were free to absent themselves from pre- and post-visitation meetings scheduled by superiors and presented as mandatory. She said she had explained to these sisters the basic information on privacy and non-manifestation of conscience and suggested that if sisters felt they might face intimidation for not participating in the meetings, then it might be better for them to attend and to speak if it seemed truly necessary. If they did so, she told sisters to inform the apostolic visitation office confidentially about what had actually transpired.

The privacy of sisters who wished to talk to a visitor also was problematic for some sisters. The visitation office tried to ensure confidentiality for sisters, and feedback from those experiencing a visit has been overwhelmingly positive. However, in some instances, sisters reported that the identity of some sisters requesting an interview with a visitor was inadvertently revealed to an order’s leadership. Additionally, the other confidential methods for speaking with a visitor—via telephone or webcam or at an off-site interview—were not feasible for some sisters, particularly the elderly in nursing care or retirement facilities. The visitation office did, however, encourage letters from sisters, and many sisters took advantage of that method when they wanted to be absolutely certain their identity would not be revealed to superiors.

The role of the media

As the four phases of the visitation have played out over the past two years, some sisters as well as laity have continued to criticize the visitation, and have found allies in some of the secular and Catholic media who have been quite happy to publish the criticisms, and throw a few punches of their own in the process. The LCWR helpfully listed published articles about the visitation and doctrinal assessment—usually only articles critical of Church authorities—in its monthly newsletter, Update

The National Catholic Reporter consistently leaked confidential information about the visitation and the doctrinal assessment provided by unnamed sources within the LCWR. The newspaper and the LCWR appear to have a warm relationship, and the LCWR communications director, Sister Annmarie Sanders, IHM, is listed as a member of the board of directors of National Catholic Reporter. That paper carried more than 50 articles or editorials about the visitation or LCWR doctrinal assessment during 2009-2010, most of them critical of Church authorities.

The policy of the visitation office and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life has been not to respond to criticism and attacks, apparently to preserve confidentiality and dignity for the process. So, too, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Bishop Blair have refused to discuss the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR. However well intended, this policy has allowed misinformation and innuendo to be widely circulated without accurate explanations, thus giving ammunition to critics of the visitation and the doctrinal assessment and conveying the false impression that most sisters oppose the studies.

For example, a CNN segment on September 17, 2010 was titled “American nuns take on the Vatican.” It featured Loretto Sister Maureen Fiedler speaking on WAMU radio in Washington, DC. Sister Maureen opined that the Vatican wants to control sisters “in every aspect of their lives,” silencing sisters and forcing them back into habits and behind convent walls. In the same segment, Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA, past president of the LCWR, complained that the Vatican was testing the “authenticity and integrity” of sisters and that many sisters are alarmed by so-called intrusive questions posed by the all-male hierarchy.

In an October 18, 2010 story produced by WGN television, Sister Patricia Crowley, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago and a member of the LCWR national board, said there was no clear rationale for the visitation, and stated, “I don’t know of anybody that’s too happy about it.” She said that sisters are offended by the visitation because they are simply doing what they are supposed to be doing.

That same WGN story repeated another common but erroneous complaint about the visitation—that sisters will not receive feedback. While it is true that the report written on each order by Mother Clare will not be shared with anyone but the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life in order to protect the confidentiality of sisters who spoke to visitors, Mother Clare has made it clear that each order will indeed receive feedback about the visitation, starting later this year.

Campaigns to write letters and petition Church authorities to leave the American sisters alone also were launched by publications and so-called Church reform groups, with some suggesting that the sisters’ resistance to oversight by the hierarchy could be a model for laity, too.

With persistent silence from the visitation office and Church authorities, the criticisms have largely gone unanswered, and the media has ignored the US women religious who asked the Vatican for the visitation because their leadership was out of touch with grassroots sisters who are powerless to change the direction of their orders. So, too, little attention has been given to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the other superiors’ group of US sisters, which welcomed the visitation, as did entire orders of sisters and many individuals who recognized its validity and also saw it as a helpful tool for their own self-study. This is a classic example of the old media adage that sensational stories of resistance and disagreement—particularly within the Catholic Church—make much more enticing news than stories of progress and conciliation.

In the end, all the challenges and negativity may prove to have been no match for the actual visitation experience of US sisters, for the on-site visits seem to have gone very smoothly and evoked abundant good will. Even some sisters who continue to be suspicious of the process have praised the 74 visitors, who were all Americans, members of religious orders themselves, and mostly sisters (contrary to erroneous reports that Vatican priests conducted the on-site visits).

An unnamed Immaculate Heart of Mary sister from Monroe, Michigan—the order of Sister Sandra Schneiders—wrote on the “IHM Calling” website September 28, 2010 that she felt “ambivalent” about her order’s September on-site visitation, but praised the actual visitors:  “There is a  warm, ‘sisterly’ spirit about the way our visitors have interacted with us. They seem open and appreciative about who we are.”

The LCWR past president, Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, was asked in an August 30, 2010 interview in the National Catholic Reporter if the “energy” the Vatican “investigations” had sparked in sisters would prompt her to see the projects in a positive light. She responded: “You know, I think we’re quite a ways along the road to that being true already. There was anger at first, but as people are having better experiences with the visits, the mood has been changing.”

Certainly, in 2011 more clues will begin to emerge as to how effective the visitation will have been in helping women religious improve their quality of life, strengthen their religious identity, and reclaim the important and beloved role they play in the Catholic Church.

Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities. This article appears in the January 2011 issue of CWR.

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About Ann Carey 17 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).