The Apostolic Visitation in Historical Perspective

An interview with Sister Dolores Liptak, RSM

Sister 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.

The 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.

Sister 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 year, CWR 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, RSMCWR: 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 responsibility—to become acquainted with the quality of life of today’s sisters—could be sidetracked if she didn’t approach it by way of the overall story of apostolic women religious within the US Catholic Church. 

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 visit—whether they were the largest congregations or the hundreds of smaller ones—and 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.

Observing 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.

Also, in planning for the major conference that was held in St. Louis to train the religious who were to be the official visitors, Mother Clare turned to history 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 remained for much of the duration of the visitation.

In 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 materials—census 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.

Besides, 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.

In the 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.

I would have to say that this desire to understand the past as it was actually seen by its participants—famous or otherwise—is 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 decline—one 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.   

So, 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 diverse, change. 

To my 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.

In fact, I believe it is the task of the historian to offer this perspective in order to help others discover what has happened—and 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 truth—and this for a variety of reasons.

Furthermore, 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 congregations—especially 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 life.    

Besides, 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 belong?

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 yearly—sometimes monthly—process 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. 

In 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 members—always 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 us—for the greater good.

Why 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 Church—and, 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.

I could 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 visitation—historically, professionally, personally—might 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 answer questions.

I saw 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. 

I hoped for too much. I confess that I wanted to see, for example, how both of these essential elements of vowed life—community life and community prayer—would 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.

I also 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? 

As I 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 past? 

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.

In 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. 

By 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.

By 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, Catholics—leaders and laity—cheered them on. The progress made by this highly spirited corps of women religious seemed unstoppable. 

CWR: European sisters had a different experience?

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).

Thus, 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 flow of intolerance in Europe continued to take its toll, especially among German, Belgian, and French communities, well into the early 20th century. Consequently most “apostolic congregations” in Europe did not experience the freedom they 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 work?

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.

Despite 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. 

Remember, 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.

Women 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 ready—as one sister quietly admitted—to “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? 

In my 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. 

Historically, for example, I look at Simon Brute or John DuBois and what their friendship 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 state—which, by the way, doubled as the cathedral before he built his own rectory. There were so many founding bishops who sacrificed so much so that the sisters would be properly cared for and so that their people would be assured of the services of sisters. So this argument ultimately rings hollow to me.

Besides, 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 choices—especially women religious!

Don’t forget 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 accomplishments. 

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 have—as discernment, sometimes personal, sometimes communal. 

In 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 apostolic visitation. 

Observing 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.

I also noticed how some sisters were willing to adapt, wherever that did not compromise their beliefs or the essential meaning of their vows—in 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.  

If 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 fully—and, 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?

Finally, 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.

As for 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?

Sister Dolores: 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.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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