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Has the Vatican stopped picking on American nuns? Let's hope so

Time for the Vatican to stop scrutinizing American nuns and create more roles for them within the church

It looks like American nuns are, rightly, beginning to emerge from the shadow of Vatican disapproval and scrutiny.  The Vatican issued a report earlier this month that was the result of a sweeping investigation of religious orders representing thousands of U.S. nuns.

It had been in the works--from announcement to release--for six years (longer than the Senate Intelligence Committee took to report on CIA torture) and came up with these revelations: Nuns work hard, pray hard, respect their superiors, minister to their aging sisters and do it all on a pittance.  The committee (its formal title is epically long) reported that it is “sincerely grateful for the presence of women religious in the United States and for all that they contribute to the Church’s evangelizing mission.”

Things could have gone a lot worse.  As David Gibson of Religion News Service wryly observed of the Vatican’s press conference on the report:  “The moment was more 'Kumbaya' than 'Come to Jesus' ...”

And that was wise of this investigating body which, by the way, was helmed by an American nun.  I think the general perception of nuns is that they are among the most selfless people anywhere. Not perfect—just devoted and hard working. Like the report says. (And, by the way, I use the terms 'nun' and 'sister' interchangeably here. Technically, within the church, there are differences.)

But the pre-Pope Francis Vatican had a sense that some were going off the rigid rails of Catholic doctrine and needed to be reined in.  The 2008 announcement of this Vatican investigation--called an “Apostolic Visitation”—had been met with suspicion and anger among many religious women.  The report, itself, acknowledges that and notes that it prompted some communities not to participate in the investigation process—“a painful disappointment for us,” the report says.  But it goes on to offer something of an olive branch: “[W]e use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them.”

The report does make some suggestions—like calling upon religious communities “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.”  And it reveals some grim statistics about women’s religious orders: The median age of nuns in this country is mid-to-late 70s.  In the U.S. today, there are approximately 50,000 “apostolic” sisters—the ones who generally minister or teach in the community as opposed to cloistered nuns.  That’s down from a peak of 125,000 in the mid-1960s.  The report notes that many of these sisters worried about how the decline in their numbers would affect their communities.

But American nuns aren’t completely free of Vatican scrutiny.  A second review of a specific umbrella group—the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—that represents about 80% of American nuns started with harsher allegations.  In 2012, the Vatican issued a “doctrinal assessment” of the group, contending that the group’s assemblies featured speakers who challenged Catholic doctrine and some of the group’s presentations incorporated “certain radical feminist themes.”  (Wish I had been at some of those programs.) Also, according to the assessment, some Leadership Conference officers wrote letters “protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination.”  In the wake of the assessment, the Vatican put the religious organization under the oversight of an American archbishop for five years—kind of the religious equivalent of a consent decree.

It’s a testament to how much these women are deeply spiritual that their officers’ response was to say that at their annual assembly, their members instructed them to conduct their discussions with the archbishop “from a stance of deep prayer that values mutual respect, careful listening, and open dialogue.”

We’ll see what happens between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The oversight may end sooner than expected.

I think that would be smart for all involved. These investigations are remnants of a different papal era, and it’s time for the Vatican to move on from its suspicions about American nuns. This is the era of the more open-minded Pope Francis.  In his 2013 apostolic exhortation (his version of a State of Catholicism speech) Francis says the priesthood being reserved for men is “not a question open to discussion” (unfortunately). But he acknowledges that “women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families, and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection."  Then he adds, “we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”  The just-released Vatican report on nuns quotes him on this.

The Vatican should dispense with all the investigating of American nuns and focus on creating those broader opportunities for nuns and for lay women in the church.

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