The Vatican has opened formal channels of communication with conservative nuns in the United States who have resisted many of the reforms spearheaded by other religious orders in recent years.
The new development places the conservative orders in a better position to press their cases against what they see as the drift toward liberalism and secularization among American nuns, according to church leaders.
The Vatican has appointed Cardinal James Hickey of Washington to serve as liaison to orders that have either broken away from or been refused membership in the official leadership organization of religious sisters in the United States.
In a statement released through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops here, Hickey said the Holy See has asked him “to be of special service” to communities not affiliated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The cardinal said Rome asked that he “assist these (sisters) in conveying their concerns and needs to the Holy See.”
Since its establishment in 1956, the Leadership Conference has been the official umbrella group of women’s religious orders. The conference is made up of 800 superiors of religious orders, representing the vast majority of the nation’s 106,912 sisters.
In the early 1970s, some communities broke away from the Leadership Conference as the latter embraced reforms symbolized by the shedding of traditional nuns’ habits. As they have become more organized, the conservative orders have made known their wishes for some kind of official recognition by the Holy See.
The move announced by Hickey received a cool response from the top spokeswomen for American nuns. “We hope that it won’t complicate our efforts to be in communication with those who are not members,” said Sister Janet Roesener, executive director of the Leadership Conference.
Roesener said the conference has been trying to bring the conservative orders back under its umbrella. She expressed concern that by entering the picture, the Vatican may complicate discussions already under way.
But a national spokesman for conservative orders of nuns and priests responded enthusiastically to the new arrangement. “The religious communities that do not belong to the (Leadership Conference) have felt the need for some means of representation with the Holy See. This corrects that need,” said Father James Downey, executive director of the Chicago-based Institute on Religious Life.
The institute, which includes many of the orders that bolted the Leadership Conference, has suggested various forms of recognition. “This (action by Rome) is even better than the ways we had thought of. Having a cardinal act as your liaison is a very big help,” Downey said.
Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, Ky., who heads the U.S. bishops’ committee concerned with religious orders, said the appointment represents Rome’s recognition that not all communities want to be part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
“They (the conservative orders) will be able to communicate their views more effectively,” he said. “But this doesn’t mean they will necessarily prevail.” Kelly, saying that the Vatican has assigned no role to the bishops’ conference in the new arrangement, added that he expects the institute “to be operative in all this.”
Formed in 1974, the institute has 151 member orders, all but 14 of which are made up of nuns. Downey said these orders have a combined membership of roughly 20,000, although there is some debate over the numbers. According to official church estimates, the Leadership Conference represents religious communities with more than 90% of the nation’s nuns.
Downey said the conservative orders will emphasize to Rome what he termed “the depth of the disaster facing religious communities, especially secularized communities. They have received practically no vocations now for 15 or 20 years, and their membership is growing old and disabled,” he said. In contrast, he added, the communities affiliated with the institute are growing, although he said he could not provide figures.
Downey also criticized democratic styles of leadership in religious orders; the trend toward nuns living outside of convents, and the “influence of radical feminism” among them. In a letter sent to all U.S. bishops in March, Pope John Paul II voiced the same concerns.