ROME, August 22, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A high-ranking Vatican prelate told Catholic News Service this week that the animosity that has recently built up between the Vatican and some groups of women’s religious orders in the U.S. was the fault of “unscrupulous canonical advisers” in the Vatican.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, the recently-appointed Secretary for the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said in an interview that these unnamed advisers had sowed fear among the more “progressive” branches of U.S. sisters that they would face penalties or even the dissolution of their communities after decades of undisguised opposition to key Catholic doctrines – including on key life and family issues like abortion.

“It’s like Fox News,” he said, “they keep people coming back because they keep them afraid.”

While little has been heard from the new Prefect of the congregation, Brazilian Archbishop João Bráz de Aviz, Archbishop Tobin, an American who served in the Chicago area, has steadily moved his office, commonly called the Congregation for Religious, away from the stance taken by its former Prefect, Cardinal Franc Rodé.  Cardinal Rodé was known for his outspoken criticisms of the heavy influence of feminism and secularism on many religious orders since the 1960s.

Rodé aroused a storm of fury from some religious when his congregation announced the launch of an Apostolic Visitation to take stock of the current situation of religious life in the US. Some sisters wrote public letters attacking the Visitation as a “witch hunt” and calling on their confreres to refuse to cooperate.

Archbishop Tobin, who was appointed as Secretary in May last year, said that the Visitation has nearly finished its work and that the progressive religious orders will have nothing to fear.

“Certainly, on our side of the river or our side of the pond,” he said, “we had created an atmosphere” where the prospect of canonical penalties was thought possible, and in which the possibility that some communities would be closed down “didn’t seem to be so outlandish.”

“It’s like preaching; it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear ... and what a lot of these women heard was someone telling them their life was not loyal and faith-filled,” he added.

Shortly after his appointment last year, Archbishop Tobin told veteran Vatican journalist John Allen that he hoped to offer the Vatican a “different picture” of U.S. women religious. 

Archbishop Tobin’s comments to CNS are unusual for high-ranking Vatican prelates, who rarely openly criticize their former superiors. He said, “I believe a visitation has to have a dialogical aspect, but the way this was structured at the beginning didn’t really favour that.”

“I’m an optimist, but also trying to be realistic: The trust that should characterize the daughters and sons of God and disciples of Jesus isn’t recovered overnight. I think women religious have a right to say, ‘Well, let’s see,’” he said.

However he intends to approach the needs of religious sisters, all observers agree that Archbishop Tobin has a difficult task ahead. Religious in the U.S. are deeply divided along ideological and doctrinal lines, with the “progressive” end represented by the heavily left-leaning Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and the more recently founded Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, (CMSWR), acknowledged to be more “conservative.” LCWR has been strongly critical of the Vatican’s attempts to rein in the organization’s ideological stands, and has also publicly supported health care legislation that was denounced by pro-life leaders and the U.S. bishops for expanding abortion funding.

LCWR was warm in their endorsement of Archbishop Tobin for the appointment. In a statement, the organization said, “Fr. Joe Tobin is held in high regard by U.S. men and women religious.”

“He brings a breadth of knowledge of matters impacting religious life and has a wide range of experience and expertise. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious looks forward to working with him in his new position.”

In March last year, a group of “progressive” religious sisters called Network, issued a letter to Congress, signed by 54 women religious claiming to represent “59,000 Catholic sisters in the United States.” Among these signatories was the president of LCWR. The letter was in support of the notorious Senate health care bill that included provisions that would radically expand abortion funding in the U.S.

A statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops later slammed the group for “grossly” overstating their representation of American religious sisters.

The presence of “active” religious - those sisters who took on the bulk of the teaching and nursing work in Catholic institutions - has almost vanished since they reached a peak in the early 1960s. With the drying up of vocations after widespread institutional “reforms” through the 60s and 70s, most religious congregations have ceded the administration of the U.S.’s nearly 700 Catholic hospitals to lay people.

As the New York Times reported today, in 1968, nuns or priests served as chief executives of 770 of the country’s 796 Catholic hospitals. Today, they preside over 8 of 636 hospitals. Even the left-leaning Times admits that the near “extinction” of sisters from hospitals “accompanied” the rise of feminism, the sexual revolution and the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council.