By Hilary White

December 8, 2009 ( – Some groups of American Catholic sisters are continuing to defy the Vatican's attempts to assess their lifestyles and choice of mission. Many say they are simply refusing to fill out the questionnaire for the Vatican's Apostolic Visitation, an investigation into the lives and work of the remaining US religious orders.

Others have complained that the Vatican has not been forthcoming about the reason for the investigation and say they fear being forced back into more traditional patterns of religious life.

Sister Elizabeth Ohmann, a Franciscan nun who works for Humane Borders, an immigration lobby group, noted that the investigation is focusing on active sisters rather than those cloistered in monasteries. She told the Arizona Daily Star that she believes the Visitation is targeting those communities that dissent from Catholic teaching, especially on sexuality.

“I think – and this is my opinion – that they are saying they believe it's the active communities that are really encouraging, say, women priests and are also upholding the rights of homosexuals and even homosexual marriage,” she said.

Ohmann admitted that she and some of her fellow sisters were among these, saying, “Are we going contrary to Rome's teachings? I say, 'Yes, it is contrary to Rome's teachings.' But it is not contrary to my own conscience.”

Sister Mary Waskowiak, president of the 4,000-member Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, told the Associated Press that “most” of the 28 leaders of religious orders to whom she has spoken have either left sections of the questionnaire blank or have replied to the request for information by sending copies of their constitutions.

Sr. Waskowiak said that she acknowledges that the Vatican has a right to investigate, but said, “I still do not understand the real motivation for this.” She complained that the questionnaire did not allow the communities to tell their “story,” saying, “We have a great story to tell about walking with people. And the questionnaire doesn't seem to recognize that. It's very legalistic.”

Liberal factions in the American religious life have objected vociferously since the announcement of the Visitation, characterising it as a form of attack from Rome, an attempt to force the sisters back into their habits and their traditional apostolic works like teaching and nursing. Dozens of news articles have appeared across the country in recent months featuring habitless sisters objecting to what they regard as an intrusion into their lives and work.

A spokesman for Call to Action, one of the oldest anti-Vatican “progressivist” groups in the US, forthrightly called the Visitation an attack. The Daily Star quoted Laurie Olson saying, “One can only conclude it's an attack on the sisters, that they are trying to rein them in some fashion. It seems to be the pattern of the hierarchy, to attack and further diminish the role of women in the church.”

While some sisters are telling newspapers they do not know the reason for the Vatican's interest, the situation of most groups of active sisters in the US is indisputably dire. In 1965, there were 180,000 Catholic sisters in the US. By 2002, this had declined to 75,000 with the average age of sisters being about 73.

The National Religious Vocations Conference (NRVC), an organisation that tracks trends in religious life, issued a report this summer showing that the older communities that had abandoned traditional aspects of their life such as the habit and communal prayer and living, are all but dying out with few new vocations. Many of those communities that have embraced feminism and leftist social and political activism are shutting down, and are concerned mainly with finding funds to care for older sisters.

Eschewing the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to describe the divide in the religious orders, the NRVC report nevertheless indicated clearly that those communities that had retained at least some aspects of the traditional religious life were the most healthy in terms of new members. The survey of 4,000 recent recruits to convents found that the majority want to live, work, and pray with other members of their community and were not interested in those groups where sisters live alone in apartments.

“Younger new entrants look for an institute's fidelity to the Church; older new entrants are drawn to its mission. Many younger members seek to wear a religious habit, a practice that has diminished in most religious institutes in the past 40 years,” the study said.