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Vatican’s investigation into US sisters ends with conciliation and whitewash

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Experienced observers have expressed no surprise at the warm and even apologetic tone taken by the Vatican’s final report on its long-running investigation of US religious orders. The “Visitation” of American active sisters was launched by the Congregation for Religious in 2009 after decades of concerns at the growth of feminist and secularist ideologies and the precipitous collapse of vocations since the 1960s.

“We believe that the upcoming Year of Consecrated Life is a graced opportunity for all of us within the Church – religious, clergy and laity – to take those steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation which will offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion to all,” the report says.  

John Allen, one of the US’s most experienced Vatican reporters, wrote that the “unprecedented and highly controversial” investigation has ended with an “olive branch” that is completely absent any “disciplinary measures or new controls.” It is a “sign of a more conciliatory approach under Pope Francis,” he added.

Allen noted that the words “crisis,” “dissent,” “doctrine,” and “hierarchy” do not appear in the final report. Nor do the words “feminism” or “secularism,” despite these issues being at the core of the Vatican’s original concerns. The only nod to these was a mild caution for the sisters “not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith.”

“This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes 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,” the report said.

John Thavis, recently retired as the senior member of Catholic News Service’s Vatican team, wrote that the conciliatory tone “reflects changes at the Vatican.” These include the retirement of Cardinal Franc Rodé and his replacement by Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, who was well known for his sympathies towards the feminist and leftist-leaning sisters under investigation.

Cardinal Rodé had strongly criticized the American sisters’ swing towards “radical feminism” and “secularist” political causes since the 1960s that have been identified by many as the main cause of the decline in numbers of vocations.

This shift was noted by one of the most prominent researchers in the US religious life. Donna Steichen, author of the seminal exposé Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, told LifeSiteNews today that the friendly and apologetic tone of the Visitation report comes as no surprise.

“The news conferences,” Steichen said, “were clearly intended to smooth the troubled waters of public opinion, not to admit the painful reality.”

That “painful reality” was at least alluded to in the report, which acknowledges that  by the numbers, the great majority of religious communities in the US are in a state of grave crisis. It says that “the median age of apostolic women religious in the United States is in the mid-to-late 70s.”

“Whatever purpose such reports may serve,” Steichen added, “it is not to name and reprove those responsible for the present tragic condition of sisters in old and now disintegrating orders.” 

“We will continue to work to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding ‘the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life,’” the report continues.

Although the Visitation “sought to convey the caring support of the Church in respectful, ‘sister-to-sister’ dialogue,” the initiative had been greeted from its launch with rage and rejection by the dominant contingent of hard-left, feminist US Catholic sisters.

The left-liberal branch of the American Catholic Church, mainly in their flagship newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), rallied around and established a widely repeated media narrative of the sisters as brave rebels fighting against a tyrannical, “patriarchal” and monolithic Vatican.

The Visitation was characterised as an “attack” by the Vatican under the hated “conservative” Pope Benedict. A series of vitriolic and high profile protests were launched by prominent feminist nuns writing in NCR, complaining that the Vatican was bent on undoing their decades of “reform” in religious life.

The report was “welcomed” warmly by some of the Vatican’s formerly harshest critics, including the current head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group that has been under investigation for allegations of “radical feminism” and New Age ideology by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

At a press conference at the Vatican on Tuesday, LCWR’s president, Sr. Sharon Holland, said that although at first her organization had seen the Visitation as “troubling,” the report is “affirmative and realistic.”

“As our members read, study, pray over, and discuss this report, I believe they will feel affirmed and strengthened,” Holland said.

The Visitation covered 341 “apostolic” or active communities of sisters –  those involved in charitable and social works outside the convent walls – covering about 50,000 members, the great majority of consecrated women in the US. Most of these communities, many of which are in the process of amalgamating and shutting down, are LCWR communities, which represent about 70,000 members. 

“We initiated the Visitation because of our awareness that apostolic religious life in the United States is experiencing challenging times,” the Vatican’s report says.  

Indeed, the statistical indicators for the great majority of the active religious communities in the US show that these institutions are heading for outright extinction. Many institutes that once pioneered the fields of Catholic health care and education, are themselves now in critical condition, with concerns growing over how a shrinking and aging membership can continue to care and provide for elderly sisters.

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It goes on to note that the current total of about 50,000 active sisters is a decline of about 125,000 since the mid-1960s, “when the numbers of religious in the United States had reached their peak.” The report downplays this, however, adding only that the “very large numbers of religious”  until the close of Vatican II was an atypical and “relatively short-term phenomenon” associated with the demographic changes following World War II.

Sr. Holland responded to this, saying that this 1960s “vocational peak…was unusual, and not a norm to which we can return. Rather, the focus is on providing the formation needed for today’s candidates who often are highly qualified professionally, but lacking in theological formation.”

Without offering an explanation, the report only states blandly that after the 1960s, the numbers “began to decline as many of the sisters who had entered during the peak years left religious life, the remaining sisters aged and considerably fewer women joined religious institutes.”

Donna Steichen said that the problem with such conciliation is that it fails to address the problems. “The actual condition of women’s religious orders in the US cannot even be addressed if all the sisters are lumped together.” 

She said that “an enormous divide separates the Ungodly Rage nuns,” as represented largely by LCWR and the “vibrantly Catholic and much younger nuns of new and reformed orders.”

This divide was in evidence at the Vatican’s own press conference this week, with the presence of Mother Agnes Donovan, the foundress of the Sisters of Life. Sr. Donovan also serves as the head of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, an alternative group founded by religious who felt at odds with the direction of LCWR.

Sr. Donovan said that the sisters associated with the younger, alternate organization, all of whom wear habits and maintain other traditions of religious life, are seeking “interiorly… to separate themselves” from the world, to “serve it with and from the heart of Christ.”

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