Engage the future: Reflections on the apostolic visitation report

This story appears in the Apostolic Visitation feature series. View the full series.

by Sandra M. Schneiders


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So much has already been said about the content of the report from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) that when asked to write an article on the subject, I decided to presume that readers are aware of those contents and of the responses it has so far elicited. I want to delve a bit below the surface of both the process and the text itself to engage what I think are some of the deeper issues and concerns and hopes that invite and challenge us for the future. I will organize these reflections under four unequal headings: the provocative symbolism of Tuesday’s press conference releasing the report; the prominence of the theme of process in the responses given by the press conference panelists; the role of truth telling in the apostolic visitation (hereinafter: the visitation or the investigation) and its aftermath; and finally some reflections on how we might engage the future that the report has opened up.

I. Symbolism

Before a word was spoken in the press conference Tuesday morning, those present physically or electronically were confronted with a powerful visual symbol. In stark contrast to the press conference Jan. 30, 2009 at which Cardinal Rodé, then Prefect of CICLSAL, single-handedly announced the investigation without having even informed the major superiors of women religious of his intention to do so, much less invited their participation in any way, the press conference yesterday morning was held by six participants, three men and three women, who shared the table as equally involved subjects of the process rather than the women as helpless objects of a unilateral exercise of dominative male power. Two men from CICLSAL, the Cardinal Prefect João Bráz de Aviz and the Secretary Jose Carballo with Sr. Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, the director of the investigation, and Rev. Thomas Rosica, CSB, who was part of her team represented the Vatican agency which had initiated and carried out the visitation. The heads of the two conferences of U.S. women religious, Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and Sister Agnes Mary Donovan, SV, coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) represented the congregations which had been investigated. Unlike the preliminary secrecy which precipitated the total shock, confusion, and anger that met the investigation’s launch, the participants in this event had all had access to the report beforehand with time to thoughtfully formulate their responses to it.

The symbolism was both negative and positive. Negatively, it manifested clearly, by contrast, what was so very wrong with the fact and the mode of the initiation of the visitation. As was correctly pointed out later in the press conference an apostolic visitation is not necessarily a negative and violent event. When done well for the right reasons, with collaboration and respect on both sides, it can be a healthy and life-giving process. Most religious congregations, as part of their internal governance, provide for regular visitations by the higher superiors to the individuals and houses of the order. The presence and active participation of both those representing the Vatican and those representing the religious in Tuesday morning’s event manifested by contrast what was wrong, from the very beginning, with the current investigation.

Positively, the very composition and pre-conference interaction of the participants this morning symbolized the possibility that things can be different. This was a very important preparation for what emerged as a theme of the ensuing conversation: that it is more than time to move into a different future, a “new paradigm” of relationship between women religious and the institutional leadership of the church.

Besides the visual symbolism there were many layers of verbal symbolism that should not be missed. I will speak of them in no particular order of importance but simply as I noticed them. Mother Clare Millea, the director of the visitation, very interestingly oscillated between speaking of the congregations she investigated in the third person and in the first person plural. She spoke of congregations which “cooperated fully” and those that “resisted” in language that reflected her sense of them as “the other” with whom she was charged to deal. But increasingly as the press conference proceeded, she spoke more of “us” and “our” concerns. She explicitly recognized her own identity as a religious and the general superior of her own order and spoke of its (including her) challenge/invitation, along with all religious, to engage the contents of the report. She came across frequently as a sister among sisters rather than as the hierarchical agent of the process religious in general had experienced as so oppressive. This was engaging, to say the least. And it reached a peak of genuine poignancy when her voice cracked and she appeared near tears which I, for one, saw as her non-verbal recognition of the deep hurt, sorrow and anger of her sisters which she, with conscientiously discerned acceptance of the task of implementing the investigation, had caused. That tearful moment, mastered with unselfconscious grace, may have said, symbolically, more than enough to warrant the sisterly outreach to her of any of us tempted to focus our just anger over the investigation on her rather than where it belongs.

Another challengingly symbolic language event occurred in response to a reporter’s question which seemed to be trying to re-focus attention on the negativity that had suffused the entire experience of the visitation and which seemed to be being washed away by a basically appreciative report. The quick response from the visitation representatives that “there is no controversy” needs to taken with the utmost reserve. Six years of suspicion, threat, judgment, accusations, mutual distrust and justified anger at rank injustice cannot be abolished with a few pages of appreciative acceptance, no matter how sincere. And as long as the doctrinal evaluation of LCWR hangs over the head of U.S. religious, we are ill-advised to adopt a naïve stance of “let’s just all forget about this nasty little event and move on.” As long as any person or element in the church is only one appointment change away from an all-out attack on her/his or its integrity and life, no one is safe. We, as a church, have a long way to go, a lot of work to do, to make sure that, by the establishment not only of new modes of operation but of binding processes of justice, that one man’s paranoia or personal animosities cannot victimize even one person, to say nothing of tens of thousands as has just happened.

Another highly symbolic linguistic feature of the press conference was the gingerly dancing around the language of “sexual complementarity” and the so-called “feminine genius.” It’s time to acknowledge that these words, and others in the same linguistic group, are code for the theory and the program of sexual apartheid and female subordination in the church. We are not looking for a “place” or “role” of women who are intrinsically “other” in a church where only men are fully, and without qualification, human and Christian. The role of women in the church is exactly the same as men’s: baptized members of Christ. Gifts differ according to the giving of the Spirit, not according to sexual or racial or any other biological markers. The Spirit can make men tender and women courageous, men quiet and retiring and women forceful leaders. And vice-versa. Any qualification of the full equality of women and men in the church, by any language of anthropological essentialism, no matter how “sweetened” by pious imagery or laudatory rhetoric, has to be finally repudiated and removed from our theological and ecclesial lexicon.

On the positive side, both Cardinal Bráz de Aviz and Archbishop Carballo repeatedly used language at which we can only rejoice. While many would have found genuine vindication in an outright apology to women religious for their treatment at the hands of the Vatican over the past six years, that could only have been done by an explicit condemnation of their predecessor who launched the investigation. Most religious can recognize that we would be loath to do, or demand, such an action in our own congregations, even if the former general superior had been an unqualified disaster. One does not call for “forgiveness and reconciliation” – as the CICLSAL officials did – unless one acknowledges, even without explicit words, that there have been offenses committed that need to be forgiven and alienation that needs to be healed.

Furthermore, the prefect and the secretary did, in many symbolic/linguistic ways, distance themselves from what had been done by Cardinal Franc Rodé, their predecessor. In insisting that an apostolic visitation should not be an attack, accusation, invasion, threat of reprisal or act of coercion, but a genuine “visit” to express interest and concern, “closeness,” solidarity, willingness to share burdens and seek answers together, they were acknowledging implicitly that what had happened on Rodé’s watch never should have. The very fact that the report omits any reference to the charges of “radical feminism” and “secularity” that were the purported abuses the visitation was called to address, is eloquent by way of silence. And even more importantly, by calling, forcefully, for a “new paradigm” of collegiality, friendship and cooperation in evangelizing mission (“Why don’t we get together?”), they were implicitly rejecting the paradigm within which the investigation was launched and committing themselves to making sure such a fiasco is never repeated.

II. Process

The meaning and significance of process, negative and positive, was “exegeted” in interesting ways throughout the press conference. The lack of due process, the oppressive processes of silencing, exclusion and defamation, as well as such historical scandals as the processes of the Inquisition and its present day analogues have been harrowing and alienating features of Catholic church life for its members for centuries and one of the most scandalous aspects of the church to non-Catholics. And the process of the just concluded investigation has been roundly criticized from its inception on precisely this point. The undercover process of instigating the visitation, the process-less launching of it, the intrusiveness and even violence of the instruments used to carry it out, and the element of terror generated by awaiting the outcome were subjected to a “hermeneutic of conversion” in a number of ways during the press conference.

First, it was acknowledged several times during the press conference that congregations and individual sisters were surprised and hesitantly encouraged by the respect, the attentive listening, and the non-aggressive presence and action of the director of the visitation as well as the on-site visitors. There was hesitancy and even suspicion that this was a “trap” but also a recognition or small hope that there was possibly another dynamic at work that did not reflect the violence of the project as a whole. Even the acceptance without reprisals (but not without repeated efforts to overcome it) of the non-compliance of many congregations with demands they felt were unjust or unjustified, and a few significant modifications of the investigation process itself in response to serious objections from congregational leaders, were elements not often part of Vatican operations. Consequently, I think many people, like myself, were pleasantly not surprised to find Mother Clare, during the press conference, a person of intelligence, subtlety and integrity as well as openness with whom one could imagine having a serious and productive conversation. There had been hints throughout the investigation that the people carrying it out, however distasteful their task might have been to sisters in general and perhaps even to the investigators themselves, were women religious who knew from their experience in their own congregations a great deal more about process – respectful, dialogical, accepting of differences, honest – than the people they were working for.

Another feature of the whole visitation experience that was alluded to in the press conference, especially by Sr. Sharon Holland, LCWR president, but which has been extensively discussed by interpreters of the visitation and that was clearly in the background of the report itself, was the processes that took place in religious congregations during the investigation. The positive tone of the report in general certainly owes much to the way congregations dealt with the whole experience. They did not become defensive or passive victims, accept CICLSAL’s categories which named their behavior and intentions in distorted and even dishonest ways or allow themselves to be defined by the implied or actual accusations. Instead, they delved more deeply into their own charisms, documents, and experience – and that is what they transmitted to the investigators, both by compliance and by resistance. As Holland remarked, much of the report could have been written by the sisters themselves, transcribed from their own constitutions and chapter documents. That is because the process by which the congregations handled the instruments of the investigation were derived from the experience of fruitful process that women religious have developed over the post-conciliar decades. Good process in congregations not only helped religious weather the investigation but also, at least indirectly, seems to have suggested the form and content of the final report.

A final rather striking mention of process during the press conference was the concluding testimony from Thomas Rosica, CSB, who had been part of the visitation team, to how much he had learned from the sisters he worked with about how competent, intelligent, educated, professional women do things. He lauded the theologically rooted process of genuine dialogue he experienced among the sisters which was so refreshingly different from the successive pontificating so characteristic of much that passes for “conversation” in ecclesiastical circles.

III. Truth-telling

A striking feature revealed in the publication of the report was a refreshing (almost Vatican II style!) effort to tell the truth. Mother Millea formally testified that the report accurately and truthfully embodied what she had transmitted to CICLSAL as the result of her investigation. And that implied, given what was in the report, that she had truthfully transmitted what she had actually heard which, in turn, meant that she had actually listened to what congregations and individuals had said to her and to the on-site visitors. It further implied that the on-site visitors had, in fact, given truthful reports of what they had experienced in their visits.

A major suspicion, quite justified in light of the many “loaded” and “leading” questions and other highly questionable features of the original questionnaire and the medieval stipulations about the on-site visitation process, was that the investigators would “hear” what they already suspected and report their accusations and unjust judgments rather than what they saw and heard. This suspicion was strengthened by the stipulation that the visitors were not to give any feedback, directly or indirectly, to their “hosts.” And this suspicion lay behind the vocal objection when those visited were informed that their congregations would not be privy to what was reported about them even though action based on those reports might be taken. This is totalitarian intimidation and increased the already heightened tension which the long delay between the conclusion of the investigation and the announcement of the results further exacerbated as congregations waited, for years, for the other shoe to drop. Surprisingly, that tension was truthfully acknowledged at the press conference and a plausible explanation for the delay – not a self-serving excuse – was sincerely offered. This was a quite transparent, even if implicit, acknowledgement that the suspicion of deliberate intimidation was not wholly unjustified.

To the immense relief of many, none of the suspicions was realized. Instead, the new administration in CICLSAL has chosen to publish its entire report at an open press conference and to give individual feedback to all congregations visited so that no one need worry in perpetuity about what “secret” damaging evidence is stored up against them in some Vatican vault. CICLSAL could only afford to make such an open manifestation if, indeed, they thought the individual reports would be recognized as true by those about whom they were written. In short, from the top down there seems to be a recognition, almost staggering in its originality given the context, that people involved in ecclesiastical processes have a right to the truth about matters that touch them directly. We can only hope that this is not an isolated occurrence but the beginning of a new pattern of ecclesiastical communication.

Part of the welcome truth-telling in the report itself is, of course, its recognition of and expressed gratitude for the fidelity to the church, zeal in evangelizing ministry and committed living of the Gospel in religious life that the investigation uncovered. Welcome as this is in a document many feared would be condemnatory and punitive, perhaps even more impressive is the non-judgmental acceptance expressed in the report of the selective resistance and non-compliance of many congregations in regard to some elements of the visitation process. Just as it takes great courage to non-violently resist overwhelming power, especially when one’s life is at stake, it takes genuine honesty to recognize that such resistance, however unwelcome, can be justified and should be respected. Mother Clare made a very important contribution to this recognition by pointing out that resistance and even non-compliance can be an important way of respectfully engaging even what is experienced as unjust and oppressive. She made the point that no congregation simply dismissed or ignored the visitation as such. All engaged the process. Some complied in every respect. Some participated selectively by way of contesting certain demands. Some rejected altogether parts of the process that they could not, in conscience, accept. But this was truthful, honest engagement, not disrespectful dismissal. And accepting honest resistance for what it is rather than sweeping it into the catch-all category of “disobedience” was a truthful, although perhaps somewhat humiliating, response by those conducting the investigation. Paradoxically, it lends great credibility to the report.

In short, a process that began in secret with anonymous accusations, surprise attack, flawed process, and general suspicion has terminated in a degree of truthfulness and openness that provides some basis for moving forward, perhaps somewhat cautiously, but nevertheless honestly, into a different type of relationship between religious and institutional authority in the church.

IV. Into the (new?) future

Probably the question on everyone’s mind in these days after the publication of the report on the apostolic visitation of U.S. congregations of women religious is, “now what?”

Let me make a few suggestions, from my own perspective.

First, this is a critical juncture which should be engaged decisively, not drifted through in a fog of relief. Six years of anxiety, suffering, and tension have ended in a resolution that may not be perfect in every respect but that is far more positive and constructive than most dared hope or even dream. And this first step was taken by the same agency (though not the same people) which created the crisis. What we (both CICLSAL and religious) do at this juncture could suffocate the possibilities that have opened up or cultivate something genuinely new and life-giving for the future.

Second, this report is not an isolated phenomenon that somehow dropped out of the blue. It is part of the revitalization of the dynamic of Vatican II that began in 2013 with the election of Pope Francis. The influence (direct or indirect) of Francis on the resolution of this impasse is unmistakable, which makes this more a significant event for the whole church than simply a stroke of good luck for women religious.

Third, there are factors in play that could make or break the possibilities for a new and better future. There is a whole new cast of characters in many of the major roles in this ongoing ecclesial drama. CICLSAL now has conciliar rather than restorationist leadership. It has personnel who respect (and seem even to like!) women rather than men terrified of “the female other” they do not understand. Many congregations of women have or shortly will have new leaders who will not have borne personally the burden and suffered the direct blows of the worst of the investigation. That distance might facilitate flexibility in the face of new challenges.

Fourth, the report is a judicious but explicit re-affirmation of the dynamic of renewal initiated by the council as it applies to religious life. Regression to pre-conciliar forms of religious life is no longer an explicit nor even implicit desire or expectation. The intrinsically prophetic nature of the life, the necessity and desirability of ongoing renewal, the legitimate autonomy and right to self-determination of religious congregations, and the fidelity (despite inevitable failings and missteps) of the religious who have borne the burden of the day’s heat are no longer in question. These realizations, shared by religious and the ecclesiastical authorities to whom these women relate, provide a solid foundation of common understandings on the most basic theological issues affecting religious on which to base whatever re-negotiations of particular issues may be necessary.

All this is good news. My hope is that we, both leaders and members of congregations as well as our interlocutors in diocesan and Vatican leadership, will manage to hold in life-giving tension two basic realizations. One is that the investigation, although “over” in one sense, was a traumatic experience that should never have happened and this should not be whitewashed or denied in a desire to make everything all right. Those who precipitated this disaster may have been ignorant but it was self-induced and culpable ignorance whose fallout was not just an innocent mistake. When one has been traumatized there is a natural desire, once the immediate pain or danger is past, to try “to just put it all behind” and pretend that “nothing really happened.” This is not a healthy basis for a reconciled, truthful, adult relationship. Wise people do not suppress experience; they learn from it. A lot of damage was done by the investigation. A positive conclusion does not magically make a sanatio in radice of something that should never have taken place.

But, it is equally important that we not refuse to let go of our pain, that we do not nurse resentment or allow residual anger, suspicion, petulance or simmering revenge to poison the well of possible new relationships. We must not transfer to our present interlocutors the guilt of their predecessors nor refuse to grant to present incumbents the possibility that they can be better than the history of their offices suggests. If not forgetting makes us prudent, forgiveness and the sincere desire for reconciliation and collegial collaboration in the evangelizing mission of the church should make us magnanimous and hopeful. Trust will have to be built and that is a two way street that takes time and effort. But a first step was taken at the press conference on Dec. 16, 2014, eve of the church’s celebration of the first Advent “O Antiphon” leading us toward the Incarnation of God in time: “O Wisdom, who comes forth from the mouth of the Most High, who reaches from end to end mightily and orders all things sweetly, come and teach us the way of prudence.”

[Sandra M. Schneiders is professor (emerita) of New Testament studies and Christian spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, Berkeley, Calif., and a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Mich.]