Loretto sisters summoned to Rome, raising questions on closure of apostolic visitation

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

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The Vatican's congregation for religious life has summoned to Rome the superior of one of the major orders of U.S. Catholic sisters, asking her to "report on some areas of concern" following the controversial six-year investigation of the country's communities of women religious.

The head of the Sisters of Loretto, a Kentucky-based community founded in the early 19th century to educate pioneer children but now known for strong stands on social justice issues, has been asked to explain alleged "ambiguity" in the order's adherence to church teaching and its way of living religious life.

While the summons from the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is directed specifically at the Sisters of Loretto, it may raise questions for other U.S. women religious communities of apostolic life, who were subject to an unprecedented Vatican inquiry, known as an apostolic visitation, starting in 2008.

Although the congregation formally closed that visitation in December 2014 with the release of a report on the state of religious life in the U.S., it has in at least this instance used material gathered in the investigation to inquire into the life of the order.

Loretto President Sr. Pearl McGivney announced her summoning to Rome in a short June 1 letter to her order's members. In her letter, a copy of which was obtained by GSR, McGivney says she has been asked to visit the Vatican Oct. 18 to report on five so-called "areas of concern."

Among the areas McGivney identifies, quoting from the Vatican congregation's original letter:

• Your way of promoting the spiritual and community life of the congregation, in light of the Church's definition of apostolic religious life;

• A certain ambiguity regarding the congregation's adherence to some areas of Church doctrine and morality;

• Your Congregation's policy regarding members of the community who are known to hold positions of dissent from the Church's moral teaching or approved liturgical practice.

In a statement to GSR Thursday, McGivney said her community "engaged wholeheartedly in the Apostolic Visitation process, and through it, affirmed our Loretto charism and our lives together."

McGivney said her order was one of about 90 nationwide that were personally visited in 2010 as part of the investigation and that during that visit, four members of other congregations interviewed about 90 Loretto sisters.

"The visitors seemed warm and genuinely interested in our lives," stated the president. "They did not inquire about these 'areas of concern' with our elected leadership during this visitation, and we had no expectation that six years later we would find ourselves being asked to come to Rome to address any outstanding issues."

Yet, McGivney added: "We are glad to accept this opportunity for conversation."

"Loretto's constitutions express the manner in which the mission of Loretto is incorporated into the universal mission of the church," she continued. "As our constitutions state, 'Their approval by the Holy See unites the Loretto congregation and its individual members in responsible fidelity to papal authority.'"

"We are confident that our dialogue with the Vatican will be fruitful and bear this out," she stated.

It is unclear from McGivney's letter to her order what information the Vatican congregation may have received to trigger the follow up on the visitation. McGivney does not mention specific allegations against individual members of the order nor cite specific concerns about its way of life.

One of the order's members has however drawn the Vatican's interest several times in the past.

Sr. Jeannine Gramick  who was a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame before joining the Loretto community in 2001  was first criticized by the Vatican's religious congregation in 1984 for cofounding New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that advocates for LGBT Catholics.

In 1999, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a public notification about Gramick's work.

According to McGivney's letter, the religious congregation did cite two specific concerns about the Loretto order's organization structure: its system of allowing laypeople to join the community as "co-members" and a recent revision of some of the articles of incorporation of the order's diverse institutions.

The congregation, according to the letter, raised a concern about "the identity and role of co-members, assuring the distinction between vowed religious life and laity, in particular but not limited to the participation of the co-members in governance structures and decision-making."

Like many U.S. religious orders, the Sisters of Loretto have sought to incorporate laypeople more deeply into their work as the community has experienced a drop in vowed membership following an historically anomalous period of high membership in the early 20th century.

The Sisters of Loretto's website describes their co-members as "women and men of many faith traditions who live the spirit and mission of Loretto through individual mutual commitment."

While the co-members do not take final vows like women religious, they "commit themselves to participation in the life and work of the Loretto Community and share their time, talent and treasure in support of Loretto and its mission."

McGivney says that the order's executive committee, a group of five elected leaders including herself, met at the end of May to discuss her summons and "discern next steps." The president says the order will arrange for regional meetings in coming months to discuss the matter and undertake communal discernment.

In her statement to GSR, the president said the letter from the religious congregation was dated Jan. 1 and signed by the congregation's prefect, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz. McGivney said she received the letter on April 15.

The wider apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious was launched by the Vatican's religious congregation in 2008 under the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. Likely the largest such investigation in church history, it involved inquiry into 341 female religious institutes in the U.S. that include some 50,000 women.

The visitation included a process of written questioning of religious superiors along with on-site visits. The inquiry was one of two investigations of U.S. women religious launched by different Vatican offices in recent years.

The other investigation was a doctrinal assessment of an umbrella group of the elected leaders of U.S. sisters known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which was led by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That investigation was concluded in April 2015.

The Sisters of Loretto were founded by three women in 1812 as the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They currently have communities in more than 30 U.S. states and several other countries, with their newest mission being founded in Pakistan in 2009.

They also maintain a non-governmental organization, the Loretto Community, which has consultative status with the United Nations in New York.

The order's website describes the landmark 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, widely known as Vatican II, as influencing the community's sense of its mission.

"Through the teachings and insights of Vatican II, we gained a new understanding of our vocation," it states. "Just as frontier living shaped the lives of our early sisters, so a global society shapes ours."

"Like our early sisters who called themselves Friends of Mary, we too stand at the Foot of the Cross as we strive to bring the healing spirit of God into our world and commit ourselves to improving the conditions of those who suffer from injustice, oppression, and deprivation of dignity," it continues.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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