Women religious and others react to apostolic visitation report release

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Women religious and interested watchers responded with gratitude – and a bit of caution – to the Vatican’s response to the apostolic visitation Tuesday, saying it represents both a dramatic change in tone toward sisters’ work in the United States and a path for future dialogue.

The Vatican's congregation for religious life held a press conference in Rome Tuesday to give its response to the controversial and unprecedented six-year Vatican investigation of tens of thousands of U.S. Catholic sisters, largely lauding their work for the church.

The Vatican investigation, known formally as an apostolic visitation, was launched by the congregation for religious life in 2008 with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. Likely the largest such investigation in church history, it involved inquiry into some 341 female religious institutes in the U.S. that include some 50,000 women.

“The collaborative manner of the presentation made me really want to engage with the report with energy and openness,” said Mary Ann Zollmann, a Sister of the Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and an editor and one of the authors of Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation.

“It was such contrast to the way the visitation was announced in 2008 and 2009.”

Zollmann said she was especially impressed with how Vatican officials said they wanted to work with women religious.

“There was an emphasis over and over again on the necessity for dialogue, for understanding and communion, and I look forward to how that’s going to unfold,” she said. “I was also gladdened by the mention, not just once but a couple of times, about the question of the role of women in the decision making processes in our church. I hope that can be a significant part of the dialogue as we go forward.”

St. Joseph Sr. Marcia Allen said it is important to focus on what the report says, not what many feared it would be or the allegations it was originally meant to punish. Allen is president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia and president-elect of LCWR.

“I would never ask for an apology. I think the principals who began this were acting according to their light. The principals who are bringing it to a close are acting according to their light,” Allen said. “The church is always evolving; like everything else, it's always in a state of evolution, and so, to give it credit for that, I think this indicates an invitational stance, so to speak. And I would certainly want to take advantage of that rather than ask for an apology.”

Francis X. Clooney, a Jesuit priest and professor of divinity and comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, said the report shows a major shift in the church’s attitude.

“Even if someone started out (the investigation) looking for trouble, just the sheer volume of the good sisters are doing is overwhelming,” Clooney said. “The context has changed. Under Pope Francis there’s a different scope – there’s the concern for the poor, social justice.”

Clooney said that a separate, independent mandate by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, called a Doctrinal Assessment, now stands in a different environment. The LCWR is made up of the leadership of most of the congregations of women religious in the United States, and has been criticized by church officials for its collaborative decision-making process and focus on feminist issues.

“There’s an objective reality that most of what the sisters are doing, they’re doing it right and the church is incredibly indebted to the sisters,” Clooney said.

LCWR officials noted how women religious made the process a positive one for themselves.

“While the Vatican’s decision to conduct an apostolic visitation caused great pain and anxiety for many Catholic sisters, our members frequently speak of how our experience of the study became the source of profound transformation for our institutes,” the statement said. “The process led us to study the heart of our vocation as we engaged one another in significant conversations that explored our spirituality, our mission, our communal life, and our hopes for the future. As we did so, our bonds with one another grew even deeper and our understanding of the potential of this life to serve the needs of the world grew even keener.”

Marian Ronan, a research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary and author of Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, said the church’s actions will speak louder than the words in the report.

“I just think that it's a very kind report, but it wouldn't have had to be. The Catholic church is an absolute monarchy. And the men make all the decisions,” Ronan said. “So, if Pope Francis dies, we have no idea what they next person will do. I said not long ago, we're in the difficult position of being able to do nothing except pray that he lives a long time. Because if he dies, we don't know who the next guy will be.”

Brad Hinze, professor of theology at Fordham University, said the apostolic visitation document, "may go a long way in appeasing the injury and offense felt by many women religious and their supporters in response to the initial investigation. It does not, however, really address underlying issues concerning the lack of genuine collaboration by bishops and priests with women religious in areas of church governance, an issue the document does acknowledge."

He said it "rightly celebrates the charisms of individual communities," but said that was "not balanced with an acknowledgment of ongoing doctrinal development in various areas of theology and pastoral practice that are being explored by women religious."

Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch and spokesperson for the Nun Justice Project, a coalition of 15 progressive Catholic organizations in the United States, said the report is “a good first step,” especially its tone in regard to women’s role in the church.

“We’re glad the Vatican learned what we already knew, that U.S. catholic nuns are stellar,” Rose-Milavec said. “Women have been saying these things for a long time, and they’ve been met with lot of resistance.”

Even Ann Carey, a Catholic journalist and author of the 1997 book Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities, and its 2013 update, Sisters in Crisis, Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal, said the report rightfully praised the good works of women religious.

“However, it also was a vindication of the Vatican’s decision to conduct the apostolic visitation, for the report admitted ‘areas of concern,’ indeed were found in some religious institutes,” Carey said. “The report also demonstrated that the initial fears some sisters had about the visitation were unfounded.”

Church reform group Call to Action officials said in a statement they are “glad to see this beautiful diversity of ministry recognized in the report,” but called the investigations “disturbing.”

“These injustices and the misuse of institutional resources, time and energy remain a disappointing chapter in our Church’s history,” the statement said. “As the Sisters urged in today’s Vatican press conference, we look toward the time of healing and reconciliation, mutual trust and affirmation which must take root between those at the Vatican and U.S. women religious. Living the Gospel requires the diversity and concert of all gifts, talents, and charisms.”

Loretto Sr. Donna Day, who was also one of the co-authors of Power of Sisterhood, said the report showed the Vatican is beginning to recognize women religious for who they are.

“Women religious did move through darkness to light as we experienced the apostolic visitation. But we always had hope, hope that we would come together as congregations, hope that we would come together as communities as we continued our work in mission,” Day said. “Community is for mission. That's the core of who we are, and I think the apostolic visitation report recognizes that.”

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Follow her on Twitter.]

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