Francis’ Feminine Genius? – Vatican Report on U.S. Catholic Sisters

Religion_PicThe highly controversial Vatican Visitation of U.S. Catholic women’s orders seems to have roared in like a lion and out like a lamb. What a perfect display of Christian metanoia!

For this transformation, it required heroic acts of highly skilled “participatory patience” on the part of U.S. Catholic sisters and a change of papal regimes.

What started out as a retaliatory act by a few right-wing American bishops who were tired of Catholic sisters messing up their political machinations (read Obamacare), was transformed by U.S. Catholic sisters’ deep faith, perseverance, wisdom, and integrity into what may be a reconciling opportunity to move what Pope Francis calls the “feminine genius” more centrally into the Vatican. (I won’t say into the heart of the church, because the feminine genius has never left the heart of the people or congregations, it’s only been pushed to the periphery by the Vatican and some intransigent bishops’ conferences, such as that in the U.S.)

It’s important to remember that the report released today addresses “quality of life” issues in Catholic women’s communities in the U.S.

There is an ongoing theological investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that still awaits resolution. No doubt Pope Francis wants both of these issues resolved and reconciled before his visit in October 2015. He’s using his own political genius to soothe wounds, calm fears, lift dignity, and also discern who the women are with sound spirits, deep faith, and sharp minds.

The fact that Sr. Sharon Holland, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, was part of this press conference sent a positive message about LCWR. She gave an excellent, authentic, and realistic response, which you can read here. (She’s a canon lawyer, spiritual director, and action figure. Watch out!)

“The Visitation was met by some religious with “apprehension and suspicion” (n. 11). The expressed purpose, ‘to look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States,’ was troubling. Some congregations reported that their elder sisters felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting. Despite the apprehension however, today we are looking at an affirmative and realistic report which, we know, is based on the study of written responses and on countless hours of attentive listening,” said Sr. Holland.

“In a particular way, it is the realism of the text which appealed to me first. For example, in the section on vocation promotion and formation, there is the common concern for the dramatic decline in vocations. However, the Report goes on to recognize that the vocational peak of the 1960’s 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.”

“The section concerning Financial Stewardship likewise shows our complex current realities. Religious are praised for wise stewardship, socially responsible investing and strategic planning for the needs of members and ministries. Simultaneously, there is a very concrete acknowledgment of many causes contributing to our financial problems: years of undercompensated ministry, a diminished number of earners, volunteer ministries of elder religious, work with the poor and disenfranchised and the fact that sisters serving in ecclesiastical structures receive relatively low salaries and have sometimes lost their positions due to downsizing.

I mention these factors simply to emphasize again how much has been heard and understood.There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this Report. Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.”

And I want to give a shout out to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Rome correspondent Megan Williams for saying to the panel of distinguished presenters, “The Catholic Church, of course, is a male-dominated institution that continues to exclude women’s voices from key decision making. Does this report in any way move women to a greater role within the church?” [For some entertaining theo-political gymnastics, you can watch the responses here at minute 1:05:16, including Cardinal Braz de Aviz jumping in to talk rather bumblingly about equal and complementary roles for women and men.]

For a good refresher on the history of the Vatican investigation of U.S. Catholic women’s communities, see Jesuit priest James Martin’s excellent refresher A High Quality of Life at America.

For a good understanding of the context of this report, see Rocco Palmo’s Up Next: Nuns at Whispers in the Loggia.

For the primary source material, read the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Catholic Women Religious in the U.S. (12/16/2014).

For transcripts from the press conference this morning in Rome presenting the report: Press Conference for the presentation of the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the U.S. (12/16/2014)

For some context on Catholic women millennials and future vocations, read Sister Mary Johnson’s article Vatican report gives sisters and whole church reason to hope in America.

And a last note. When the Spanish press asked for a response to a question in Spanish for Spanish-language radio, there appeared to be only one U.S. sister who understood the Spanish: Sr. Sharon Holland. That’s what preparing for the future looks like!

“Where there is Jesus, there is joy.”–Pope Francis

1 thought on “Francis’ Feminine Genius? – Vatican Report on U.S. Catholic Sisters”

  1. Thank your for this reflection and all the links to primary source material. Liturgically, it is indeed an interesting choice of days to release the report. The bishops have this out in public as the world ramps up its secular preparations for the high holy days of commercial Christmas and the narrative in the Church turns to the rising action which leads to the actual Nativity. Maybe I see a coincidence where none exists but St. Matthew did mention Ruth AND Mary in the male-dominated genealogy of Jesus. A start? We hope for a change of heart with the sisters who taught us, nursed us, and prayed for and with us.

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