Save A Nun: The Vatican’s Investigation into U.S. Catholic Sisters

Franciscan Sr. Dolores Smith (Women of Spirit)
Franciscan Sr. Dolores Smith (Women and Spirit)

Several folks have asked me what’s happening with the Vatican investigation into U.S. Catholic women’s religious orders, so I thought I’d post a few things here. This is mostly a roundup and timeline of the investigation.

In January 2009, the Vatican informed American women religious that it would be instituting a “two-year study of their life,” ostensibly to determine why vocations were dropping. It was really to investigate women who may have embraced Vatican II more than the Pope likes.

Sr. Mary Clare Millea, an American and superior general of the very traditional order Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was asked by the Vatican to be the “apostolic visitator,” director of the inquiry. Phase one of the inquiry was personal interviews with selected heads of women’s orders by Sr. Millea, which concluded July 31.

On July 28, Sr. Millea sent a letter to the heads of women religious congregations in the U.S., along with a working paper that outlined the next steps of the investigation. She indicated that the heads of every women’s religious order would be receiving a questionnaire “relating to the life and operations of their orders” to be filled out and returned to her by November 1.

The working paper says that after Vatican officials have analyzed the data received in the questionnaires, there will be “on-site visits” of religious institutes in early 2010. To participate in these visiting teams, you must sign a fidelity oath to uphold the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church and submit to the teachings of the bishops, “as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith.”

According to the National Catholic Reporter article (Aug. 3, 2009),

The areas of concern identified in the questionnaire include identity; governance; vocation promotion; admission and formation policies; spiritual life and common life; mission and ministry; and finances.

A recent Associated Press story by Eric Gorski (“Catholic Sisters Queried About Doctrine, Fidelity”) puts it this way:

A Vatican-ordered investigation into Roman Catholic sisters in the U.S., shrouded in mystery when it was announced seven months ago, is shaping up to be a tough examination of whether women’s religious communities have strayed too far from church teaching.

The review “is intended as a constructive assessment and an expression of genuine concern for the quality of the life” of roughly 59,000 U.S. Catholic sisters, according to a Vatican working paper delivered in the past few days to leaders of 341 religious congregations that describes the scope in new detail.

Additionally, the Vatican has opened a parallel investigation into the largest umbrella leadership organization of the U.S. women religious, the Leadership Council of Women Religious.

LCWR has its national meeting next week in New Orleans from August 11-14. No doubt, the Vatican investigation will be a hot topic of conversation.

Two responses to these Vatican investigations highlight the approaches taken by Catholic women leaders. The first is by Benedictine sister Joan Chittister (“If They Really Mean It, It’s About Time”), who writes:

[Catholic sisters] of this stock had founded 469 Catholic hospitals from 1866-1917. They had nursed both armies on the Civil War battlefield despite the dismay of church leaders. They had put over 50,000 sister-teachers in parochial schools during the same period and by 1920 had almost two million pupils in 6,550 Catholic schools. These women, had, for all practical purposes, built the Catholic church in the United States. But, suddenly, sometime in the early ’60’s, things began to change. …

This time the women who had built the largest private school system in the world turned it over to the Catholics who had been trained in it and began to build again. They sold hospitals and opened nursing homes for the elderly and began free clinics instead.

With the same kind of zeal that fired their small groups of foundresses to give their lives to make life better and the faith deeper for poor Catholic immigrants in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country, this generation of the 1960’s ventured out of the Catholic ghettoes of their own time to do the same.

The second is from theologian Sr. Sandra Schneiders (“We’ve Given Birth To A New Form of Religious Life”), who says:

In my work on the renewal of Religious Life over the last eight years I have come to the conclusion that Congregations like ours [the kind represented by LCWR in this country] have, in fact, birthed a new form of Religious Life. We are really no longer “Congregations dedicated to works of the apostolate” –that is, monastic communities whose members “go out” to do institutionalized works basically assigned by the hierarchy as an extension of their agendas, e.g., in Catholic schools and hospitals, etc. We are ministerial Religious. Ministry is integral to our identity and vocation. It arises from our baptism specified by profession, discerned with our Congregational leadership and effected according to the charism of our Congregation, not by delegation from the hierarchy.

In future posts, I’ll give more of my own insight into this investigation. Suffice it to say that I’m suspicious of the Vatican’s motives. Particularly since such “visitations” are usually reserved for major scandals, like priests and pedophilia or extensive financial abuse.

My thanks to Michael Bayly over at The Wild Reed for his list of other articles on this topic.

Why the LCWR is Being Investigated – Jack Smith (The Catholic Key Blog, April 16, 2009).
The Vatican is Going After the Nuns – Regina Brett (Cleveland.com, July 12, 2009).
US Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny – Laurie Goodstein (New York Times, July 1, 2009).
Many Sisters Have Prayed For and Welcome the Vatican Visitation – Ann Carey (PewSitter.com, July 9, 2009).
Vatican Men Enter the Uppity Liberal American Nun Battle – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, April 15, 2009).
A Catholic Sojourner and the LCWR Investigation – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, April 17, 2009).

Nine More Go To Jail For Universal Health Care

wellmark-protest-cw-by-m-gillespie

A single-payer system that provides universal health care is what most Americans want the Obama administration to support in the way of health care reform.

The Obama administration –  not to mention the Republican party –  is terrified of this direction because of what it will do to the health insurance industry and, particularly, the campaign money contributed by Big Health. (Check out this lovely info map from the Sunlight Foundation on Max Baucus’ [D-MT] tie-in to the health insurance industries. Baucus is the head of the Senate Finance Committee and at the center of crafting the “reform” legislation.)

To learn more about Single-Payer Health Care and the bill HR676 that already exists in Congress supporting it, go here.

I was very glad to see that the Des Moines Catholic Worker is focusing nonviolent civil disobedience against Iowa’s largest medical insurance company. Nine were arrested in the Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield offices last month. I’m grateful to Fr. Frank Cordaro for his years of witness to justice and it was great to see Frank in the photos of this recent action. Below is an excerpt from David Swanson’s article about the protest:

Following a pattern of civil resistance in Washington D.C. and around the country, citizens in Des Moines Iowa on Monday risked arrest to press for the creation of single-payer healthcare, the establishment of healthcare as a human right, and an end to the deadly practices of Iowa’s largest health insurance company, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Dr. Margaret Flowers, who has herself gone to jail for single-payer in our nation’s capital, was on hand to speak in Des Moines. She called me with this report. Nearly a month earlier, on June 19, 2009, Des Moines Catholic Workers had delivered a letter to Wellmark addressed to its CEO John Forsyth requesting disclosure of Wellmark’s profits, salaries, benefits, denials and restrictions on care. The letter had not been acknowledged by Monday, and the Catholic Workers and their allies decided to take action again.

Thirty people arrived in the Wellmark lobby in Des Moines and asked to see Forsyth or any of the members of the board of directors or the operating officers. They were told that none were available, and instead the police arrived. Nine of the 30 refused to leave and were arrested. Flowers did not yet know what the charges will be but suspected trespassing. The nine latest supporters of single-payer to go to jail for justice are:

Ed Bloomer, 62, Des Moines Catholic Worker
Kirk Brown, 29, former Catholic Worker of Waukee, Iowa
Robert Cook, 66, Des Moines, Iowa
Frank Cordaro, 58, Des Moines Catholic Worker
Renee Espeland, 48, Des Moines Catholic Worker
Christine Gaunt, 50, Grinnell, Iowa
Mona Shaw, 58, Des Moines Catholic Worker
Leonard Simons, 67, Athol, MA
Frankie Hughes, 11, Des Moines Catholic Worker

These nine and others like them around the country represent, I think, the incredible potential to energize the American public on behalf of a struggle for the basic human right of healthcare, a potential being blocked by the work of activist organizations that reach out from Washington to tell the public that single-payer is not possible, rather than reaching into Washington from outside to tell our public servants what we demand.

Updated news shows that they were all charged with misdemenor “criminal trespass.”


Obamas’ Sharin’ of the Green

Well, it’s happened. The famous line from the musical Hello, Dolly! has come true. “Money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about, encouraging young things to grow.”

Not only is President Obama spreading ‘Bama Bucks like night soil on the languorous fields of the American economy, but Mrs. Obama is getting her hands dirty with a little Victory gardening of her own.

The kids from Bancroft elementary school — located in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, one over from Columbia Heights — digging and turning up the White House “back 40” (aka the South Lawn). The planting list includes: spinach, broccoli, various lettuces, kale, collard greens, assorted herbs, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.

For some reason, they are not planting corn. No doubt White House insiders will uncover the reason soon. My guess is that Big Corn exerted some influence here and didn’t want average citizens getting the idea that they could crowd in on AgriBusinesses profit share.

Another interesting tidbit is that the White House garden is also planning to host some bee hives and, as Mrs. Obama said, “grow their own honey.” This is great news! But someone needs to let them know that currently it is illegal to keep bees inside the District. They are considered “livestock” by the District agriculture code. While I’m sure that the White House falls under a federal law, not District law, I’m hoping the hives on the South Lawn will bring a big boost to the renegade bee-keeping revolution that’s been quietly raging in the District over the past few years. Maybe the apiarists can finally come out of the shadows.

Check out the video here: