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

Catholic Sisters are Redefining Leadership

TurkeyCartoonBy Rose Marie Berger

A new model of leadership that’s been refined in the fires of change and conflict is emerging from U.S. religious women.

In June, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, along with Solidarity with Sisters, invited 150 people to Catholic University for an opportunity to discuss the model of leadership that has developed in Catholic women’s communities around the world over the last 50 years since Vatican II. The event coincided with the release of Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times, an anthology of 10 addresses given by Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) presidents.

Catholic sisters are emerging as leaders ahead of their times. From Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, and Nuns on the Bus to Catholic Health Association CEO Sister Carol Keehan, DC, who helped pass the Affordable Care Act, to former LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, who practiced authentic spiritual leadership in the face of the Vatican’s ongoing investigation of that organization (an investigation that Pope Francis should have laid quietly to rest, but has not), religious women are getting notice for their thoughtful, faithful leadership in the face of withering criticism and their own communities’ dramatic changes. ….(Sojourners, Sept-Oct 2014)

Read the rest here or subscribe.

Video: The Seven Sisters – Pleiades Dance and LCWR’s New Leadership


Japanese dance troupe Enra combines light, music, and technology in this 4-minute performance art video entitled “Pleiades.”

The dancers are Saya Watatani and Maki Yokoyama. It was directed by Japanese artist Nobuyuki Hanabusa, who also provided the music. This video is the newest in a series that uses the same visual technique.

Now, here’s the important question:

1. Why did the Leadership Conference of Women Religious show this video at their national gathering last week?

2.How does this performance invite us to be followers of Jesus and “children of the light” (John 12:36) today, especially those of us who live in the American Empire?

3. What does this video teach us about the dynamics of leadership and how energy moves to transform?

Send me your responses. See here for more about leadership practices in LCWR communities.

Voice of Conscience for Catholic Sisters Gathers Outside Vatican Embassy in D.C.

Today I’ll be joining the support vigil for U.S. Catholic sisters held in Washington, D.C. We’ll be delivering a letter to Pope Benedict via the Vatican nuncio.

These tensions between Catholic church hierarchy and prophetic witness and ministry are nothing new in the history of the church, but when they bubble up it’s important to show up and be visible on behalf of those who exemplify the gospel; in this case the Catholic sisters.

“You shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). When I look at the fruits of the bishops and the fruits of the sisters, my answer as to where to stand is clear. I’m posting below the letter we will deliver:

Most Holy Father:

On this Tuesday after Pentecost, we write to you in prayer and in fervent hope that you will create gracious space for the Spirit’s action by withdrawing the mandate of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that was issued on April 18 to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

On May 18, you highlighted “the urgent need in our own time for credible and attractive witnesses to the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel.” In the United States, no Gospel witnesses are more effective, credible, and attractive than Catholic Sisters. U.S. Sisters shine as beacons of God’s love in schools, hospitals, among immigrants, among the poor and powerless. With the leadership and support of LCWR, they forge paths of faith, hope, and charity, sacrificing their own comfort and even their lives. The witness of the Sisters’ daily work and prayer signifies far more than the CDF’s concerns with particular words or the absence of words in LCWR materials.

We gather today in solidarity with the LCWR as Catholics and others whose lives have been profoundly touched by Catholic Sisters. We ask the Holy Spirit to guide LCWR and CDF, and to give them courage, strength, and wisdom to discern their journey in Christ. To clear the path, we ask Your Holiness to cast aside the stumbling block of the CDF mandate. And we pray that all will find the humility required for radical openness to the Holy Spirit.

In content and process, the CDF mandate is not consistent with the respect, collegiality, and mutuality that characterize relationships among people of mature faith. St. Paul reminds us that to live in Christ’s Easter peace means to “live in a manner worthy of the call… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-4).

The CDF has questions and concerns about the LCWR. If Jesus tells his disciples that they are his friends, not his servants (John 15:9-17), then surely that is the appropriate relationship between the CDF and the LCWR. A conversation among people of good will from both CDF and LCWR could bear rich fruit for the Church as a whole, if it occurs in love, respect, mutuality, even solidarity. In this dialogue, the CDF mandate is both unwarranted and out of place.

In celebrating Pentecost, we find hope and courage in the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, “the Advocate, whom I will send you from the Father” (John 15:26). Mindful of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council this fall, we take to heart the sacred responsibility recognized in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church to fulfill our obligation “to express [our] opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church” (Chapter 4, Sec. 37). The Church needs breathing room where all of us can pause in prayer and where the mighty breath of the Spirit can enable us to be receptive to the gifts of the Spirit so we may bear fruit in Christ’s name. For the good of the Church, we ask you to withdraw the CDF mandate.

Follow more of this story at Sisters Under Scrutiny.

Healthcare: Catholic Nuns Pick Up Where Bishops Fall Down

Sr. Carol Keehan, Catholic Health Association president
Sr. Carol Keehan, Catholic Health Association president

This week as seen a bizarre split in Catholic allegiances on passing the health care bill. On Monday, 15 March, U.S. Catholic bishops, who have been a strong, clear, and powerful advocate for health care reform have backed off from it over concerns that the language written by pro-life Dems Ben Nelson and Bob Casey doesn’t go far enough in preventing federal funding for abortion.

The bishops announced that they must “regretfully hold that it must be opposed unless and until these serious moral problems are addressed.” Yesterday, Catholic commentator E.J. Dionne wrote in his Washington Post column:

Yet on the make-or-break roll call that will determine the fate of health-care reform, bishops are urging that the bill be voted down. They are doing so on the basis of a highly tendentious reading of the abortion provisions in the Senate measure. If health reform is defeated, the bishops will have played a major role in its demise.

What a shame! But, where the Catholic bishops have dropped the banner, American Catholic sisters have picked it up.

Sister Carol Keehan, President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association (the largest Catholic health organization in the country, representing 1200 Catholic health facilities and 800,000 employees), issued a statement (The Time is Now for Health Reform) on Monday, maintaining support for the health care bill and explaining how the current provisions will work:

The bill now being considered allows people buying insurance through an exchange to use federal dollars in the form of tax credits and their own dollars to buy a policy that covers their health care. If they choose a policy with abortion coverage, then they must write a separate personal check for the cost of that coverage.

There is a requirement that the insurance companies be audited annually to assure that the payment for abortion coverage fully covers the administrative and clinical costs, that the payment is held in a separate account from other premiums, and that there are no federal dollars used.

In addition, there is a wonderful provision in the bill that provides $250 million over 10 years to pay for counseling, education, job training and housing for vulnerable women who are pregnant or parenting. Another provision provides a substantial increase in the adoption tax credit and funding for adoption assistance programs.

Two days after Sr. Keehan’s statement of support for the health care bill, more Catholic sisters representing hundreds of communities sent letters to Congress also in support of passing the health care bill.

NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, headed up by Sr. Simone Campbell, released the text of the letter they delivered to each member of Congress on St. Patrick’s Day. NETWORK represents 59,000 Catholic sisters and more lay Catholics.

We write to urge you to cast a life-affirming “yes” vote when the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590) comes to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week. We join the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), which represents 1,200 Catholic sponsors, systems, facilities and related organizations, in saying: the time is now for health reform AND the Senate bill is a good way forward.

As the heads of major Catholic women’s religious order in the United States, we represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States who respond to needs of people in many ways. Among our other ministries we are responsible for running many of our nation’s hospital systems as well as free clinics throughout the country. …

The health care bill that has been passed by the Senate and that will be voted on by the House will expand coverage to over 30 million uninsured Americans. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all. It will invest in preventative care. It will bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children. And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments – $250 million – in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.

Of course, as all this plays out, conservatives against health care reform — including Americans United for Life, which is running a $350,000 ad campaign aimed at eight Democratic lawmakers who supported the Stupak-Pitt’s amendment which prohibited federal funding for abortion and allowed individuals to purchase private insurance that may or may not cover abortions — are cranking back up their machines and may be strong-arming behind the scenes to push House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (also a Catholic) toward the “deem to pass” or “self-executing” option.

CHA president Sr. Keehan wrote for Sojourners last November. I appreciated her clear, concise, and profoundly educated approach when she said:

“Health care must respect and protect human dignity from conception to natural death. In that spirit, coverage for everyone is a moral imperative and a matter of social justice.”

Once again, I’m proud to see Catholic women leading the way toward sane and humane governance and policy.