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

Vatican Embassy Opens Doors to Vigilers Praying for LCWR

Here’s a quick roundup by Sr. Maureen Fiedler about the prayer vigil I attended on May 30 at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., in support of Catholic women religious and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Apparently, I left too early, because Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano not only invited a few representatives inside to talk, but then came outside and spoke with the whole group!

Here’s an excerpt from Maureen’s blog at the National Catholic Reporter:

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal nuncio to the United States, meets with people holding a rally in solidarity with U.S. women religious outside the apostolic nunciature in Washington, DC, May 30.

Who would believe it? When a group of protestors supporting the Leadership Conference of Women Religious showed up at the Vatican Embassy on Tuesday, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, welcomed some of the group into the embassy. Two people were actually invited to sit down and chat with him. He received their petition asking that the mandate against LCWR be withdrawn … without any expectation that would actually happen, of course.

In the course of the conversation, he made it known he had been at the beginning of the LCWR board meeting. Later, he invited about 20 people into the embassy to see the chapel and offer prayers.

I don’t have much hope that his welcome represents any new approach from the Vatican to LCWR (or anyone), but it is refreshing in Washington to see any protestors welcomed by any authority for a chat, at least.

Vigano was removed from a Vatican post after cleaning up the Vatican Bank, a process in which he surely made enemies. The recently leaked documents include a letter of his to the pope, asking not to be moved outside the Vatican because of the message it would send. He may have some sympathy for LCWR, given his own experience.

Click here to see great photos and an account of Tuesday’s Vatican Embassy action.

As a fun little feature, see the photo below:

Save A Nun: LCWR Calls For Transparency in Vatican Investigation

Threat to Vatican?
Threat to Vatican?

Earlier this month, I posted on the Vatican investigation into Catholic women’s religious orders. I noted the Vatican opening a parallel investigation into the largest umbrella leadership organization of the U.S. women religious, the Leadership Council of Women Religious.

LCWR had its national meeting in New Orleans from August 11-14, and the Vatican investigation was leading topic. Rachel Zoll’s article Catholic Sisters Under Vatican Review Want Answers is the most recent follow up. Here’s an excerpt:

An association of U.S. Roman Catholic sisters raised questions Monday about why they are the target of, and who is paying for, a Vatican investigation that is shaping up to be a tough review of whether sisters have strayed from church teaching.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing about 800 heads of religious orders, said there was a “lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources” for the inquiry. The group also said it objects to the Vatican plan to keep private the reports that will be submitted to the Holy See.

“There’s no transparency there,” said Sister Annmarie Sanders, a conference spokeswoman.

The investigation, announced earlier this year, will examine the practices of the roughly 59,000 Catholic sisters working in the United States. Some sisters have privately expressed anger over the assessment, which they say unfairly questions their commitment to church teaching. However, in public they have remained largely circumspect in their comments.

LCWR posted their official response on their Web site. Here’s a bit of it:

The assembly body also discussed the Vatican study, as well as a separate inquiry being conducted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the position of LCWR in matters pertaining to Catholic Church doctrine. Following analysis of the experience of these studies thus far, the leaders noted that while their orders have always been fully accountable to the church and plan to collaborate with the Vatican in these studies, they request that those conducting the inquiries alter some of the methods being employed. Among the expressed concerns are a lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources for the studies. The leaders also object to the fact that their orders will not be permitted to see the investigative reports about them that are being submitted directly to the Vatican.

Throughout the assembly, the leaders emphasized that their orders have remained faithful to the reform and renewal of their communities called for by the Second Vatican Council that urged women and men religious to adapt their lives, prayer and work so they may most effectively fulfill their mission. They reclaimed their commitment to what they believe is the unique and needed role of religious life which includes serving at and speaking from the margins of the Catholic Church.

LCWR represents roughly 95% of U.S. Catholic sisters. I’m intrigued that NPR’s Cokie Roberts gave the key note at the LCWR assemly. I’ll try to get hold of her talk.