Save A Nun: Is Pope’s Inquisition into American Nuns Playing into Dan Brown’s Conspiracy?

susantoepfer_136I’m giving a shout out to Susan Toepfer over at Truth/Slant for her post Nuns on the Run: Why Is the Pope Targeting Women? Even though Toepfer’s not Catholic herself, like many Americans she’s benefited from the amazing gift and wisdom of American Catholic sisters.

I’m doing my best to track good posts and stories on the current Vatican investigation into Catholic sisters. If you see any, send them my way.

Here’s a snippet from Toepfer’s piece:

It is a story worthy of a Dan Brown thriller, replete with secret ceremonies, powerful adversaries and hidden motives. Yet this high-level plot is playing out in real time, right under our noses, and it all begins with a modern-day inquisition into the lives of nuns.

Nuns, as even non-Catholics know (and I am not Catholic, though my husband and children are), haven’t been quite the same since the ’60s, when they started shedding their habits for street clothes and venturing out more self-assuredly into the world. Nuns, as you might also have noticed, have severely decreased in number since then. The dwindling religious who remain have not only often fled traditional communities but have expanded their interests to such contemporary concerns as saving the environment and rescuing sex slaves.

That, apparently, is enough to make this current, most conservative of Popes, send in his troops.

Read more of what I’ve written on the Vatican investigation into American Catholic nuns here.

Catholics Should Refuse to Pay for Vatican Investigation of American Nuns

Sr. Dolorosa Bundy
Sr. Dolorosa Bundy

Thanks to Whispers in the Loggia for this nice summary of the most recent news on the Vatican investigation into American Catholic nuns. Apparently, not only are the nuns supposed to be honored by a Vatican investigation (usually reserved for pedophile priest scandals), but now they are encouraged to pay for it out of their own meager funds and with the help of Catholic bishops through local congregations.

Uhhhmmmm. How about we just say “no.” There’s just no good reason to participate in your own oppression, much less pay for it.

Here’s an excerpt from Whispers:

As the Apostolic Visitation of the nation’s womens’ communities enters its second phase, the Holy See has asked the US bishops to foot the controversial inquest‘s proposed budget of $1.1 million.

Broken yesterday by the National Catholic Reporter, news of the funding pitch — made to the bishops in a July letter from the Vatican’s lead overseer of religious, Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé CM — has provoked a fierce outcry from critics of the three-year study:

Since the Vatican announced the study last December, it has never publicly stated how much it estimates the comprehensive inquiry will cost or who will pay for it. A Vatican document sent to the heads of U.S. women’s congregations last summer suggested that those chosen for on-site visitations defray costs by paying for and hosting visitation teams, “and, if at all possible, transportation costs related to the visit.”…

Rodé’s July letter came in the form of a general appeal to U.S. bishops. It was addressed: “Your Eminence/Your Excellency” and began with an explanation: “My dear brother bishops in the United States, as you are aware, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in an audience on Nov. 17, 2008, authorized an apostolic visitation of the principal institutes of apostolic women religious in the United States.”

His letter went on to say, “We count on your support in this effort to:

  • “look into the quality of the life of apostolic women religious in the United States
  • “learn more about the varied and unique ways in which apostolic women religious contribute to the welfare of the church and society
  • “assist the church to strengthen, enhance and support the growth of the apostolic congregations to which approximately 59,000 women religious in the United States belong.”

Save A Nun: Cokie Roberts’ Keynote Address to Leadership Conference of Women Religious


New Orleans native and NPR’s senior news analyst Cokie Roberts gave the keynote address at the recent gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in New Orleans. LCWR represents 95% of  U.S. Catholic religious women and is under investigation by the Vatican. (See my earlier posts LCWR Calls For Transparency and Vatican Investigation.)

Roberts gives an excellent overview of the historical role of Catholic women in America – especially in New Orleans. When she veers toward the current Vatican investigation, she frames it in a way that brings out some of the essential tensions: The true nature of the American experiment is still not understood by Rome. Here’s an excerpt:

This country remains a puzzlement to our ancestors in Europe and their modern day descendants. After all we are very young—it’s not even 300 years since the Ursulines arrived here and that was almost 50 years before independence. I understand why the Europeans continue to see this as some sort of upstart nation. They often see only the chaos without witnessing the creation. And they don’t appreciate the fact that we have traditions that are different from those of the old world, traditions that have to do with service both inside and outside of religious life. So–at the same time that the Ursulines were here creating schools and hospitals and orphanages, and Elizabeth Seton was doing that on the East Coast–women of every religion and color were creating similar institutions–whether it was Isabella Graham the Scotswoman who worked with Elizabeth Seton to create the Widows Society and many other social service agencies, or Rebecca Gratz–a Jewish woman in Philadelphia who worked with other women in the community to create orphanages and other societies for the poor and then established a parallel set up for Jewish children who were being taught Christian doctrine in those other institutions. Or Catherine Ferguson, a former slave, who started the Sunday School movement in America. Or first lady Dolley Madison who worked with the local women of Washington to set up an orphanage after the British invasion of 1814. These women of course couldn’t vote and married women could not own property. They were the property of their husbands. But with great difficulty and determination they lobbied the legislatures, solicited funds from the public, petitioned the Congress, organized rallies, performed highly political acts in order to create the safety net for the poor in a time of exciting unbridled capitalism. And that tradition of service continues.

Read Cokie Roberts’ whole address.

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.

Save a Nun: Bishops’ Media Director Feels ‘Suspect’

walsh_lowres061Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, a Sister of Mercy, is the director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She posted a commentary yesterday, A Nun Could Get Whiplash These Days, responding to the Vatican investigation of American nuns.

Her commentary isn’t all that exceptional, but I find it rather amazing that even this Catholic hierarchy “company woman,” with a very strategic position within the U.S. bishops’ Conference felt the need to push back on Vatican investigation. See an excerpt below:

This morning I read about a new documentary that tells the heroic tale of nuns in Eastern Europe sent to Siberia, prison camps, and into exile in the Stalinist days post World War II. I’m proud of them – and deeply moved by their lives. I hope everyone gets to see this program on ABC TV. It was produced by Sisters of St. Joseph and funded by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign. ABC will get it September 13 and if affiliates choose to air it, it will make gripping television.

Then I read a Catholic News Service story about the Apostolic Visitation of U.S. nuns that reported that I could confidentially contact the visitator with concerns I might have about my order. It made me wonder how we nuns are perceived. Is my happiness as a sister suspect? My lifestyle? Can’t I just e-mail my own head nun when I have concerns? I wonder what my family will think? Will the young adults who asked me to read at their weddings start to wonder about the aunt they think is special?

Read Sr. Mary Ann Walsh’s whole commentary here.

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 (, 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 (, 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).