New Man on Top: Tobin Takes Over Nun Investigation

You may not have been tracking the recent switcharoos in Catholic hierarchy, but here’s one to note. The guy in charge of investigating the American religious women’s orders has been replaced. The elder Slovenian Cardinal Rode (he of the flowing robes and multiple robe bearers) has moved on. Detroit native Fr. Joseph Tobin has taken his place.

To put it succinctly, the nuns like this guy a whole lot better. And he’s making nice with them trying to repair the damage the Vatican has done to its relationship with American nuns and the  laity who love them.

The first thing Tobin did when he had power of his new office was to acknowledged the “anger and hurt” among U.S. nuns caused by the probe by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

“There’s a great deal of misunderstanding among American religious about the decisions of the Holy See, and in particular the visitation of women religious,” Tobin said in an National Catholic Reporter interview. “Maybe I can offer a different picture of American women religious than the one that sometimes has been presented in Rome,” Tobin said. “My own impression is extremely positive.”

The Vatican scrutiny of American women’s religious orders began in December 2008 and is scheduled to continue through 2011. Many Catholics around the world have criticized the investigation as a heavy-handed attempt to rein in U.S. nuns because regressionists in church hierarchy see them as too independent.

The Vatican’s investigation has become a referendum on defending and promoting the precepts of Vatican II. “Many sisters answered the call of the church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which encouraged social activism, freedom of expression and conscience and respect for other religions,” reports Michael O’Malley (Nuns hopeful on U.S. prelate’s role in Vatican probe). “Critics believe the hierarchy in Rome is trying to turn the clock back to a more conservative and traditional church.”

“The heart of the issue is not about nuns,” said Sister Diana Culbertson, a retired professor of literature and Scripture at Kent State University, in O’Malley’s article. “It’s about the interpretation of Vatican II. The current hierarchy of the church does not have the same interpretation of Vatican II as we do.”

Culbertson, who refers to the investigation as the “nunquisition,” said: “They see us as Marxist-feminist radicals. Rome has a picture of American nuns that doesn’t correspond to the picture we have of ourselves.

“They want us in our place. But we don’t make vows to the hierarchy. We make our vows to God.”

It remains to be seen how Tobin will handle the infrastructure and procedures of the investigation and how significantly he will involve the Catholic women’s orders. The separate Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents the leaders of 95 percent of the nation’s 59,000 nuns, continues.

In December, the University of San Francisco honored Catholic women religious for their contributions to the country and the church by awarding them with an honorary doctorate. Dominican sister and president of the Leadership Conference of Catholic Women Religious (LCWR), Mary Hughes, accepted the degree on behalf of all religious sisters in America.

Sister Annmarie Sanders, a spokeswoman for LCWR, said that they’ve had no communication with the Vatican panel since April. Asked whether she feels the nuns’ conference is being kept in the dark regarding the investigation, Sanders said, “Very much so.”

Recent articles roundup:
When Good (Bad) Things Happen by Sandra Schneiders
Nuns hopeful on U.S. prelate’s role in Vatican probe by Michael O’Malley
New Vatican Leader Extremely Positive on Women by John Allen
Q & A With Fr. Tobin by John Allen
American Women Religious Honored by University of San Francisco by Tom Fox