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).