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.
But the nature of some questions in the document seems to validate concerns expressed privately by some sisters that they’re about to be dressed down or accused of being unfaithful to the church.
The report, for example, asks communities of sisters to lay out “the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church.”
It also confirms suspicions that the Vatican is concerned over a drift to the left on doctrine, seeking answers about “the soundness of doctrine held and taught” by the women.
Still other questions explore whether sisters take part in Mass daily, or whether they follow the church’s rules when they take part in liturgies.
Church officials expect consistency in how rites and services are celebrated, with approved translations and Masses presided over by a priest.
The study, called an apostolic visitation, casts a net beyond fidelity to church teaching, with questions also covering efforts to promote vocations and management of finances.
The investigation is focused on members of women’s religious communities, or sisters. These are women who do social work, teach, work in hospitals and do other humanitarian work of the church. The investigation is not looking at cloistered communities, or nuns.
“The sisters being investigated have for many years made almost nothing, took very little and gave everything,” said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at America, a Jesuit magazine.
Francine Cardman, associate professor of historical theology and church history at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, said it isn’t clear why these questions are being asked now in the U.S.
But she said the focus on doctrine puts it in the context of establishing a “correct” and exclusive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and of women’s religious communities. She said the inquiry should be seen “as part of a much older tradition of misogyny in the church and especially distrust of women who are not directly and submissively under male, ecclesiastical control.”
Conservative Catholics, however, have long complained that the majority of sisters in the U.S. have grown too liberal and flout church teaching. Some have taken provocative stands, advocating for female priests or challenging church teaching against abortion rights or gay marriage.
Helen Hull Hitchcock, director of St. Louis-based Women for Faith and Family, a Catholic women’s group that includes sisters and laypeople, said an examination of women’s religious communities’ claims to “the right to complete self-determination” with no regard to church hierarchy is 30 or 40 years overdue.
“Some good can come of it by identifying where the main problems are, or at least by dealing openly and honestly with a problem that has been going on for a long time,” she said.
After Vatican II, many sisters embraced Catholic teaching against war and nuclear weapons and for workers’ rights, shed their habits and traditional roles as teachers or hospital workers and took up activism.
More recently, a group of more tradition-minded women’s religious orders have emerged, with members who dress in habits, show fidelity to Rome and focus on education, health care and social work.
The Vatican is concerned about sisters’ shrinking and aging ranks. The number in the U.S. declined from 173,865 in 1965 to 79,876 in 2000, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The average age of a member of a women’s religious community was between 65 and 70 in 1999.
The inquiry is being directed by Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a more conservative order.
Millea has already held meetings with heads of religious communities. Next, the superiors will be given detailed questionnaires to be completed this fall, to be followed by visits to selected congregations starting next year and concluding with a confidential report from Millea to the Vatican.
A spokeswoman for the apostolic visitation’s Connecticut-based office said Millea was not available for an interview Tuesday.
The Vatican also has opened a separate “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest umbrella group for communities of Catholic sisters in the U.S.
In a statement Tuesday, the conference said the new information on the apostolic visit had just been sent to its members, and that discussing it would be on the agenda at its annual assembly in New Orleans next week.
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