A long-awaited Vatican report on women’s religious life in the United States is set for release on Dec. 16, and on Tuesday the Vatican announced a press conference will be held that day to present the document.

(Crux has an advance copy of the report and will start its coverage at 7 a.m. Tuesday.)

There are two separate Vatican reviews of American nuns: One launched in 2008 studying all women’s orders in the country and another initiated a year later that focuses specifically on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group for the leadership of women’s orders.

The Dec. 16 report marks the end of the first process, but has no bearing on the second.

Presenting the document will be the Vatican’s two top officials for religious orders, as well as the American nun who oversaw the review, and the heads of both of the major groups for women religious in the United States (including the president of the LCWR).

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Basilian priest who aids the Vatican with English-speaking media who also took part in the review as an on-site visitor, will moderate the press conference. As usual, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, will be on hand, who’s also a member of the Jesuit religious order.

The following is a primer on the report, and what’s at stake in its release.

What was the process behind this report?

On December 22, 2008, Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé — at the time the Vatican’s top official for religious life — issued a decree initiating what’s called an “Apostolic Visitation” of all women’s orders in America. Rodé appointed Mother Clare Millea, a Connecticut native and Rome-based superior general of the international congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to head it up.

Millea organized the process into four phases, which unfolded between 2009 and 2012:

  • Phase 1: Soliciting general input from the superiors of women’s communities.
  • Phase 2: Collecting empirical data about the congregations, including membership totals, the financial situation, ministries, etc.
  • Phase 3: On-site visits to 90 orders, representing half of the 50,000 nuns in America. There were 78 female and male religious who served as visitors.
  • Phase 4: Submission of an overall report to the Vatican, plus individual reports for orders that had an on-site visit.

Millea passed her final report to Rome in January 2012, by which time the Vatican department for religious orders was under new leadership with Brazilian Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz and American Archbishop Joseph Tobin. (Tobin was later named Archbishop of Indianapolis.)

The report had not been released in February 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. It has been under review since the election of Pope Francis.

What’s the difference between this process and the one for the LCWR?

First, the visitation led by Millea was much broader in scope, encompassing almost 350 women’s orders in the United States to which more than 50,000 nuns belong. The other is directed exclusively at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a body recognized under Church law that brings together heads of roughly 80 percent of the women’s religious orders in America.

Second, the two processes fall under two different Vatican departments. The broader Apostolic Visitation came under the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, informally known as the “Congregation for Religious.” The LCWR probe was initiated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

For that reason, the first process was concerned with the overall health of women’s religious life in America, while the LCWR review is focused largely on the organization’s adherence to Catholic doctrine.

The LCWR review also led to the creation of a commission of three US bishops, headed up by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, to promote a reform of the organization. No such oversight body has been created as a result of the larger apostolic visitation.

What will the December 16 report address?

It’s expected to present a broad x-ray of the state of women’s congregations in America, both positives and negatives. It will almost certainly not offer targeted conclusions about specific orders or individuals.

Typical topics that come up during visitations include: recruitment of new vocations, formation of members, prayer and worship, community life, how authority is exercised, and the relationship with the rest of the Church, including the bishops. On each, the report will likely offer brief observations flagging both strengths and weaknesses.

Because the Vatican announced a “Year of Consecrated Life” that began in November, intended to celebrate the contributions of men and women religious and to encourage vocations to religious orders, the report may include recommendations for taking advantage of that opportunity.

Why did the Vatican launch this review?

While visitations are a routine feature of religious life, such a sweeping review of all women’s congregations in a single country is highly unusual. In the 2008 decree launching the probe, Rodé said only that its purpose was “to look into the quality of the life of religious women in the United States.”

At the time, the leadership of the US bishops’ conference made clear they had not requested the visitation or been consulted about it, and privately some American bishops expressed reservations.

In subsequent comments, Rodé said he decided to launch the visitation after hearing “critical voices from the United States.” He also said that “an important representative of the Church in the United States” was among those critics, without specifying who it was.

“Above all, you could speak of a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist’ spirit,” Rodé said in 2009.

Many around the world saw the visitation as an indictment of US sisters and an attempt to compel them into a more submissive stance. The initial response among some American nuns was skeptical, and some congregations refused to participate fully.

Millea, however, insisted that her intent was to be helpful.

“My slant is certainly not a punitive thing, or something that would raise red flags for sanctions,” she said in a 2010 interview with the National Catholic Reporter. “I want to present a fair picture of the joys of a congregation, their struggles, the obstacles they see to be able to carry out their ministry.”

What’s at stake in this report?

Most obviously, the report will be read as an index of whether the transition to Pope Francis has recalibrated the Vatican’s approach to American nuns.

If the report is largely positive, and avoids imposing what would be seen as punitive measures such as loyalty oaths or more direct control by Rome, it will be taken as a sign of healing in the perceived breach between sisters in the United States and the Church’s male-dominated power structure.

If the tone is critical, echoing some of the same points that surfaced in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s April 2012 assessment of the LCWR, then the conclusion will be that little has changed.

In truth, the Congregation for Religious under Bráz has long been seen as more friendly to American nuns than the CDF. If the report is mostly positive, insiders will also take it as another sign that moderates in leadership posts have been emboldened by Francis.

What are the next steps?

In terms of the larger apostolic visitation, this is basically the end-game, although individual reports may be sent to orders that had an on-site visit.

The LCWR review is still on-going. When Sartain was appointed as “Archbishop Delegate” in 2012 and assigned authority over certain aspects of the group’s operations, he was given a mandate of “up to five years.” In theory, therefore, his oversight could continue until April 2017.