Though welcoming the gentle tone of a long-anticipated Vatican report on the state of US nuns, some Catholic sisters expressed frustration with the six-year-long process, and said healing won’t come until a separate process investigating a liberal umbrella group is completed.
Sister Louise Gallahue, head of the Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise, which includes about 500 sisters throughout the United States, told Crux she imagines her communities will use the document as “a reflection tool,” but said many of the issues included in the report — declining vocations, aging sisters, diminishing financial resources — would have been addressed by sisters anyway.
“We have internal mechanisms — assemblies, provincial meetings, general meetings — in where we would do that,” she said, calling the visitation, begun in 2008 under Pope Benedict XVI, “a long and tedious process.”
If the report is simply encouraging communities to engage in self-reflection, “It doesn’t seem to have warranted the amount of work and resources that went into this,” she said.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, agrees.
“These questions that are asked are something that we do on a regular basis anyway; they’re a structure of canon law. We take it very seriously,” she told Crux.
Today’s report has no effect on the ongoing probe of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization representing about 80 percent of American nuns, which remains under a sort of ecclesial receivership from a concurrent yet separate Vatican investigation examining the group’s spiritual and community practices.
A report issued in 2012 accused that group of promoting “radical feminist themes,” and the Vatican charged three US bishops with reforming the group, a process which may continue into 2017.
Some sisters say today’s report can only achieve so much while that process remains open.
“I don’t think we’ll totally move forward until the LCWR issue is resolved,” Sister Gallahue said. “This is a dialogical report, and in that sense it will help. But I don’t think it’s an end point in the relationship between women religious in the United States with the hierarchical Church as a whole.”
Sister Campbell, whose political activism with the “Nuns on the Bus” and a speaking appearance at the 2012 Democratic National Convention sparked condemnation in some conservative circles, said she welcomes an invitation for dialogue, which she sees in the report, but questions if Church leaders are sincere.
“Most of the leadership does not understand dialogue,” she said. “Do they mean dialogue, or do they mean listening to them?” She said her religious community has spent “decades” developing tools for dialogue, and hopes sisters can “help our brother priests and bishops find their ways forward.”
Writing at America magazine, though, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, said the report could launch a period of reconciliation.
“The church’s challenge now is to deal with the hurt that erupted when the church’s call for visitations seemed to disregard what tens of thousands of nuns accomplished both in the past and today,” she wrote.
A spokeswoman for a smaller organization representing more traditional orders of women religious said the process helped their communities understand the challenges they faced, and called today’s report helpful.
Sister Marie Bernadette Thompson, a coordinator for the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which includes about 20 percent of American nuns, said she found in the report “a real spirit of unity and collegiality.”
“Our members who had participated have really expressed that they were able to engage in an internal dialogue for the good of their own community that has helped them to really grow,” she said. “All in all, it has been very heartening and helpful to the communities.”
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, chairwoman of the CMSWR, called the experience leading to the report as “an overwhelming moment of self-evaluation.”
“Concretely, our experience was a wonderful one,” she said.
For many sisters of her congregation, Mother Donovan said, it was their first experience of the universal Church asking to express themselves honestly, “with the knowledge that what they had to say would eventually reach the Holy Father.”
The report raised specific points about how some religious communities live, was vaguely critical of orders that do not require wearing a habit, but also allowed that non-traditional ways of living are acceptable.
For example, it suggested that young women considering a religious vocation “wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women.”
Sister Thompson, whose peers in the CMSWR tend to be younger and to wear habits, did not find this surprising.
“So much of our Catholic faith is expressed externally in sacred art, in the sacred signs of the liturgy, and the habit is one of those signs which is recognizable, that marks the religious as set apart for consecration to God,” she said.
Sister Campbell said she was encouraged by the report’s acknowledgment that some sisters, because of their ministry, form community in unorthodox ways.
“You can live alone and still be a member of community,” she said. “That is something I’ve not seen the Vatican say before. I am extremely connected to my community, even though I may not live with other sisters.”
In contrast to the 2012 report, today’s report did not include specific actions religious communities must take, but rather invited them to consider challenges to their communities.
“It’s milder than what I expected,” said Sister Gallahue. “I think the way they worded the report, there were no hard-line recommendations. They truly recommended, but they didn’t impose. From that perspective, it is well-received.”
Sister Campbell said the report “shows a lot of movement, change, and a respect, but there’s still a number of questions outstanding. So, what’s going to happen, what are the consequences of this? This is a significant positive step, but what’s going to happen with it is an open question.”
Sister Sharon Holland, who heads the LCWR, acknowledged during the press conference in Rome that the investigation was initially met with apprehension and distrust, particularly among elderly sisters who “felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting.”
But she said the results showed that the Vatican had listened and heard what the sisters had to say.
“There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this report,” she told the news conference. “Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.”
Many sisters believe Pope Francis is responsible for the gentler tone of this report.
“I’m willing to give him all sorts of credit,” Sister Holland said. “I don’t know how to assess entirely his influence in all of this, but he’s been a great encouragement and hope to a lot of us.”
Sister Campbell said the pope’s leadership was most certainly at work.
“I think this is clearly a reflection of different leadership within the Church, the benefit of a structure of having a structure that is basically a monarchy,” she said. “When you have a change in leadership, it can make a profound difference.”
Sister Gallahue said she believes the work American nuns do with the poor may have appealed to the pope, and ultimately helped shape the report.
“With Pope Francis’ slant on how it’s extremely important in our life as Christians, Catholics, that we are impelled by the Gospel be concerned about those who are living in poverty, and need to work on changing systems … has helped maybe soften the outcome,” she said.
When asked what she hoped for next, Sister Campbell said dialogue, perhaps, but also getting back to work, which for her includes pressuring lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“I just hope they let us alone and let us do this amazing work we’ve been doing for a couple centuries in this country,” she said. “I like doing my work. Can I get back to work now?”
This report includes reporting from Inés San Martín in Rome and material from the Associated Press.