An unprecedented and highly controversial Vatican investigation of every community of Catholic sisters in the United States that began with criticism of nuns as having a “secular mentality” ended Tuesday with a report full of praise, and without any disciplinary measures or new controls.

The result likely will be seen as a major olive branch from the Vatican for American nuns, as well as another sign of a more conciliatory approach under Pope Francis.

“Since the early days of the Catholic Church [in the United States], women religious have courageously been in the forefront … selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals,” the report says.

In particular, the report says American nuns are especially apt to “resonate with Pope Francis’ insistence that ‘none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice’.”

The document expresses “the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the Church and society.”

Sister Sharon Holland, president of a group of American nuns also facing a separate Vatican investigation, said Tuesday that despite some “apprehension” among the sisters, the new report is “affirmative and realistic” and praised its “encouraging tone.”

“As our members read, study, pray over, and discuss this report, I believe they will feel affirmed and strengthened,” Holland said.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh: Challenges, but hope, for nuns
Father James Martin: Thank you, Sisters
The report: Full text on the Vatican website

In effect, the document represents a remarkably pacific ending to a process born amid upheaval and perceptions of a crackdown by the Church’s male-dominated power structure.

In 2009, the Vatican’s top official for religious orders, commenting on the logic behind the investigation, complained of “a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.” Such language fed expectations of tough moves from Rome to bring the nuns into line.

Instead, the process has wrapped up in what one veteran Vatican observer described as virtually a “love fest.”

The 5,200-word document released Tuesday marks the end of an investigation — called an “Apostolic Visitation” — launched by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies for Apostolic Life, informally known as the “Congregation for Religious,” in 2008.

The new report has no bearing, however, on a distinct ongoing probe of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) initiated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2009, which led to the formation of a commission of three American bishops to oversee a reform of the organization. The LCWR, led by Holland, is the main association for the leaders of women’s orders in the United States.

Notably, terms such as “crisis”, “dissent”, “doctrine”, and “hierarchy” do not appear in the new Vatican document. While the term “obedience” is present, it’s mentioned in the context of obedience to Jesus Christ rather than the Church’s power structure.

Instead, the report concedes that “the Apostolic Visitation was met with apprehension and suspicion by some women religious.”

“We use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them,” it says.

While some critics had urged the Vatican to impose stricter controls over the nuns, such as requiring superiors of women’s communities to pronounce loyalty oaths to Church teaching — as, for example, was required of the leadership of the Catholic charitable body Caritas in 2012 — there is no such measure in Tuesday’s document.

The report is signed by the Vatican’s top two officials for religious life, and was presented in a Vatican news conference Tuesday along with the American nun who led the visitation and the sisters who lead the two largest umbrella groups of women’s communities in the country.

Although visitations are a routine feature of life in Catholic religious orders, a sweeping review of every women’s community in a single country is highly unusual.

Some women’s communities announced they would not cooperate fully in the investigation, and some leading voices among women religious in America floated the idea of “going non-canonical,” meaning cutting ties with the Church and reincorporating under civil law.

In early 2011, however, new leadership was appointed to head the Congregation for Religious in Brazilian Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz and American Archbishop Joseph Tobin, both of whom expressed a desire for healing in the department’s relationship with nuns. (Tobin was subsequently named the archbishop of Indianapolis.)

In effect, the report released Tuesday represents a vindication for the softer approach under Braz.

Rather than a crackdown, the report says the visitation, which involved 341 women’s communities in America, was intended to foster “respectful sister-to-sister dialogue.”

The overall thrust of the findings is laudatory.

“Sisters today generously and creatively place their charism at the service of the needs of the Church and the world,” it says at one point, referring to the original purpose for which a religious order was founded.

The document is organized into 12 sections, and expresses broad observations without singling out any specific nuns or communities.

It begins with a brief overview of the process behind the visitation, and then presents some empirical data about women religious in America. According to the report, the median age of nuns in the country today is in the mid-to-late 70s, and the current number of 50,000 sisters represents a decline of 125,000 from a peak in the mid-1960s.

Rather than styling that drop-off as an index of crisis, the report says “the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history.”

Other areas considered in the report include vocations, prayer, community life, authority, finances, evangelization, and communion with the rest of the Church. In each, the report identifies strengths in women’s orders, flags challenges, and makes brief recommendations.

There is an indirect call to doctrinal orthodoxy in Section 6, “Called to a Life Centered on Christ.”

“Caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith,” the report says.

Over the years, critics have complained that some progressive-minded nuns flirt with a new age eco-spirituality that’s more about the cosmos than about Jesus Christ. There’s an echo of that concern in the report, which calls on nuns “to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.”

At the same time, the report applauds the desire of American nuns to strengthen their bonds with the rest of the Church, including the bishops.

“Many described themselves as integral members of the Church and expressed their desire to collaborate in maintaining and strengthening bonds of ecclesial communion with the pastors of the universal, national and local Church, with the laity and with other religious congregations,” it says.

“They noted the ongoing need for honest dialogue with bishops and clergy as a means of clarifying their role in the Church and strengthening their witness and effectiveness as women faithful to the Church’s teaching and mission,” the report says.

On finances, the report notes that many women’s orders are experiencing “a significant and ongoing loss of income,” in part due to the mounting demands of caring for elder members. It calls on communities to “wisely administer their resources,” and also invites nuns to embrace a lifestyle of “evangelical poverty.”

Tuesday’s report caps a process that began on Dec. 22, 2008, when Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, at the time the Vatican’s top official for religious life, issued a decree initiating 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 Bráz had taken over the Congregation for Religious. The report had not been released in February 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, and had been under review since the election of Pope Francis.

The document says that individual reports will be sent to communities that had an on-site visit, and also to any communities whose own submissions flagged special areas of concern.