After a six-year investigation, the Vatican has given America’s nuns a largely positive report, which its authors hope represents the beginning of “an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust.”
The overall results of the report, which was released Tuesday, are “encouraging and realistic,” Sister Sharon Holland, president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said during a press conference at the Vatican. The report, known officially as an Apostolic Visitation, was “not a document of blame,” Holland said. “One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on.” Holland said she believed that the American community of women religious — or nuns — “will feel affirmed and strengthened” by the results.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization representing 80 percent of America’s nuns, is the subject of a separate investigation being overseen by a different wing of the Vatican. The organization has recently come into conflict with many U.S. bishops for what they see as an unacceptably liberal, nontraditional trend among the nuns it represents.
Past Vatican leaders had suggested that the visitation would examine similar concerns among individual institutions in the United States, prompting a significant amount of anxiety and concern among U.S. nuns and Catholics. But the tone in Tuesday’s report was strikingly mild, and at times laudatory, leading some to call it an “olive branch.”
Sister Carol Zinn, past president of the LCWR, told The Post after the Tuesday press conference that the report itself represents something more profound than an olive branch. The report is more than just a peace offering to America’s nuns, who have felt targeted by the Vatican’s leadership in recent years, Zinn said. Instead, she views the conclusions largely as a product of actual change within the Catholic Church.
“There’s been so much transition” in the Vatican’s leadership, including the appointment of Pope Francis, since the visitation got underway, Zinn said. “I would like to offer another sound bite. This experience has been a learning experience for the entire church.”
Zinn’s takeaway paraphrases a statement made by Pope Francis on the night of his election: “It is possible for the people of God to walk together…people who love the church and give their life to the Gospel realize that we’re got to find ways structurally and institutionally to work together,” she said.
The report outlines several aspects of life for America’s nuns, based on interviews and questionnaires reaching about half of the country’s women religious population, which numbers around 50,000. However, the report acknowledges that the unprecedented investigation “was met with apprehension and suspicion by some women religious. This resulted in a refusal, on the part of some institutes, to collaborate fully in the process.”
The report’s Vatican-based authors hoped the results would help more women religious to “accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them.”
Notably, the report did not demand that America’s nuns back off from a focus on social justice work, something that many had feared. In fact, the report “gratefully acknowledges this apostolic zeal” for social justice work among women religious, noting that their work resonates with Pope Francis’s insistence that “none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.” There was also no mention of a “secularist mentality” among nuns, something Cardinal Franc Rodé, then leader of the Vatican’s committee on religious life, said in 2008 that the investigation could examine.
Statements like Rodé’s contributed to a profound frustration and anxiety among America’s nuns in the early stages of the process. His warning seemed to underline a contextual worry among those familiar with the investigation process: visitations from the Holy See are “almost always” called to correct a wrong or a scandal, Zinn noted. “They’re almost always done to warn institutes.”
Instead, Zinn said, the report composed by Rodé’s successors was a “mirror” of the actual lives lived by America’s nuns. The investigation “may have started quite badly six years ago, mostly because of the way it was communicated” she said, adding that “because all those who were involved in this, in this country, were and are faithful and love the church, and love the Gospel and love this life, what was created was a process that the church can be proud of.”
While the report’s lack of overt censure toward America’s nuns is striking, the report does look at some of the larger challenges faced by its members. For instance, there’s the declining numbers among U.S. women religious. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. population of nuns reached a peak of about 180,000 members. “It is important to note, however, that 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,” the report explains.
As the National Catholic Reporter notes, there appears to be some veiled criticism in the report. For instance, the report’s statement that “vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women” appears to refer to some women religious who have chosen not to wear religious habits.
In another section, titled “Called to a Life Centered on Christ,” the report warns America’s women religious that “caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith.” It asks members 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.”
Holland — along with Mother Agnes Mary Donovan of the chair of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and Mother M. Clare Millea, who directed the investigation — briefly met with Pope Francis before the release of the report.
Tuesday’s publication is a concise overview of the lengthy investigation, which will also produce individual reports to be sent to the hundreds of institutions that received site visitations, along with those flagged as “objects of concern,” said Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Those individual reports were not made public.
Zinn added that while she sees the report as affirming and “more than anyone could have imagined,” she believes the church still needs to have some “hard conversations” if it’s actually going to produce more moments of unity like this one. And, “the structures that currently exist don’t always facilitate” those conversations.
But the report gives her hope. “What I expect to see is more and more processes from the institutional church that mirror what we saw this morning.” she said Tuesday, “just listening, not making judgments, just hearing.”