How The Vatican Feels About American Nuns

Nun justice or nunsense? Following a staggering six-year investigation, the Vatican released its final report on American nuns on Tuesday. The largely positive report partially puts to rest the controversy that has further driven a wedge between the Catholic hierarchy and ordinary church members, the latter of whom saw the investigation as a misguided attack on religious sisters. However, not every American nun is off the Vatican hook just yet.

The report, formally known as "The Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America," is part one of a two-pronged Vatican probe into the lives and practices of roughly 50,000 religious sisters in the United States. In December 2008, a Vatican office on religious and apostolic life launched an unprecedented investigation into 341 different religious orders and institutes in the United States. Like the name of the report implies, (male) representatives of the Vatican visited each order to keep track of the practices and on-goings of the sisters, because they feared the sisters were having too much of a "secular mentality."

It's important to note here that the nuns under investigation are primarily religious sisters who aren't cloistered nuns. Many of these sisters run or work in Catholic hospitals or schools, and lead various social justice nonprofits, which means they interact with ordinary Catholics and non-Catholics alike on a daily basis. The Vatican acknowledged that in the report, saying they purposely excluded the "contemplative communities" to instead focus on the more liberal nuns:

We initiated the Visitation because of our awareness that apostolic religious life in the United States is experiencing challenging times. Although we knew that any initiative of this magnitude would have its imperfections, we wished to gain deeper knowledge of the contributions of the women religious to the Church and society as well as those difficulties which threaten the quality of their religious life and, in some cases, the very existence of the institutes.

The religious sisters reacted to the investigation with "suspicion" — with good reason. The Vatican has never conducted an overwhelming investigation like this before, leading many critics of the Catholic Church to believe that this was an abuse of power. So, the positive final report, which praises the religious sisters, comes as a bit of a surprise.

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The report states that the Vatican wanted to engage in a "sister-to-sister" dialogue, and it seems like it did just that. "Sisters today generously and creatively place their charism at the service of the needs of the Church and the world," the report states.

The Vatican continued:

The Apostolic Visitation noted that the majority of women religious have a strong sense of the history of their institute and the charism of their foundress/founder and draw strength from the courageous example of their early members. ... The religious interviewed during the on-site Visits were proud to share the historical and charismatic roots of their community and their own vision and lived experience of its identity.

The Vatican repeatedly praised the religious sisters for being "creative" and "generous." As the National Catholic Reporter noted, the report uses the word "gratitude" to describe the religious sisters eight times.

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Surprisingly, the Vatican also admitted that, despite previously taking a harsh stance on the nuns, it will continue to work with the religious sisters in a collaborative effort. "We use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with [the sisters]," the report said.

"This Congregation is committed to collaborate in the realization of Pope Francis’ resolve that 'the feminine genius' find expression in the various settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures," the report added.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious — an organization that represents about 80 percent of American nuns, including the ones under Vatican investigation — were grateful for the uplifting report, which they believe was "offered without negative judgment." The LCWR said on Tuesday in a statement:

While the Vatican’s decision to conduct an apostolic visitation caused great pain and anxiety for many Catholic sisters, our members frequently speak of how our experience of the study became the source of profound transformation for our institutes. The process led us to study the heart of our vocation as we engaged one another in significant conversations that explored our spirituality, our mission, our communal life, and our hopes for the future. As we did so, our bonds with one another grew even deeper and our understanding of the potential of this life to serve the needs of the world grew even keener.

But it's not all well and good just yet, because the Vatican still has the radical feminists to worry about. A few months after the Vatican announced its massive investigation in 2008, a second Vatican office, led by a conservative American bishop, launched a separate probe into the LCWR. In spring 2012, the Vatican released an assessment of the leading nuns coalition, concluding that they were promoting "radical feminism" and making "commentaries on the patriarchy" that left the guys at the Vatican feeling, well, a bit uncomfortable.

The Vatican also chastised the LCWR for not speaking up on anti-abortion and anti-gay doctrine, and for supporting feminist views such as women's ordination. The Vatican, as well as the U.S. Conference of Bishops, has also been upset with the LCWR for supporting organizations such as NETWORK, a social justice lobby currently ran by Sister Simone Campbell (she of Nuns on the Bus fame) and giving awards to noted feminist Catholic theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson.

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While this first Vatican report on the nuns may have been successful, the LCWR is still under pressure from the Vatican — a fact that continues to anger Catholic laypeople, who have been rallying behind the religious sisters through the Nun Justice Project. The leaders of the project called on the Vatican on Tuesday to immediately rescind the mandate placed on the LCWR and apologize to the American sisters.

"Until the mandate is removed, the faithful and creative leadership of U.S. sisters remains under unjust Vatican scrutiny," the Nun Justice Project said, adding that "reconciliation will not be fully accomplished" until the Vatican relinquishes control of the 50,000 religious sisters.

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