Mother Clare Millea has had a full postbag this autumn as the second phase of the controversial large-scale review of the quality of female religious life in America draws to a close.
During the first phase Mother Millea – who was appointed by the Vatican to oversee the project – met over 77 major superiors to deal with their concerns before asking all the superiors of women’s religious congregations to submit their responses to a questionnaire sent out in September. Questions ranged from issues of governance and finance to the spiritual life of the community and identity of the institutes.
The apple-cheeked Mother Millea has not had an easy task. Requests for information from the major superiors of women’s religious communities met vocal opposition and passive resistance (as well as relief and cooperation). According to unconfirmed reports, a number of superiors have voiced their defiance to the project by submitting blank copies of the extensive questionnaire, while others are said to have left swathes of the questionnaire unanswered. Still others have simply put a copy of their congregation’s statutes or constitution in the post.
Anne Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, an investigative work about America’s religious Sisters, has said in a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter that she had been approached by Sisters asking her to moderate an anonymous online forum so that they can express their fears that their needs are not being heard. Carey, who supports the investigation, maintains that large numbers of women religious were sidelined during the post-concilliar reforms and are continually excluded from the decisionmaking process in their communities. Many of them, she says, are worried that their orders “have changed the very nature of religious life and are becoming more distant from the Church”.
She told the NCR: “This isn’t really about getting Sisters into habits. This is about Sisters who are operating outside the doctrinal and prayer life of the Church. Many Sisters have told me they’ve written and asked Vatican officials to do something to assist their orders, so I think the Apostolic Visitation was a response to requests from a lot of women religious.” These women are subjected to liturgical modifications, structural changes and bullying in their communities, Carey has claimed in the past, but feel unable to speak out. She says that a number of them welcomed the investigation and are now dismayed that their superiors are ignoring the questionnaire. Since the Yahoo group Sisters Supporting Apostolic Visitation was launched it has attracted 73 members. But Carey worries that older Sisters in particular will go unheard.
The initial announcement that the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life was to conduct a comprehensive study of America’s 59,000 active religious Sisters took many of the country’s Catholics by surprise. Visitations are a normal part of religious life which ensure that the delicate balance of religious communities remains intact. But these usually come from the religious order in question, not from the Vatican. It is unusual to have such a large swathe of Catholic life under inspection. The study covers the two umbrella groups which serve the women religious of the United States. The larger is the broadly more progressive-minded Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which makes up 95 per cent of women religious in America, while the habited Council for Major Superiors of Women Religious accounts for the remaining five per cent but also attracts proportionally more younger vocations. Mother Millea’s congregation, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, belongs to both groups. The LCWR is also currently the subject of a separate doctrinal investigation, which is being led by Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, on behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and is expected to be completed this month.
The current undertaking has been compared to the Apostolic Visitation of American seminaries in 2005-2006 after the clerical child abuse cases hit the mainstream. Like its predecessor, this Apostolic Visitation has become the source of regular news items for the media in the United States.
The mainstream media has billed the Visitation as a Vatican crackdown and an attempt to impose pre-conciliar habits and mores on America’s Sisters. The progressive National Catholic Reporter has run a series articles in which well-known Sisters, such as Sister Sandra Schneiders and Sister Joan Chittister, announced their disapproval before the first phase was finished this summer.
While those in favour of the three-year investigation cite declining numbers, severe lack of vocations and greying congregations (nine out of 10 of women religious in the United States are over 60), the critics have complained about what they see as a lack of transparency, trust and understanding of religious life in the United States. Mother Millea’s final report to the Congregation for Institutes for Religious Life about her findings will remain confidential and unavailable to the major superiors of United States.
In August, after the LCWR’s annual meeting, the umbrella group called for more transparency and asked the Vatican to disclose the reasons for the Visitation. It also demanded to know who was paying for the Visitation. It later emerged that the Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation, had asked the US bishops for donations and help with the $1.1 million cost of the Visitation.
The questionnaire proved to be a new source of discord when it was sent out at the beginning of September and a fresh protest was launched. Certain Sisters found the questions which touched on personal prayer and frequency of Mass attendance insulting, while a number of superiors felt the questions which asked for the date of birth, address and type of ministry for their Sisters (as well as requiring them to disclose what properties the order owned and the most recent financial audit) were a breach of privacy. They consulted both civil and canon lawyers.
By mid-October, Mother Millea announced that the latter set of questions had been dropped from the Visitation questionnaire and that those orders which had already sent in the information would have it returned to them or destroyed. She said: “The change in design of this questionnaire was made after listening to your concerns and after considerable prayer and counsel.” At the beginning of November, after a barrage of press reports, including a particularly scathing and badly informed article by the high-profile New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Cardinal Rodé finally agreed to address journalists on the question of the Apostolic Visitation.
In a statement he said: “This Apostolic Visitation hopes to encourage vocations and assure a better future for women religious.” Cardinal Rodé spoke about the Visitation again the next day, saying that an “important representative of the US Church warned me about certain irregularities or deficiencies in the lives of American women religious”.
“It can be said especially of a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist’ spirit,” he said.
As the deadline for the responses to the questionnaire approached at the end of November, the National Catholic Reporter reported that the majority of women religious were not complying with the questionnaire. Using confidential sources, the newspaper suggested that only half of the responses were accounted for and, of that number, only one per cent had fully completed the questionnaire.
The article quoted one anonymous woman religious “familiar with the responses compiled by the congregation leaders”. She said: “There’s been an almost universal resistance. We’re saying ‘enough!’ In my 40 years in religious life I have never seen such unanimity.” While the visitators admitted they had received some incomplete responses, Mother Millea told the Catholic News Service: “The Apostolic Visitation office continues to receive many fine responses to the questionnaires from major superiors and is in the process of reviewing these responses. Because of the confidential nature of the Visitation, the office is not at liberty to disclose the number of responses received or from whom.” Despite the pitfalls and the difficulties the Visitation is due to move ahead into its last phase, when visitors will head to the different communities to conduct on-site studies. Not all the communities in the United States will be visited, but Mother Millea is putting together teams of Apostolic Visitors from the women and men suggested by the different congregations so that they can begin to visit the selected communities in early 2010. The controversies are to likely rumble on especially in this ultra-sensitive phase.