The Vatican defended its review of U.S. women’s religious orders on Tuesday amid criticism from the sisters that the process is secretive and amounts to a crackdown.
The Vatican ordered up the review in December, saying it wanted to study the quality of life of the 59,000 members in more than 400 Catholic women’s religious institutes amid a steep decline in their numbers.
But the sisters have both publicly and privately raised questions about the true aims of the study and whether it wasn’t really an investigation into whether they have strayed too far from church teaching.
Cardinal Franc Rode, who heads the Vatican office in charge of the review, said Tuesday the apostolic visitation was no crackdown but instead aimed to assure a better future for U.S. sisters.
At the same time, though, he said the questions U.S. sisters were being asked about their lives will provide a “realistic and graced opportunity for personal and community introspection.”
“To date, I am encouraged by the efforts to identify the signs of hope, as well as concerns, within religious congregations in the United States, which are also likely to have implications elsewhere in the world,” he said in a statement.
He added that at least some of the data gathered during the review will be publicized. The sisters have denounced what they say is a lack of transparency in the process and their inability to dispute the findings before the final conclusions are made.
The Vatican study was ordered up after four decades of declining numbers of U.S. sisters: In 1965, they numbered 173,865; by 2000 there were only 79,876, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The average age of a member of a women’s religious community was between 65 and 70 in 1999.
At the same time, conservative Catholics have long complained that the majority of sisters in the U.S. have grown too liberal and flout church teaching. Some have taken provocative stands, advocating for female priests or challenging church teaching against abortion rights or gay marriage.
After Vatican II, many sisters embraced Catholic teaching against war and nuclear weapons and for workers rights, shed their habits and traditional roles as teachers or hospital workers and took up activism.
More recently, a group of more tradition-minded women’s religious orders have emerged, with members who dress in habits, show fidelity to Rome and focus on education, health care and social work.
Skepticism about the Vatican’s true intentions grew after another Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced it would be conducting a simultaneous “doctrinal assessment” into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association that gathers the leaders of most of the country’s women’s congregations. That study was announced amid concerns the leadership wasn’t toeing the Vatican line on homosexuality and other issues.
In the Oct. 9 issue of Commonweal magazine, the U.S. religious affairs journal, a member of a religious order identified only as Sister X — because she feared retribution for speaking out — said the Vatican investigations amounted to bullying of America’s sisters.
“One suspects that Rome’s interventions will hardly promote vocations to women’s religious communities,” Sister X wrote. “Any pastoral invitation to dialogue in the current visitation has largely been compromised” by the Vatican’s simultaneous doctrinal investigation.
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