I had done some entries on American nuns last year (Jan 14, 19, Feb 2, 15 2011) but to be honest I had begun to lose interest not because I don’t like nuns or there aren’t interesting, but because it seemed that everyone else—nuns, bishops, Catholics, even the Vatican—had lost interest in this investigation. The nuns themselves at first whined a bit about the “visitation” with its forms to be filled out and interviews but then it didn’t seem that bad or that thorough. Only a fraction of communities were being interviewed and the questionnaires seemed reasonable. The American bishops made it clear that they weren’t interested in upsetting this apple cart and they weren’t going to foot the bill for it. That was a problem. The nuns didn’t want this investigation and they weren’t going to pay for it. The bishops weren’t going to pay for it. The Vatican suddenly lost interest in a thorough investigation if they had to pay for it. The whole project seemed to just—well, pardon the language—self-abort. The Apostolic Visitator in charge of the project, Mother Mary Clare Millea, American Born (now living in Rome) Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, muddled through as best she could with the little or no support she was being given from anyone. By the way, Mother Mary Clare might be from a rather conservative congregation of religious herself, but she is one sharp woman with a very impressive curriculum vitae and excellent academic degrees to her credit. She managed to finish her report and submit it some months back and then wham, yesterday, came the Vatican response which seemed to have nothing to do with Millea’s report. And it didn’t. It was written before she had ever submitted it. The whole thing was a sham. Mother Mary Clare was tricked out and led around the ring like a show pony in that Roman Circus. My buddies in Rome say that she is angry and mortified that her good faith was betrayed and she was used by Americans in the Curia who want to “rein in” the American Sisters. While Mother Mary Clare’s views on religious life might be different than many of the Religious Sisters whose congregations she visitated she was, by her own admission, impressed by the energy and creativity and faithfulness of those more left-wing nuns. She had formed friendships and relationships of trust with the Sisters whom she was sent to investigate. And now that friendship and trust was betrayed by men who have their own agendas that have little or nothing to do with the fine work being done by American Religious Sisters in the American Church.
However, it is still too soon to go out and invest in nuns’ veiling. The Vatican decree will prove to have very little effect for several reasons.
1. While the groups visitated and reported on were the individual congregations of sisters, the group “under attack” by the Vatican are not those congregations but an association to which those congregations belong, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Decision making authority lies not with the association but with the individual congregations, each of which are self-governing.
2. Most of the congregations of American Sisters that belong to the LCWR such as the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), etc. are part of international “orders” (congregations actually) with a Superior General in Rome and a General Chapter to whom they are responsible and over whom the local bishop has no direct jurisdiction. Archbishop Sartain, whom the Vatican has charged with implementing changes may be able to bring change to the LCWR but will not be able to challenge the individual congregations who are subject directly only to the Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life. Some congregations such as the Sisters of Mercy do not have a Superior General but their international character will also sidetrack Archbishop Sartain’s ability to exercise authority over them.
3. As most American Sisters no longer are involved in educational work on a parochial or diocesan level, but now are involved in ministries outside Church structures—social work, higher education, counseling services, political activism—there is no effective way for local bishops—or even the Holy See—to discipline them in order to force compliance with hierarchical authority.
4. The sisters themselves are highly educated and capable women who are long beyond the point of “taking orders.” They are not going to submit themselves passively to authority when are have become used to be self-governing. Already many groups of Sisters have opted for their communities to be extra-canonical—that is, non-recognized associations of lay women. As such they are not under the canons governing religious life and the institutional Church has no more ability to make decisions for them than for other lay people.
5. While a lot of American Catholics miss the days of veiled or bonneted nuns teaching their children for First Communion, the laity are far more trusting of these blue-haired matrons with their lapel crosses than the men in red dresses whether in Rome or in the local chancery office. I knew this when I was in first grade with Sister Gravitas Marie and I know it now: you’re not going to win a pissing contest with a nun. The moral authority of the hierarchy has been gutted over the last twenty years but the nuns stand firm in the regard of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Even those whose knuckles still have the scars of a nun’s ruler and may have some lasting resentment about that, will come to the defense of the nuns if the attackers are priests or bishops.
6. And finally—and sadly—the nuns are on the way out. For a variety of reasons, not all of which are bad, while nuns (i.e. contemplative or “cloistered” religious) will survive, the apostolic congregations of Sisters are filling cemetery plots not novitiates. We will look at this, perhaps in our next entry. But the fact of the matter is that all the women have to do is drag their heels and victory, though pyrrhic, will be theirs.