Saturday, August 8, 2009

Vatican Scrutiny Makes U.S. Sisters Uneasy

By Eric Gorski
Associated Press
Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Vatican-ordered investigation into Roman Catholic sisters in the United States, shrouded in mystery when it was announced seven months ago, is shaping up to be a tough examination of whether women's religious communities have strayed too far from church teaching.

The review "is intended as a constructive assessment and an expression of genuine concern for the quality of the life" of about 59,000 U.S. Catholic religious sisters, according to a Vatican working paper delivered in the past few days to leaders of 341 religious congregations.

But parts of the document seem to validate concerns expressed privately by some sisters that they're about to be dressed down or accused of being unfaithful to the church. The report, for example, asks religious communities to describe "the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church."

The investigation is focused on members of women's religious communities, or sisters. These are women who do social work, teach, work in hospitals and do other humanitarian work of the church. The investigation is not looking at cloistered communities, or nuns.

The report confirms suspicions that the Vatican is concerned about a drift to the left on doctrine, seeking answers about "the soundness of doctrine held and taught" by the women.

Other questions explore whether sisters take part in Mass daily and whether they follow the church's rules when they take part in liturgies. Church officials expect consistency in how rites and services are performed, with approved translations and Masses presided over by a priest.

The study, called an apostolic visitation, goes beyond fidelity to church teaching, with questions about efforts to promote vocations and management of finances.

Francine Cardman, associate professor of historical theology and church history at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry, said it isn't clear why these questions are being asked now in the United States.

She said the inquiry should be seen "as part of a much older tradition of misogyny in the church and especially distrust of women who are not directly and submissively under male, ecclesiastical control."

Conservative Catholics have long complained that the majority of sisters in the United States 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 same-sex 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 social activism.

More recently, a group of more tradition-minded women's religious orders have emerged, with members who dress in habits, emphasize fidelity to Rome and focus on education, health care and social work.

The Vatican is concerned about sisters' shrinking and aging ranks. The number in the United States declined from 173,865 in 1965 to 79,876 in 2000, 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.

The inquiry is being directed by Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a relatively conservative order whose members wear habits, unlike many U.S. sisters.

Millea has held meetings with heads of religious communities. Next, the superiors will be given detailed questionnaires to be completed in the fall.

The questionnaires will be followed by visits to selected congregations starting next year, and the process will conclude with a confidential report from Millea to the Vatican.

A spokeswoman for the apostolic visitation's Connecticut-based office said that Millea was not available for an interview and that the group's letter to the religious orders would stand as its statement.

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