27 April 2015, The Tablet

US nuns’ relief that the Vatican’s investigation fizzled out

by Professor Margaret Susan Thompson

For those who watch the Vatican closely – and I am not usually one of them – two hints appeared late in 2014 that a resolution to the “doctrinal assessment” of America’s Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was close at hand.

The first came in an interview with Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, broadcast on the US newsweekly 60 Minutes on 16 November, in which the prelate declared the inquiry to be a “disaster”. As the only American member of Pope Francis’ “C8” advisory council, and a vowed Religious himself, O’Malley’s remarks inevitably were heard as more than personal opinion and as a clue that those at the highest levels of church leadership wanted the controversy to go away.

Sr Sharon Holland at VaticanOne month later, in a globally broadcast press conference from Rome that many observers characterised as a “lovefest,” officials of the Congregation for Religious (CICLSAL) and leaders of both LCWR and the more conservative Consortium of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) announced an end to the separate but simultaneous Apostolic Visitation of US women’s congregations. As an aside to her remarks that day, LCWR President Sr Sharon Holland, IHM, declared that she anticipated the doctrinal assessment would conclude “sooner rather than later”.

Both O’Malley and Holland were proven to be prescient last week when, on 16 April – four months to the day after the Visitation report was issued – the leaders of LCWR flew to Rome for the release of a statement calling the oversight of LCWR to an end. In the presence of both Gerhard Cardinal Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain (who chaired the three-man team charged with “overseeing” the sisters’ umbrella group), a brief report was issued; later that day, the LCWR leaders met with Pope Francis himself (a first for LCWR).

The report itself was brief. The sisters agreed to have “competent theologians” review their publications, assembly speakers, and award recipients– but there is nothing to suggest that these authorities cannot be chosen by LCWR, perhaps from among their own members. The conference also adopted (last August, at the annual meeting of its membership) a new bye-law emphasising the centrality of the teachings of Jesus and of the Church to their mission and ministries. There was no indication that these had not been central in the past, or that anything specific needed to be changed.

Both the prelates and the sisters have agreed to a 30-day period of silence, while many questions about specifics necessarily remain unanswered. And, to be sure, the “devil may be in the details” – details that will take some time to be illuminated. As of now, however, most observers agree that the ill-advised investigation begun under the previous pontificate, and at the initiative of then-head of the CDF, William Cardinal Levada (another American), ended with a whimper rather than a bang – something that current Vatican leaders, up to the highest levels, unquestionably desired, and that most women religious in the US greeted with relief, if not jubilation.

But an equally important takeaway is the widespread admiration expressed by so many for the sisters during the six-year ordeal. While some, especially in the press, were frustrated by their unwillingness to speak publicly and by their general restraint, what became clear over the years were the constancy, prayerfulness and commitment with which these American sisters continued to conduct themselves, even as their very integrity and autonomy were being challenged.

What a difference a (change of) Pope makes, yes—but what a difference a group of remarkable sisters, confident in their collective collaboration and contemplative strength has made, as well. Together, they have taught the Church a lesson about the ongoing reality of the Way of the Cross and, importantly, what follows in its aftermath.

Margaret Susan Thompson is Professor of History at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, New York

Above: Sr Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, with Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, at a December Vatican press conference on the release of the final report of a Vatican-ordered investigation of US communities of women Religious. Photo: CNS

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User comments (7)

Comment by: Gabe
Posted: 29/04/2015 06:24:54

The Vatican finally realized that they were investigating the wrong people! I admired the way the LCWR responded with prayer and respectfulness while the cardinals and bishops were throwing around insults and meanness.

Comment by: Tony de New York
Posted: 27/04/2015 21:04:07

In the 60's there were about 150 thousand nuns, now 2015, less than 40 thousand. The average age is 70.

Sad end.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 27/04/2015 18:55:27

Nunsuch the LCWR not only failed to refute the statement made at their conference, in 2012, the same year as the Vatican enquiry began, the conference hosted philosopher Barbara Marx Hubbard, an author and promoter of “Conscious Evolution” as the keynote speaker for their annual General Assembly. The concept has since featured heavily in LCWR materials. If you allow what effectively is Gnosticism to have such prominence, unless you are hard of thinking, you know what is likely to follow.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 27/04/2015 18:36:52

Aloyisius, I like your comments very much. If only the LCWR had put forward such a cogent argument they might not have been the cause of so much time and money being wasted.

Comment by: Aloysius Beebwa
Posted: 27/04/2015 15:58:08

Following Jesus and his teachings is something that makes the keen follower restless. There is a restlessness that goes with contemplating Jesus who came to offer life to the full, and did it often urgently. We see him healing on the Sabbath, touching lepers, stooping and washing the feet of his disciples, etc. In doing these acts he announces the immediacy and presence of the Kingdom of his Dad; a Kingdom that is inclusive; that is naturally open to all people, regardless of how our human eyes look at reality----often in very limited and prejudiced ways. I think the attempt to intrude in the affairs of the American sisters had something to do with fear of the consequences of following Jesus very closely and very radically. The great news is that we can celebrate that this investigation has ended more or less amicably; 'with a whimper rather a bang'. Time tends to be a great teacher. We shall learn more of how this came about as time unfolds. But i tend to think that there are some confident and servant leaders who have emerged over the last few years, and can see beyond power and patriarchy, and can discern the Spirit who blows where the Spirit wills through the Sisters' choice to live and work with the Poor! And we the Poor are so diverse!

Aloysius Beebwa ( abeebwa@hotmail.com)

Comment by: nunsuch
Posted: 27/04/2015 15:48:01

Nonsense. You are citing an out-of-context passage from a talk given at LCWR, in which it was stated that a FEW sisters (NOT members of LCWR) might be exploring such ideas. This was hardly an "assertion "by LCWR." If you are going to engage in hyperbole, at least base it minimally on reality.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 27/04/2015 13:40:13

"a new bye-law emphasising the centrality of the teachings of Jesus and of the Church to their mission and ministries."
In every sense of the word, unbelievable. The LCWR brought this entirely upon themselves by their frankly crack pot behaviour. Their assertion in 2007 about having moved beyond Christ was an ill thought out and utterly provocative piece of silliness. Surely they can't have been so daft as to think The Vatican would let that go.

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