U.S. Nuns and the Vatican

DEBORAH POTTER, guest anchor: An association of Catholic women religious leaders is asking the Vatican why the group is being investigated. The leadership conference that represents almost all of the Catholic religious orders in the United States is the target of a “doctrinal assessment,” the results of which will be a secret report to Rome. The group was warned eight years ago that it had failed to promote some of the church’s teachings, including the male-only priesthood. A separate “apostolic visitation” is looking into what the Vatican calls “the quality of the life” of all 60,000 American Catholic sisters.

Joining us now to discuss these investigations is Tom Fox, editor of the independent newspaper the National Catholic Reporter. Thanks for joining us.

TOM FOX (Editor, National Catholic Reporter): Great to be here.

POTTER: Tom, I wonder if you could tell us what appears to be behind these investigations or, maybe put another way, what does it seem that the Vatican is after?

MR. FOX: Well, the truth is that no one really knows, and that’s one of the disconcerting elements. This really has taken the women by surprise. They met, as you said, with the Vatican eight years ago and went over certain matters, and every year since then they’ve been returning to Rome talking to Vatican officials, been open for communication, and now, out of seemingly nowhere, comes these investigations.

POTTER: Why do you think it might be happening now? Has there been some kind of change in the make-up of religious orders, or is it just changing philosophies in Rome that might be pushing this forward?

MR. FOX: Well, there’s been a conflict going back 40 years, since the Second Vatican Council, between two models of church. One is the more conservative, traditional model, male-clergy-hierarchical model, and the second has been the model of the Second Vatican Council, which stressed collegiality, and the women religious of America really embraced that, and they changed their constitutions to become more collective in their own leadership. And they really represent the forefront of this second model of church. And I think today the older, more conservative model feels that it’s strong enough now, maybe, to rein in this last remnant of the Second Vatican Council.

POTTER: So is it in effect a sort of push to reestablish a kind of orthodoxy in the Catholic Church in America?

MR. FOX: I think that there’s a continued concern by the Vatican that American Catholics are not orthodox enough, that the women religious may not be orthodox, but let’s be clear this that this is not on traditional teachings on God, Trinity, Jesus. This is—these are teachings on homosexuality, on the male priesthood, and the primacy of the Catholic Church.

POTTER: And yet that seems pretty central to what concerns the Vatican.

MR. FOX: That’s a very central concern, at this point, to the Vatican.

POTTER: So what, then, are the wider implications of an investigation into the women religious for the Catholic Church in America?

MR. FOX: Right. That’s a good question, and I think women religious say that this really represents an investigation or an attack, if you will, on the American way of being church, which really has stressed more lay involvement, more religious involvement, collegiality, more accountability of—demanded of the bishops, and so we’re really seeing here maybe the clash of two models, and I think the women religious are right that this really is wider than just the women religious themselves.

POTTER: Now, there have been some discussions that perhaps what the Vatican’s really doing is sort of assessing property for its value. Does that have any bearing, do you think, any validity?

MR. FOX: Well, again, Deborah, the fact is that no one really knows, and so you end up in this speculation, and of course there have been millions of dollars in lawsuits against the Church, and the Church is hurting for money, and so some of the women are at least speculating that Rome wants a better assessment of their property values and—with an eye on maybe using some of that money to pay some of these bills.

POTTER: Obviously, we’ll be watching this and report the results when we can get them. Tom, I appreciate you being here. Tom Fox from the National Catholic Reporter.

  • mom of a religious

    My daughter has been in the Dominican convent for 6 years and is one of the joyful young women wearing a full habit, praying in community several times a day, praying to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, following and supporting all of the teachings of the Catholic Church including the male priesthood, primacy of the Catholic Church and teachings on homosexuality and family planning. There are many young women who are eager to join this growing order. The convent she lives in was started by sisters from another Dominican convent in Nashville: see the related story :”Young Nuns” February 8, 2008.

  • Sister Zelda

    It is now 51 years since I took my high school diploma and my trunk 150 miles north to enter the convent. In my congregation, we have taken together an amazing journey from monastic religious life to apostolic religious life. I am pleased that young women today are beginning this journey. One cannot compare the happiness of the 20 year old with the happiness of the 60 year old. Together we can thank the one God who sets our hands to the plow, may we never look back!

  • MGCT

    One can pick the angle of a story by who is selected to be interviewed for the story. If the selections, for example, were from staff of “First Things”, “Our Sunday Visitor”, “St. Anthony Messenger”, “Catholic World Report”, or “The National Catholic Register”, we would have five different stories. For each one, you’d know about what you’d be getting. The selection and exclusive use of one source betrays in this case, an unfortunate editorial bias.

  • Gail Newcomb

    This is great, and as you say, there a many new orders who are following the roots of their foundress. BUT there are many orders who have abandoned not only the habit, but the original charisam and are trully struggling to survive. The are so business oriented, and hope the small amount of time they spend praying will continue to make them secure. It is very sad. This investigation is the best thing that is happening. In the schools, back 30-40 years ago, the feminist teachers first instilled, their agenda of being priest and many other oppressed situations to join their cause.
    THE CHURCH is our foundation, and has survived 2000 years. These imitators of Christ, will eventually be given a chance to repent. It takes 15 years just to investigate, but the change will come to these old orders.
    God bless all young people believing in Our Church and wearing the habit. Without it, there is no identity.

  • Francis Pimentel-Pinto

    This ‘case’ seems to indicate that the local Ordinaries are becoming increasingly incapable of acting as successors of the Apostles. I cannot imagine the Apostle Paul being unable to sort out the problems in his own ‘Community’!

  • Rondre

    I don’t think the investigation is about the teachings of the church but about how religious life is being lived in US. I was a religious for 20 years and the life evolved into “do your own thing and answer to no one”. That drove hundreds of us out of religious life. On the other hand most of these communities will be gone in 15 to 20 years, some sooner, so maybe they should let them just die out peacefully. They have no one to blame but themselves. Some very manipulating women in leadership positions after Vat II intimidated and harassed members of the community to vote and accept their way of living religious life.

  • kodirotti

    Every once in a while the Church has had to acknowledge the infiltration of the “less-than-truly-people” who claim to represent God’s teachings and Word, and thus the Church takes a long time to invest the allegations of impropriety and improper teachings. I believe the church takes such a long time in order to do a real investigation, not a headhunt. They want to give all parties ample time to explain their positions and views in full. This is not traffic court where the case can be tried in less than 15 minutes. Many of these go on for years. Eventually the real thruth will be exposed. In my opinion, the vast majority of teachings and practices of the “church” have been Americanized and bent toward reformation of God’s Word into a system of me-ism, basically the me-first attitude of the secular world. May God’s Word prevail, Amen.

  • Patrick Peter

    How sad that some people only see the way a Sister can serve and touch peoples lives is by wearing a habit. I thought that once upon a time too, until I worked with both. There are people God sends us to connect with and some wear a habit, and some arrive undercover. One never knows who the Angel is among us, yet we judge and snear, and rally around in some cases a Ego driven sense of idenity, and priviledge, or better than attitude. God The dedicated women who feel the need to marry the Pope, and all the baggage that comes with that marriage.

  • Donna Milam

    Tradition is there for a reason. Its the church doctrine. Our mother dressed very much like this so why are so many againest it? Only a nun can answer this question. My mother attended Fernden Academy for four years and was to become a nun with great pride. She met and married my father but has kept a very special relationship with Mother Mary ever since, and still gives her service in her church. God Bless all.

  • Marguerite

    Call me a cynic, but with all the closings of old churches that sit on valuable property and with all the money the Vatican has had to pay out in lawsuits and with the bad international economy, I believe this investigation is about the men in Rome who run the church looking for sources of money to maintain their lavish lifestyles and reinforce their continued power over The Church. All of this has started with our new pope, a man who for years claimed he had no interest in ever being pope, all the while stealthily campaigning. The need to return to tradition is most sorely seen in Rome itself.

  • Anita

    How dare the Vatican turn for so long their gaze upon the acts of priests and abusers and put up at this questionable time the acts of our nuns. They have been the one’s with the lay members to keep the church together.

    God Bless our Nuns!

  • (formerly Sr.) RoseAnne

    It saddens me to hear the anger expressed in the comments. There have always been justice issues everywhere,of course, and injustice only rage at the oppressorwill even the score. The abusive priests come immediately to mind, of course, but the great evil that was done was the whitewashing job by their superiors.
    As a teacher in a Catholic school, I found that the only ones who could live on the meager salaries were those whose spouses had a better paying job. A dear friend with 30+ years as a committed teacher still needs to work at 81 because of the equally meager pensions. When the subject came up, we were always told – with great condescension – that the privilege of being a Catholic school teacher far outweighed the low income. This, with the upper class male ministers under the same parish roof.
    But now, the American church, as someone said above, are the Sisters. But the American church are the lay people. And the American church are the priests [at least the ones who still know humility.] And the American church are the married couples, and the students, and the senior citizens, and the toddlers.
    When anyone of these is attacked, the others need to come to hold up the beseiged pillar.
    That.is the way of the Holy Spirit when She sees injustice.