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Vatican conducting sweeping investigations of American nuns

Some fear visits will target their modern lifestyles

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times / July 2, 2009
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The Vatican is quietly conducting two sweeping investigations of American nuns, a development that has startled nuns who fear they are the targets of a doctrinal inquisition.

Nuns were the often-unsung workers who helped build the Roman Catholic Church in this country, planting schools and hospitals and keeping parishes humming. But for the last three decades, their numbers have been declining - to 60,000 today from 180,000 in 1965.

While some nuns say they are grateful that the Vatican is finally paying attention to their dwindling communities, many fear that the real motivation is to reel in American nuns who have reinterpreted their calling for the modern world.

In the last four decades since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many American nuns stopped wearing their religious habits, left their convents to live independently, and went into new lines of work: academia and other professions, social and political advocacy, and grass-roots organizations that serve the poor or promote spirituality. A few nuns have also been active in organizations that advocate changes in the church like ordaining women.

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers, and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“They think of us as an ecclesiastical workforce,’’ said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a workforce, are just not on the same planet.’’

The more extensive of the two investigations is called an “Apostolic Visitation,’’ and the Vatican has provided only a vague rationale for it: to “look into the quality of the life’’ of women’s religious institutes. The visitation is being conducted by Mother Mary Clare Millea, an apple-cheeked American with a black habit and smiling eyes, who is the superior general of her order, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and lives in Rome.

In an interview in a formal sitting room at her order’s US headquarters in Hamden, Conn., Clare said she had already met one-on-one with 127 superiors general of women’s orders, many in that room but also in Chicago, Los Angeles, Rome, and St. Louis. She is preparing questionnaires to send to each congregation of women and recruiting teams of investigators, mostly nuns and some priests, who will make visits to congregations that she selects. The visitation focuses only on nuns actively engaged in working in society and the church, not cloistered, contemplative nuns.

Millea’s task is to prepare a confidential report to the Vatican on the state of each of about 340 qualified congregations of nuns in the United States, as well as a summary with her recommendations, all of which she hopes to complete by mid-2011.

The investigation was ordered by Cardinal Franc Rode, head of the Vatican office that deals with religious orders. In a speech in Massachusetts last year, Rode offered barbed criticism of some American nuns “who have opted for ways that take them outside’’ the church.