The Vatican's unprecedented study of U.S. women's religious congregations, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's recently announced doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella group that represents 95 percent of U.S. sisters, could easily be interpreted as a double putdown of American women religious. The investigations have reportedly been undertaken at the request of some U.S. bishops (brothers, stand up and identify yourselves, please). More curiously, the person appointed by the Vatican to lead the “visitation” belongs to a group formed as an alternative to the LCWR.
Are U.S. sisters, and the LCWR in particular, the target of a clerical witch hunt?
Some notable sisters, including Anne Marie Mongoven, OP, and Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, both writing in the National Catholic Reporter, have respectfully raised serious concerns. A dispassionate reading of the Vatican's “working document” outlining the review (see Origins, August 13) only underscores those concerns; one is left with the impression that the Vatican suspects the decline in women's religious vocations in the United States (from roughly 181,000 in 1966 to 59,000 today) has been caused by the nuns themselves and their “quality of life.”
Still, the LCWR leadership reacted temperately. While admitting that it's not easy “when we find ourselves in someone else's cross hairs,” LCWR president J. Lora Dambroski, OSF, told the group's national assembly in New Orleans last month: “We embrace our time as holy...and our challenges as blessings.” In fact, she counseled, it is a gift to be “dislodged from our comfort zones,” and the Vatican's scrutiny should be an invitation to a new understanding and awareness of the presence of God.
Nonetheless, Dambroski drew a line. “We cannot go back,” she said. “We know too much, we've learned much, we have prayed and risked too much in response to the Spirit.... As we work for healing and reconciliation in our lives,” she told the sisters, “we know from the medical model that even when one recovers from an illness the body, the psyche, the spirit is not the same as it was in the past. We just can't go back; the call is always forward.”
This is the spirit Catholics have experienced—and come to expect—from U.S. nuns. Let the investigators come. The sisters will welcome them, and probably pay their way (as the Vatican has specifically asked them to do). And perhaps one day they can return the favor. If the pope ever decides to evaluate the curial bureaucracy, he could not find a more loyal, knowing, and efficient group to assist him than these American sisters.
Related: "Cross Examination," by Sister X