Cross Examination

Why Is Rome Investigating U.S. Nuns?

I have been a religious sister for more than thirty years, part of a community that has been active in this country for over a century, and whose work centers on teaching and health care. Our order belongs to an umbrella organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents 95 percent of U.S. Catholic women’s congregations.

Thanks to recent Vatican actions, the LCWR has garnered a few headlines. In February the Vatican announced it would conduct a three-year “visitation” to assess the “quality of life” of American sisters. A month later, the president of LCWR received a letter from Cardinal William Levada, formerly archbishop of San Francisco and now head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), informing her that there would also be an investigation, or “doctrinal assessment,” of the Leadership Conference itself. Certain problems, Levada explained, needed to be addressed. As it turns out, these have to do with the LCWR’s alleged failure to express sufficiently rigorous doctrinal compliance with several recent church documents. Evidently, the Vatican is concerned that the LCWR has not been forthcoming about the magisterium’s teachings regarding the ordination of women, the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions, and the “intrinsically disordered” nature of homosexual acts.

The Vatican’s visitation—conducted under the auspices of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL)—does not assess the “quality of life” of cloistered orders of Carmelites, Benedictines, Dominicans, or other communities devoted to the monastic contemplative life. Neither does it assess international congregations with members working in the United States whose central motherhouses are outside this country. Rather, the visitation exclusively targets active women religious whose centers and houses of formation are in the United States—women educated here and trained for religious life here, women who work with major health-care and educational institutions in this country, and who collaborate with one another financially on ministerial projects such as peace and justice ministries.

Why are American sisters being singled out? One widely shared area of concern, of course, is the dramatic drop in vocations in recent decades. Forty years ago, there were 180,000 vowed sisters across the country; today there are fewer than 60,000. Yet the number of priests has also dropped precipitously during the same period, leaving more than 10 percent of parishes without resident pastors. Why isn’t the priest shortage the subject of a visitation? And during the same period U.S. bishops have presided over a sexual-abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic community more than $2 billion and the episcopacy much of its moral credibility. So why no visitation for the bishops?

I want to offer my own view, as an ordinary member of a congregation that belongs to the LCWR, of what is happening to American sisters.

Let me begin by saying that I want to believe in the good will of the institutional church. An essential part of my commitment to Christ is a belief in the holiness of the church; that is what I professed when I took my vows. For me, religious life outside the structure of the institutional church is hardly imaginable. I love the church. I love its vision of God, its Scriptures and sacraments, its heritage, its tradition of faithful change, its saints and thinkers. I believe in its mission and future.

Yet my reaction to the visitation, and especially to the prospect of “doctrinal assessment,” contains more than a little skepticism. While I’m glad for a chance to “let Rome know the truth” about our lives and our devotion to Christ, I can’t help suspecting that those behind these initiatives are not primarily interested in the quality of my spiritual life. To put it bluntly, I feel that American women religious are being bullied. The fact that the visitation is apparently being paid for by anonymous donors, and that the leaders of our communities will not be permitted to see the investigative reports that issue from it, does not engender trust. And indeed, the dynamics of the visitation and investigation so far have been experienced by women religious as secretive, unfriendly, and one-sided.

The implicit accusation underlying the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR is that its leaders are not Catholic enough in the church’s eyes. Having lived, worked, and prayed with these women for decades, I find this suggestion both insulting and absurd—so absurd, in fact, that one wonders whether the investigation is actually meant to undermine confidence in women’s leadership of their own congregations. Canon law, as well as the constitutions of our congregations, ensures that vowed members can freely elect our own leaders, rather than have them imposed on the community by a bishop. Like those in other vowed religious congregations, I have acted on the belief that democratic governance of my community is ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit. In helping me choose our leadership, I have relied on my knowledge of my sisters’ gifts and my history of prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit. Yet Cardinal Levada now informs me that the doctrinal integrity of those leaders is questionable.

The threat of disciplinary action makes it difficult for women religious to speak out on this topic. That is why I am writing anonymously. I happen to trust my local bishop and thank my lucky stars for him. But what if a bishop from some other diocese, or an American cleric at the Vatican—or a bishop on a USCCB committee who wanted to make a show of doctrinal orthodoxy-decided to target me for what I have written? This has happened to other sisters. In the current climate, would my bishop be willing to violate the tacit norm that bishops “don’t criticize one another in public” by intervening to defend me? I don’t want to put him in such a position.

And that’s not the only worry. When a bishop wants to go after an individual sister—to “make an example of that nun”—he often has some Vatican office write a letter to the superior or the president of her congregation, pressuring the leadership to “do something.” The rule is judgment first, evidence later; and if the women in leadership don’t do something to punish the allegedly wayward sister, the Vatican will move against them. It’s a form of collective punishment, and the threat keeps rank-and-file women religious silent on controversial topics—such as the visitation. And so with a few notable exceptions, such as Sisters Joan Chittister, OSB, and Sandra Schneiders, IHM, the rank and file has been silent about the visitation since it began nine months ago. Members don’t want to say anything that will draw down the Vatican’s wrath on their leadership.

Cardinal Levada has delegated the work of doctrinal assessment of the LCWR to Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio. Bishop Blair seems a genial man; yet his dissertation for his doctorate at the Angelicum in Rome was titled “Masculine and Feminine Symbolism in the Church: A Reappreciation of the Marian/Feminine Dimension.” I’m sorry, but I tend to get nervous when bishops start expatiating on the symbolism of the eternal feminine. Bishop Blair was also a member of a bishops’ committee that was scheduled to meet at the University of Notre Dame last year, but moved the meeting off campus to protest a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Suffice it to say, most bishops are good and well-meaning men; still, it is the rare bishop who has any real understanding of the lives women actually lead.

Let’s back up a bit and ask: Where did the impetus for the visitation and investigation originate? During a visit to Rome last April, several officers of the Leadership Conference put this question to Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of CICLSAL, and were informed that the initiative had been suggested by American members of the curia, some U.S. bishops, and some members of religious communities. Cardinal Rodé told LCWR officers that “concerns” had been expressed on issues ranging from living arrangements to the lack of new vocations to the public positions some women religious take on topics such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, and abortion.

In early August, the Vatican made available the twelve-page Instrumentum laboris that outlined the visitation process. The document’s provisions are not reassuring. For instance, no women representatives of American congregations are slated to speak to Cardinal Rodé; nor will any be allowed to read a draft of the report submitted to him by the appointed “visitator,” Mother Mary Clare Millea, ACSJ. Thus, no congregational president will have the chance to qualify the report’s evaluation or dispute its conclusions—or even to see a list of the American cardinals and bishops who recommended the study in the first place. Such secrecy does not create a climate in which the church’s pastoral outreach can be effectively communicated; and one suspects that Rome’s interventions will hardly promote vocations to women’s religious communities.

There are other concerns. Being a pontifical institute, rather than a diocesan congregation, carries the privilege of self-governance, which protects women religious from a local bishop’s intrusion into their internal life and governance. Or, it’s supposed to. Ominously, the visitation initiative calls for a willingness on the part of visitation team members to make a public profession of faith and take an oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See. The visitation decree instructs the apostolic visitator to “seek information from those diocesan bishops” where the sisters’ “general houses, provincial houses, and centers of initial formation are located.” That reinforces the suspicion that some diocesan bishops, still trying to reclaim the moral authority lost in the sexual-abuse scandals, want to assert personal and jurisdictional authority over women religious. Some women’s communities, to be honest, also worry about designs bishops might have on appropriating their properties.

The inquisitorial spirit behind the current initiative contrasts sharply with that taken by Pope John Paul II in the early 1980s, documented in Religious Life in the U.S. Church: The New Dialogue (1984). Then, the pope asked bishops to assist in a process aimed at strengthening and encouraging religious life for women. The purpose was to widen a dialogue between U.S. religious and U.S. bishops, and between members of U.S. religious communities and the church as a whole. It was a credible effort to help create a greater sense of communion in the church surrounding the role of vowed women and men. This was an era when many women religious participated in cross-congregational discussions in a sincere effort to reach out to their bishops and to the church as a whole; in that context, an invitation to dialogue by John Paul II was heard and responded to with gratitude and candor. Today, the Vatican’s interest in American women alone has the feel—at best—of an examination. Any pastoral invitation to dialogue in the current visitation has largely been compromised by Cardinal Levada’s simultaneous investigation of the LCWR’s doctrinal orthodoxy.

The plain fact is: Since the early 1980s the Vatican has not seemed interested in hearing what women religious themselves think about the quality of life in their own communities. This lack of interest puzzles and disappoints. These women are members of congregations that have taught in Catholic grade schools and high schools, academies and colleges. They are the sisters who staffed hospitals and still sponsor health-care systems throughout the United States; who have pooled millions of dollars in sisterly commitment to relieve homelessness; who have formed national coalitions, partnering with local and national government, to provide and manage low-cost housing projects.

These are the same women religious who for years have asked the laity—begged is really the word—to contribute to the Retirement Fund for Religious, a national effort to shore up religious communities’ inadequate retirement funds. This effort is needed because nuns have been woefully underpaid by parishes and dioceses, and received no pensions as teachers in Catholic parish schools; their subsidized housing evaporated decades ago, as pastors found alternative uses for convents. When thinking about women religious, Catholics often assume that “the church is taking care of them.” I have to remind people that there is no check in the mail from the Vatican or from local bishops to women religious. Residences and medical care for retired priests are taken care of by dioceses. Religious communities are on their own. Sisters who served in diocesan ministries still must provide for their own retirement and medical coverage.

Instead of extending a helping hand, however, Rome evidently wants the minds and hearts of American sisters to be retested for orthodoxy. It’s not lifelong fidelity to the church that matters, but conformity of mind to current formulations of doctrine, formulations that theologians and even bishops have not reached a consensus on. Why demand such uniformity of opinion from the LCWR, which is not a theological organization? Why is Rome demanding submission from women religious to church teachings that honestly perplex most Catholics?

The assumption seems to be that in putting aside our habits and moving out of parish convents, we somehow misplaced our true charism. I can tell you that this view of vowed religious women is nothing more than caricature. I admire my community’s practical innovations since taking up the call of the council to adapt our ministry and community life to the needs of our times, to renew our spiritual life, and to follow Christ by retrieving the charism of our founder. Since I entered religious life, my community has continued to serve the church in our traditional ministries while encouraging a flowering of new initiatives that, I am sure, would have delighted our founder.

Several months ago, a well-regarded U.S. bishop remarked to a gathering of clergy and laity that he understood his ordination as bishop as a mandate to carry out the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He sensed that there has been a pulling-back from such efforts, and lamented the retreat, asserting that if he ever had to make a choice between carrying out this mandate and being obedient to Rome, “I would resign.” In light of his remarks, one wonders whether the “quality of life” question about women religious is best understood as part of a battle among the bishops over the implementation of Vatican II. Is control over the lifestyle, dress, work-sphere, and public voice of women religious a matter of which side wins?

To be sure, how we are to interpret Perfectae caritatis, the council’s statement on the renewal of religious life, especially when read in the context of Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes, remains a source of deep contention in the church and even among women religious. The tension between “leaving the world” and “embracing the world” inevitably creates conflicts over how vowed religious life should be organized. Right now, Rome seems partial to an ecclesiology that emphasizes institutional boundaries rather than cooperative engagement with the larger world, and this bias raises the need for a theological dialogue in which women religious explain why they discarded the habit, embraced new ministries, and yet managed to preserve a faithful spiritual life even when they lived outside the walls of a convent building.**

I am proud of my community’s support for members who went back to school for higher degrees and began doing new kinds of work. Reflecting the call of the council, the LCWR’s sense of religious commitment is shaped by dialogue with the world and its political systems. For almost three decades, the organization’s public resolutions have reflected a focus on issues addressed by U.S. bishops: universal access to health care and economic justice for all; protection of refugees and immigrants; opposition to war-making, the death penalty, and apartheid; promotion of the human rights of women; revocation of debt for poor countries; and care for the environment. For the member communities of LCWR, vows include taking public stands on social and political issues; the group’s Web site broadcasts its mission “to advocate against poverty, racism, powerlessness, or any other form of violence or oppression.”

An exhibit sponsored by the LCWR, and currently traveling across the United States under the title “Women and Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America,” honors Catholic sisters and their contributions to national life and culture. The exhibit chronicles a nearly two-hundred-year period in which vowed women came to this country and built motherhouses, hospitals, schools, orphanages, and training centers. Attracting new members, they became embedded in the fabric of American society, defining Catholic life while ministering and supporting the growth of the church over many decades of service. Are the cardinals and bishops who suggested the visitation and investigation interested in this rich history, and in women’s thoughts about their vocational commitment? These bishops want to know why things aren’t the way they used to be, but they don’t seem to want to hear the answer from religious women.

Perhaps there exists a basic problem of communication. Perhaps the personal and interpretive language women religious speak to each other is not sufficiently “Vaticanese.” The theological worldview of women has evolved in ways that bishops may not understand, let alone accept. When I entered religious life after Vatican II, it was already taken for granted in sister-formation that the traditional language and categories of theology, mysticism, and spirituality were not adequate to express and account for the development of the person within religious life. Traditionally, of course, women religious often described themselves as “brides of Christ.” Today, however, thanks to what we have learned from modern scriptural scholarship and the work of feminist Christian thinkers about the role of women in the early church, women religious have sought to reclaim their historical roles alongside “the twelve” as followers of Jesus, community leaders, and missionaries. Our directors introduced us to the basics of religious life: union with God in prayer, identity with the church, Scripture, the vows, mission and apostolate, community life. But we also read sociology, psychology, and literature. Along with our Vatican II documents and the Jerusalem Bible, we read Jung, historical novels, and poetry. Our retreats included the Psalms, but also meditative films about nature. There was a great effort to integrate our spiritual life with “real life.” We came to identify ourselves with Mary, whom Jesus himself called “woman” in John’s Gospel, and with Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the Resurrection; or with one of the healed women in the Gospel who goes out and tells others about her life-changing experience, and attracts others to come to Jesus too. It was a process that has served me and many others well, enabling women religious to create a whole body of self-explanatory narrative, reflection, and theological analysis.

Did it also accelerate a growing distrust between sisters and the episcopacy? That distrust has been present for a long time. In the late 1960s, after Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre ordered the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to get back into their habits and classrooms or get out of the diocese, the LCWR tried to address issues of women’s ministerial equality. Later, in 1976, came Inter insigniores, the CDF’s “definitive” rejection of the possibility of ordination for women. It shut down any formal discussion of women’s equality in the church. For many women religious, the emphasis shifted then to social-justice concerns.

Since then, Rome has been busy shoring up its doctrinal barricades, and in the process has seemed intent on casting feminism into the outer darkness. Under John Paul II, the Vatican became enamored with a reading of Scripture and the tradition as calling on every woman to understand herself spiritually as “spouse.” I find this at odds with the presentation of women in Scripture, and would point out that Jesus uses neither spousehood nor marriage as a model for discipleship. Quite the contrary. This reductionist anthropology, moreover, has become so arcane and removed from real life that much of what is written about how the church understands sexual symbolism has taken on a frankly gnostic character. Do we really want to limit our notions of the essential nature and meaning of embodiment to little more than the physical function of father and mother and the social relationship of bridegroom and bride, husband and wife? Again and again in recent years, this seems to be Rome’s mantra. Particularly offensive was the 2004 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World, issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which demeaned feminist theory as inimical to the common good of the church, the family, and society, and as the logical outcome of this analysis argued against women’s ordination. In my opinion, his letter expressed a great deal of hostility to what women have attempted to say about themselves for the past forty years. It hardly encouraged dialogue.

What I sense today is that the Vatican will not budge in how it thinks theologically about what it means to be a woman; nor will it consider opening positions of real ecclesial authority to women. There is simply no getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican doesn’t want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars, and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s—and that means men’s—voice and views. But we are not “men” or “mankind.” We are persons with minds and hearts and voices, who have lived lives of integrity and loyalty, and who remain loyal to this church, even when it treats us as second-class citizens and makes us beg for financial support in our old age.

Since Rome wants to know about the quality of my life as a religious sister, let me tell you about a common form of liturgical life in my community. At our cemetery we recently observed the gravesite rite for a deceased sister. No priest was there. One sister led the prayer, and another sprinkled holy water, while the rest of us made the responses. Few of sister’s family members—nieces and nephews living many states away—were able to attend. In the end, we sisters are in effect the family, enacting one of the rights—called “suffrages after death”—that women religious have as a result of taking vows. Taking end-of-life responsibility for one another means a Catholic funeral, burial with your community members, and the prayers and remembrances of those with whom you “persevered unto death.”

Earlier that day we had been lucky to find a kindly but frail eighty-plus priest to say the funeral Mass at the motherhouse. Priests’ numbers have dropped, even in a metropolitan area like ours, and it’s all “retired” priests can do to manage multiple Masses and pastoral services at some local parish. Consequently, women religious aren’t at all assured of having daily Eucharist—the practice that grounded their spirituality for most of their lives as religious and one that is fundamental to their congregational constitutions. (Cardinal Rodé and his consultors would do well to ponder the relationship between Vatican policy and the “quality of life” of women religious: the refusal to ordain women has created a shortage of priests, and the quality of nuns’ spiritual and sacramental life has suffered accordingly.)

Fortunately, despite the crisis in priesthood, there were men present to serve us in conducting our sister’s last rituals on earth. I’m referring to the unionized cemetery crew. Until “the job moment,” they awkwardly stood at the edge of our prayer circle. One in muddy Levis discreetly chewed gum. Another had a plastic water bottle jammed into a back pocket of his raggedy khakis. Not exactly vestments. Finally the “job moment” had come. Balancing on their grass-stained, thick-soled sneakers, the four men carefully coordinated the sets of tightly woven, three-inch-wide straps around the coffin. Two quickly pulled away the steel beams holding the coffin above the open grave. The coffin’s weight shifted to the straps, and letting out the strap length evenly, fist over wrist, they skillfully lowered the coffin till it touched bottom.

Like other nuns, our deceased sister had put in many years of six-and-a-half-day work weeks, with lots of walking in the days before we drove cars. She had been a hospital nun, which meant that after her own shift ended, she would fill in on the floor for nurses who were sick. I recalled her at our dinner table. In her retirement years she had been careful about her diet, obsessively cutting off all fat from her meat. Nuns are self-effacing, and you never know all they did until you read their obituaries; but at the motherhouse you could always tell which had been hospital nuns. They were the fastest eaters at any table—a speed developed over years of eating in hospital dining rooms. You didn’t linger when you had other nurses to supervise and patients to tend.

The cemetery crew didn’t have to strain, since in her last illness our sister’s body, always thin to begin with, had become weightless, like a ballet dancer’s. We threw flowers down into the grave. Mine slipped into the narrow space between the coffin and the wall of earth. By her side, I thought.

Two hours earlier, standing at the open coffin before Mass, I’d read the signatures on her vow document, placing my hand on hers and silently thanking her for her life. Then two sisters had closed the coffin for the last time. Now, at the end of the litany, we invoked other sisters who had died, asking their help. “Pray for us,” we murmured. This is the time to recall your friends: deceased sisters who mentored you; the one who offered you a shoulder to cry on or used her influence to help you; all those who gave you the example of persevering unto death through their own lives.

We sisters are buried with the paper we signed at final profession of vows, an event attested to by the superior and her vicar. The signatures on this sister’s vows belonged to women elected as leaders a half-century before. I knew who they were. Their headstones could be found in the long line of graves that stretched out before us, rows and rows of nuns’ graves, going back more than a century. I thought about cemeteries like this all over the United States, and the many thousands of nuns who faithfully served the church for a lifetime, building up its schools and hospitals. They kept their vows. They didn’t cost the church $2 billion in legal settlements. Their gravestones don’t memorialize ecclesial appointments, ministerial accomplishments, educational degrees, or elected congregational positions. For religious women, the headstone notes date of birth, religious name, date of profession of vows, and date of death. The facts of lifelong fidelity are simple and few.

Some years ago, with prudent foresight, my community bought up plots—enough of them to guarantee a place for me and for those likely to enter the community in the future. Mine is up the line a way. How far up is not under my control, though if I stay in good health and die of natural causes, it’s probably a good way up. But here is the general area where you can expect to find me, long after the Vatican’s visitation and investigation are over. The prospect of death and life in their full reach puts things in a frank perspective, and I end with the same question with which I began this essay: Is the Vatican visitation truly being done out of concern for American nuns? Here in the cemetery, I couldn’t help but think that the question Rome is really asking is, “Why don’t you have more nuns to bury? Why aren’t there more of you?”

Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions. The visitation and investigation continue; the doctrinal assessment will ferret out our patches of heterodoxy. Standing at our late sister’s grave I remembered, as if it were yesterday, a question she innocently asked me years ago in a group meeting. “Do we have rights?” she wondered. “What are they?”

Those were good questions then, and American sisters should ask them now. Meanwhile, as I glance up the line of graves, I wonder how many sisters will be here when the day comes to toss flowers on my coffin.


** This paragraph is a corrected version of the one that appeared in the print edition, which included an erroneous reference to an article by Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders.


Read Letters in response to this article: November 6, 2009, November 20, 2009, and December 3, 2009

About the Author

Sister X is a member of a congregation that belongs to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This article was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.



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I thank Sister X for her article. Am sorry she did not feel confident enough to put her name to it. I wonder why. She seems to have concluded 'they are out to get us'. But perhaps as they say 'the are out to help us'. In an age that abhors obedience to any authority, it is easy to become paranoid about any one who raises a question about what we are doing. The Congregation is acting on behalf of the Pope who is the Superior of every religious order and congregation. Why not participate in the investigation? It is the sisters' chance to explain the route their congregation have followed post Vatican II. There has already been a thorough investigation of U.S. seminaries (re the drop in vocations). No one considered there was anything sinister in this. Certainly members of religious congregations did not raise their voices against it.

And by the way if the lawyers became interested in physical abuse in convent schools there would be a massive payout demanded of the sisters' congregations. I hear stories from adults who claim they were belted without mercy by particular sisters in their schools through the 40s to the 70s. But then from Australia, the U.S. legal system demanding such massive payouts for all sorts of things is considered idiotic in the extreme. Many of the active sisters' congregations, perhaps for very good reasons, are no longer living the religious life as it is understood in the church, but that of Secular Institutes. I wonder why they do not seek to transfer from the one to the other.

What a wonderfully written essay. I am ashamed at how our Church treats our women religious. I remember every so often a sister would come to our parish and have to "beg" for money. It is actually quite disgraceful. The work done by Roman Catholic women religious is heroic. I am very concerned about the visitation. It does seem like a way to intimidate/silence our sisters in Christ. I will keep you in my prayers and my budget.

Thank God my daughter decided not to become a sister, despite interviewing with a number of orders and staying with one for about six months. It was a long discernment process that ended in other choices that have proven very wise. 

Sister X'a statement gives ample reason to understand why.

I believe Fr. Ronan has not a clue. How graceless of him to mention it in this context, but yes, there were abusive sisters. And brothers, priests and bishops. But one must ask where the sisters' toxic spirituality came from? Could it be ... the clergy who led them? 

What I know is that there were brave sisters who spoke out with us as survivor advocates at the height of abuse scandal. Where were all those priests beyond a few noted individuals who have paid dearly for their visibility?

I recall back when the Retirement Fund for the Religous was established, there was an article in the Wall St. Journal about the financial straits of religous not having enough money to bury their dead, and facing real hardship. I remember vividly the response of a bishop about the matter, when he deadpanned that bishops would help, "not out of justice, but charity."

Really now? Having taken advantage of sisters' services at bottom level cost for decades, his episcopal self saw no need for social justice when it came to impinging on his own finances.

My heart goes out to Sister X and her colleagues. What are the productive choices for women who want to preserve their integrity, when power and control seem the foundational issues.

Father Ronan, full disclosure:  I'm the sister of a U.S. nun in an active order who is well past the age when a layperson would retire,  But she still has to work to help support her even older fellow sisters.  I'm also the mother of a 35-year-old son who, at the age of 10, began training as an altar boy with a pastor who is now serving a life sentence for child rape.  Had we not moved out of state for economic reasons mere weeks later, our son might have become another of his victims. 

I don't doubt that to you the U.S. tort system looks strange.  No such system is needed in countries which have universal health care, where anyone who needs medical attention receives it, no questions asked and no lawsuits.  I'll never understand why our political factions who don't like so-called "greedy trial lawyers" don't support universal health care, since there'd be much less need for lawyers in the fields of personal injury and workers' compensation.

This, however, is an aside to your main point: why don't nuns welcome the scrutiny of the Vatican's spies, i.e., "apostolic visitors."  Well, for starters: would you welcome some uninvited busybody underfoot in your rectory, expecting you to offer them free food and lodging out of your meager funds?  

The U.S. Catholic Church has been happy to use the nuns' nearly-free labor, but now that so many nuns are too old and ill to work and their orders are destitute, the Church's attitude is, "Sorry, you're on your own."  Some orders have occupied church-owned houses which were sold out from under them to pay legal fees and damages from pedophile-priest litigation. It was a layman, not a pope or bishop, who started the annual fund drive to aid retired religious.

The mission of these "apostolic visitors" was to judge the nuns' sincerity, using who knows what standards.  The nuns know only that those standards were set by men, some halfway around the world, who have forfeited most of their own moral authority.  They lost it not only in the pedophile scandals, but also in the way U.S. bishops have dog-whistled  that Catholics who don't vote Republican are punching their tickets to hell.  I'm happy that at long last the bishops are loudly objecting to budget proposals which pander to the tea party, slashing social programs while cutting taxes for the already wealthy; but for most Americans it's too little too late.

You call Sister X paranoid for using an alias, but paranoia is UN-reasonable fear.  There's nothing unreasonable in fearing that the bishops are attacking nuns because they're desperate to find a scapegoat for declining U.S. church attendance.  Incapable of looking in the mirror, they're fixating on old women who are the least able to defend themselves.

You say that since so many sisters in active orders "are no longer living the religious life as it is understood in the church," they ought to transfer to "Secular Institutes," whatever you mean by that.  Well, deja vu all over again!  We Yanks have seen that very sentiment, "America, Love It or Leave It," on bumper stickers since the Sixties, and it's baloney.  The person who slaps that bumper sticker on his car doesn't own this country, and the all-male hierarchy do not, by virtue of their anatomy, own the Church.  

Another slogan that fits on a bumper sticker, which I've heard a million times, is "The Church is not a democracy." I ask anyone who is so sure what the Church is NOT: can you define what it IS?  Whatever it is, I dare say my sister and her fellow sisters are living the religious life far more truly than the priests and bishops who either sexually abused children or enabled the abusers.

There is at least a grain of truth in your borderline-misogynistic remark about nuns being held liable for abuse of their pupils, although you surely concede that few nuns, if any, ever committed rape.  Frankly, I have less than fond memories of the nuns who taught me (none of them were my sister), but I have come to realize that they were stuck in the thankless job of trying to teach 40-50 children all day every day without a break, while wearing those dreadful wool habits even in hot weather, with wimples so starched that they couldn't turn their heads--and, I suspect, with little more guidance than platitudes like "God never gives you a burden too heavy for you to handle."  I wonder, Father Ronan, how long you could have done the same without burning out.

Finally: you say the nuns should not object to being spied upon (dang, there I go again; I should have said "visited") since they did not object when seminaries were investigated.  Can you really not understand the difference between the scrutiny of a candidate for the priesthood and of a woman who has been a nun for decades?  

Fr Kilgannon

Having read your remarks I feel almost compelled to respond.  Almost.  However, the level of truly self-righteous, unhelpful condemnation your remarks contain stand quite well all on their own.  If your remarks are an expression of your vision of Christ the best I can do is suggest new glasses.

You almost answered me but didn't, Father.  Must be because name-calling takes up so much less time.  

The least I would have expected from a priest is that you're glad my son did not become a victim of a pedophile and you're happy the perv is now in a place where he can't hurt any more children.

Fr Ronan.. I note you are not a subscriber. Go back to where you came from.

I went to Catholic elementary school in the 1950s. Yes, the nuns pulled my hair and slapped my face on more than one occassion. While those behaviors have long ceased to be acceptable, I never once thought I did not deserve these minor ways of disclipline, despite the fact that I would condemn them today. I have found memories of the Sisters of St. Joseph  and many other sisters I have had the opportunity of knowing. 

The comments from Fr. Ronan Kilganon is indicative of the problem the Roman Curia has caused. It is a narrative that is believed without remainder, not because it points to the truth, but because it lacks any sense of moral imagination. We live in a Church today where the hierarchy repeats the narrative:

> Us versus Them

> Good versus Evil

> Power and Authority versus Credibility

> Church as Magisterium versus Church as People of God

> Assenters versus Dissenters  

> Doctrine without Error versus Humility of Understanding

> The Culture of Life versus the Culture of Death

> The Faithful versus the Unfaithful



I hope Commonweal will follow up on the information that Carl Andersen, an influential lawyer in Washington, D.C., a former member of the Reagan Administration and the head of the Knights of Columbus, is connected to this investigation into the LCWR.

 As this is also an election year, and the national GOP has been obstructionist toward the current Administration since President Obama was elected, I believe it is especially important to determine whether the timing of this Vatican censure and investigation is tied in ANY WAY to keeping the sisters silent on issues of justice, peace and equality during this national  presidential campaign.

Of course the issues involved extend far beyond our presidential election. But that does not mean they do not PRECLUDE an attempt by influential American clergy at the Vatican to INFLUENCE this election by sidelining the loyal opposition. 

thank you, "sister x." your article brought me to tears and a great desire to sign my name as its author. namaste. 


If todays nuns are publicaly taking stands in support of the taking of innocent human life then the vatican needs to "scrutunize" them and rein them in.A while ago I read an article here where the notion of intimacy-as in the intimate relation/connection between the mother and the fetus was  invoked to take on the meaning that because there is such intimacy between the two[physicall dependency of the fetus with the mother ] then the mother could or should be allowed to decide to kill the fetus. This invoking of a concept like intimacy-connoting warmth,love,concern in a deep sense - was inverted to justify the reverse of love,warmth, deep concern for the other ,i.e. the destruction of the innocent human life. This is diametricaly oppossed to Christ and the doctrine of the Church and if nuns are toying with such an inversion of ethics then yes that warrants vatican intervention! [of course people can't help what they truely believe but to publically take a stand in such a matter of grave moral import -is to go against Christ and the Church and therefore is grounds for intervention by the church heirarchy.The nuns are undermining Jesus Christ and His Church on earth when they publicaly  justify abortion.] 

May God bless you, Sister X and reward you for your honesty. You and your Sisters are the healthiest people in the church - that's why they are investigating you.  After everything that popes, bishops and priests have done - and not done - in recent years, it's the only way the old boys' network can avoid looking in the mirror.

Hang in there, Sister - you have the love and prayers of all of us disillusioned with the hierarchy and encouraged by you and the LCWR.

"I thank Sister X for her article. Am sorry she did not feel confident enough to put her name to it. I wonder why. She seems to have concluded 'they are out to get us'," commented Fr Ronan Kilgannon.


If Fr. Kilgannon read as far as the ninth paragraph of the article he would have found Sister X's well-stated rationale for not putting her name on what can only be described as a superb piece of work that should be required reading for all concerned with the future of Catholicism in America.


In her April 22, 2012, Chicago Sun-Times column "Vatican waging a war on nuns," <>, Carol Marin wrote: "Surely, there are thoughtful bishops who recoil at what the Vatican is doing here. Why they don't speak up, I will never know." I responded by writing: "Here's why: These thoughtful bishops, much like thoughtful college presidents at schools supporting big-time sports entertainment 

businesses promoted by their trustees, enjoy their lofty positions. They must not only overlook related collateral damage, corruption, and cover-ups, but must also echo the party line, or at a minimum, keep silent in public as a matter of job security." 


For additional insights on the Vatican crackdown on the LCWR, see "Doug Koesel, Cleveland Priest, Writes: What The Nuns' Story Is Really About," Huffington Post, June 1, 2012, <>.


The Vatican's bullying of America's women religious, aided and abetted by right-wing sycophants in the U.S. hierarchy and others (both religious and laity) currying favor with Rome, should come as no surprise to those who have had the opportunity to read Penny Lernoux's book People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism (Penguin Books, 1989)and Garry Will's book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Image Books, 2000).

With reference to my comment: "The Vatican's bullying of America's women religious, aided and abetted by right-wing sycophants in the U.S. hierarchy and others (both religious and laity) currying favor with Rome, should come as no surprise ...."


Among the both religious and laity currying favor with Rome are those likely affiliated with institutions closely aligned with the Vatican and its policies, for example,


o Opus Dei, <>,


o The Knights of Columbus,, and


o The American Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (a.k.a. the Knights of Malta and/or SMOM), Also see "Their Will Be Done: Let the pope keep the kingdom and the glory -- the CIA wants the power" at <>.



With reference to my comment: "The Vatican's bullying of America's women religious, aided and abetted by right-wing sycophants in the U.S. hierarchy and others (both religious and laity) currying favor with Rome, should come as no surprise ...."


Among the both religious and laity currying favor with Rome are those likely affiliated with institutions closely aligned with the Vatican and its policies, for example,


o Opus Dei, <>,


o The Knights of Columbus,, and


o The American Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (a.k.a. the Knights of Malta and/or SMOM), Also see "Their Will Be Done: Let the pope keep the kingdom and the glory -- the CIA wants the power" at <>.




It is troubling to think that the Vatican may have already unleashed the full range of its institutional power to do a corporate-like takeover of the LCWR so as to gain control of its assets; and, that it is doing so under false pretenses.  That's the "why" for these additional comments.


Most likely, the Vatican would engage its conservative, right-wing organizations—The Knights of Malta, The Knights of Columbus, and  Opus Dei—to work behind the scenes to help bully the LCWR to submission. Generally speaking, these organizations have a blind reverence for obedience to authority, a penchant for secrecy, and adhere to John Paul II's counter-Vatican II, no-dissent dictum, "the church is not a democracy."


Sadly, most men who join the Knights of Columbus and Opus Dei are only permitted to see the organization's charitable/benevolent front. Thus they have no clue that they are being manipulated and used to achieve the organization's political and economic goals. They truly believe they are doing God's work, in this case helping to get the ostensibly wayward American nun's in line. On the other hand, the exclusive and very affluent membership of the elite Knights of Malta has much more than a clue as to what this powerful organization is about and what it is doing.  


For an example of the rhetoric used to undermine the LCWR's position, see "Catholic Church is not a democracy," at<>. This letter was in response to my wife's and my May 26, 2012, letter, "Church stance on women hurts itself," <>.

"For an example of the rhetoric used to undermine the LCWR's position, see "Catholic Church is not a democracy," at<>."


 The following response was submitted June 10, the day after the letter was published in the Daily Herald:


Dictatorial papacy makes unjust demands on American nuns

"A vow of obedience is just that — obey all commands of the church, not just the ones with which you agree," wrote Bob Lowth in his June 9, response, "Catholic Church is not a democracy," to our May 26, letter, "Church's stance on women hurts itself."

As those convicted at the post WW II Nuremberg trials found, oaths of obedience as a basis for obeying the unjustifiable commands of a dictator were no basis for a defense of their crimes against humanity.

It is troubling to think that the Vatican has unleashed its awesome institutional power to apostolically rape the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) via an unwanted and unjustified corporate takeover to gain control of its assets.

Also, the church's ultraconservative, right-wing organizations are likely working behind the scenes to help bully the LCWR to submission. These organizations are characterized by blind reverence to holy obedience, a penchant for secrecy, and strict adherence to John Paul II's no-dissent dictum, "the church is not a democracy," voiced as he crushed supporters of Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) documents and Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento—“binging up to date”—thinking.

Most members of these organizations are only permitted to see its benevolent front — having no clue that they are being used to achieve the church’s economic and political goals. They truly believe they are doing God's work, in this case helping to get the ostensibly wayward American nun's in line.  

The Lowth letter is an excellent example of the rhetoric used to undermine the position of the LCWR that has refused to bow to the unjust demands of a dictatorial papacy determined to mute John XXIII's call to “reestablish the principle of shared authority with all the church's members” and to eliminate all vestiges of Vatican II in the American Catholic Church.


Frank and Judy Splitt

Mount Prospect

The Roman Catholic Church can be said to be Janus-faced in the sense that it reveals contrasting characteristics and behavior patterns.  Its intended outward, public face is that of a holy and benevolent organization that serves to guide its faithful members, both lay and religious, on a path of faith and good works to life eternal with God their creator  


On the other hand, the inward, private face is that of an international corporation that operates with a set of rigid orthodoxy- policed rules and regulations that exclude dissent. The corporation is managed by an autocratic CEO whose faithful stockholders believe is infallible, a Board of Directors the members of which are necessarily-dedicated CEO loyalists who manage special offices, and a multitude of geographically arranged divisions and branches that operate in strict accordance with the corporation's our-way-or-the-highway rules and regulations


Re:  “ autocratic CEO whose faithful stockholders believe is infallible,” consider the following  question:


Were John XXIII, who convened Vatican II with a call to bring the Catholic Church up to date, and Pius VI, who continued the Council and instituted its reforms, acting infallibly in their Vatican II related words and actions or is it John Paul II and Benedict XVI who been infallible in their concerted efforts to undo the work of John XXIII, Paul VI, and the Council Fathers?


What is the LCWR and Catholics to make of these mutually exclusive positions? The church can’t have it both ways…but sadly it does. The church's management is what it is. What it will be in the future is up to the Holy Spirit and the People of God

Autocratic ceo's,blind obedience to authority, nazi like mindset like at the nurnberg trials, anti vatican council right wingers etc., etc.,blah ,blah blah. Cast aspersions all you want -The LCWR in choosing to remain silent about the issue of abortion warrants action by the vatican.If catholic nuns cannot see that the killing of unborn human life is morally repugant and contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ and christian theology-then they have lost their way.On that issue and that issue alone is sufficient reason for vatican intervention . 

Playing the Abortion Card

rose-ellen caminer played the abortion card in her May 23 and June 16, 2012 posts. In the latter post she wrote: '"The LCWR in choosing to remain silent about the issue of abortion warrants action by the vatican.If catholic nuns cannot see that the killing of unborn human life is morally repugant and contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ and christian theology-then they have lost their way.On that issue and that issue alone is sufficient reason for vatican intervention." 

It appears that Caminer, presupposes that Catholic nuns must somehow be blind to the morally complex issues surrounding abortion. Most likely the nuns are heeding the advice of St. Augustine, to wit:

"When a thing is obscure in itself defeats our capacity, and nothing in Scripture comes to our aid, it is not safe for humans to presume they can pronounce on it." 


This advice is often ignored by celibate Popes and their likewise celibate sycophantic curial prefects who are not only removed and disengaged from the realities of life, but also should know that neither Jesus nor the Scriptures addressed this and other "bedroom" issues that seem to permeate their thinking and pronouncements.

Also, see Carol Marin's May 25, 2012, Chicago Sun-Times' op-ed, "The silence of the nuns,"  <>.

The brutality of partial birth abortion has nothing to do with the bedroom.Nor does upholding the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception.The notion that the creator of the universe and of humans,Jesus Christ, who made us in His image -would condone the destruction of defenseless innocent humans by more powerful ones for the material benefit of the powerful ones-strikes me as the antithesis of what it can possibly mean to follow Christ.

"The protection of life is a seamless garment. You can't protect some life and not others."--Eileen Egan (1912-2008)


Eileen Egan's phrase “the seamless garment” is said to have come from a phrase used by St. John the Apostle to represent a consistent, unbroken reverence for the sacredness of life. True adherents to this principle are not only opposed to abortion but also to other transgressions against life  such as euthanasia, assisted suicide, and killing in war, as well as torture, economic injustice and capital punishment.


One such adherent was the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then archbishop of Chicago and the incoming chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life activities committee, when he delivered the December 1983, Gannon Lecture at Fordham University. He called for a “consistent ethic of life” approach to moral issues. See "A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic Dialogue, at


The leadership in the Catholic Church believes that life begins at conception and that it is too sacred to end it prematurely. However, to advocate only against birth prevention and abortion and not any of other life-related activities is not only hypocritical, but also smacks of cherry-picking advocacy that is often used by ultraconservatives to dismiss progressives as Cafeteria Catholics.


For the latest on the Vatican's hostile takeover of the LCWR, see the Editorials and related comments in the June 22--July 05, 2012 , issue of the National Catholic Reporter, to wit:


o "Clash between LCWR and bishops about culture, not theology,"  at,

o "Bishops' move against women religious a hard sell, indeed, by Tom Fox,

Thank you, Ellen O'Brien.  You have said what I, too, believe to be a large part of the reason this turmoil has been put into place.  I applaud the Nuns on the Bus group for speaking out for those who have no voice!  I am confident that silencing the sisters has not been very successful!!!

I am confident that silencing the sisters has not been very successful!!

The only true measure of 'success' of course, will be salvation.  Quoting Mother Theresa, "We are not called to be successful, only holy."

Based upon a model nun/future saint, shouldn't the only quesiton we should all be asking, both religious and non religious, is "Are we holy?"

All the rest is fluff.

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