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

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.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.