The final report (.pdf here) on the "apostolic visitation" of U.S. sisters, after effusively praising them for their work and witness over the course of seven pages, concludes on a high note, fit for the Advent season:

Our times need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel. Convinced of the sublime dignity and beauty of consecrated life, may we all pray for and support our women religious and actively promote vocations to the religious life.

Indeed, the entire Church sings the Magnificat to celebrate the great things that God does for women religious and for his people through them.

Hear hear. But not everyone is joining the chorus. The mood at the National Catholic Register, for example, is rather somber. Ann Carey, who has dedicated herself for years to exposing the distasteful excesses of American nuns, is clearly disappointed that the visitation process did not result in the public scolding she feels is warranted. Still, the report is not just a "love letter," she points out in her "news analysis" for the Register: "A careful reading of the report reveals that, while some issues were ignored, there was an effort to point out that certain areas of religious life among U.S. sisters do need improvement."

The allusions in the report to areas that might need improvement are not that hard to suss out; determining that "some issues were ignored" on the basis of what's in that report requires more of an effort. Carey has her own ideas about what issues should have been addressed more forcefully:

For example, in discussing the lack of religious vocations, the report noted that vocation personnel find that candidates often prefer to live in community and wear religious garb. The report notes this is a “challenge” to orders that do not have that lifestyle, but it gives no counsel to orders to stop blurring the lines between religious life and secular life, something many orders of women religious freely admit they are doing.

They admit they're not wearing habits! We've got them dead to rights! Come on, CICLSAL, this was a gimme.

The report advises that private, individual reports will be sent to all the orders that were visited and those where problems were found. If directives are given by the congregation for religious for specific reforms in an order, that likely will not be known unless the order releases that information.

I did not mention that in my own response to the visitation report, and I probably should have, because it is important. This is from the report's introduction:

In addition to this general report, it is foreseen that individual reports will be sent to those Institutes which hosted an onsite visitation and to those Institutes whose individual reports indicated areas of concern. Letters of thanks will also be sent to those Institutes which participated in the first two phases of the Visitation.

The congregations who hosted visitors and filled out questionnaires deserve specific feedback on the outcome, especially since one of the problems with this process from the beginning was the total lack of clarity about what exactly had prompted it. (In a blog post earlier this month, Carey worried that the final report would be compromised given that "while the visitation was ongoing, both Cardinal Rodé, who had initiated the visitation, and his secretary retired from the congregation for religious. Their replacements indicated little sympathy for — or clear knowledge of — the motivation for the visitation, and it is the new officials who produced the final report." If anybody does have "clear knowledge of...the motivation for the visitation," it'd sure be nice to hear from them. I mean, it's a shame they kept it a secret from Cardinal Braz de Aviz and his staff, but better late than never.)

One of the things that impressed me in the final report was its endorsement of the way women religious understand themselves and their congregations in light of the Second Vatican Council's call to renewal and ressourcement. "The majority of women religious," the report says, "have a strong sense of the history of their institute and the charism of their foundress/founder and draw strength from the courageous example of their early members." That was not the case before Vatican II, and you cannot understand the choices women religious have made within their communities since then if you don't appreciate what a significant change it was for many of them to rediscover and reclaim that history -- and how it is, fundamentally, an expression of their faithfulness to Rome as well as to Christ. The report refers approvingly to the adaptations made by the sisters in a "spirit of creative fidelity to their charisms." That kind of language, which reflects their self-understanding so well, gives me hope that any future conversations between CICLSAL and specific congregations could bear real fruit.

Carey seems disappointed that we, the general public, might never know exactly what problems the visitation turned up in its visits to specific orders. But why should we? That's the precise area in which CICLSAL must now demonstrate its "willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with" American women religious. They hope to use future conversations to "transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust," so as to "offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion to all." How would publicly accusing specific communities of sisters of specific lapses be helpful for anyone? The CDF has tried that, albeit in vague terms, in its dialogue with the LCWR, and we all know how well that project is going. But Carey and others like her place a lot of stock in pitting the faithful sisters (you will know them by their veils) against the radical ones (boo!), and it will make it harder for them to darkly accuse the latter of "ignoring the Vatican," as Carey does at the end of her Register article, if we don't get to see exactly what the Vatican has to say to them.

Still, Carey's take is overall a measured one which fairly accurately reflects the content of the final report (thank you, thank you, maybe think about this, but again, thank you). For another sort of take, let's consider this petulant outburst from Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative.

Now, last time I checked, Rod Dreher is not himself a Roman Catholic anymore, but out of his fraternal concern he continues to monitor exactly how progressives are wrecking the church. Good thing, too, because while nobody told the sisters what exactly prompted this "visitation" in the first place -- and, to hear Carey tell it, not even the present head of CICLSAL has any real clue -- Dreher can explain it all to you:

The one-line answer is that most (but not all) American women’s religious orders are embracing and teaching serious heresy, and are in absolute freefall in terms of membership.

I hope that Rod Dreher is going to release the final report of his investigation soon, because it sounds pretty juicy.

His reaction to CICLSAL's final report is a reminder that, amid all the Magnificat-singing and "Thank You, Sister" testimonials, there are a few voices still openly rooting for those awful radical nuns to be put in their place (or, rather, to be removed from the place they now occupy and put in some subordinate place of reprimand and humiliation).

When Cardinal Müller dressed down the LCWR for honoring Elizabeth Johnson, Dreher was among those eager to attribute the reprimand directly to Pope Francis, who (he hoped) was "just as concerned about the abandonment of Catholicism by the American nuns as Pope Benedict was." (Which raises the question: was Benedict among those few who knew why Rodé wanted to "visit" the U.S. sisters in the first place?)

But now he's pouting, as is his wont:

It’s a total and complete whiff. So, crisis averted. The radical nuns can carry on with their work. The only comfort Catholic conservatives and traditionalists can take from it is that the problem of the heretical orders will be solved shortly by the march of time.

Merry Christmas, sisters! The Lord has done great things for you. But Rod Dreher wants you to know that he finds comfort (if not joy) in the thought that you'll all be dead soon.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Also by this author

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

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.