VATICAN CITY—Six years ago Pope Benedict XVI aimed to curb “a certain feminist spirit” and “secularist mentality” that the Church fathers discerned, to their dismay, in the ranks of American nuns. On Tuesday, when the Vatican under Pope Francis delivered its final report on the subject, those concerns were nowhere to be found.
The report was the fruit of an investigation into 341 American congregations guided by Mother Superior Marie Clare Millea, a matronly sister who became tearful at times, in front of a packed pressroom, while describing how she went about collecting her data. Only the cloistered convents were excluded, and not all of the religious orders complied with the visitors’ requests and questionnaires, though Millea was unable to recall just how many or what percentage of American nuns refused to cooperate.
The focus of her investigation was on how nuns live, work and pray, ranging from issues of communal prayer and community service to whether nuns who chose not to wear a religious habit were hiding their faith. She wrote individual reports on each of the congregations she visited, and Tuesday’s report was the Vatican’s synthesis of those findings.
The report concluded that while all American nuns need to recheck the rulebooks to make sure they are living their vows as they made them, they were largely doing what they were supposed to be doing. “Women religious have courageously been in the forefront, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals,” the report said with no mention of secularism or feminism at all.
The report will undoubtedly be welcomed by most American nuns, but few will forget the fighting words from a separate investigation called a doctrinal assessment that is not nearly as conciliatory. In 2009, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith started a separate investigation into an umbrella group called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that represents roughly 80 percent of American nuns. Then, the Church accused the LCWR of “pushing radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The clampdown backfired, spawning a social media frenzy with more than a million tweets under the hashtag #whatsistersmeantome in support of the nuns and their role in holding Catholic communities together. At the time, Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of several faith-based books, who was the first to tweet under #whatsistersmeantome, warned the Vatican not to mess with the nuns.
“There is a danger of backlash because of the esteem [in which] so many Catholics hold nuns,” Martin told The Daily Beast at the height of the scandal. “For many Catholics, sisters are the glue that holds the church together.”
There was much hope when Pope Francis was elected that he would show mercy to the American sisters. But in April, Gerhard Müller, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, quashed that hope, insisting instead that Francis backed up the 2009 report. Muller criticized the nuns’ choice of speakers for their annual event accusing the sisters of being overtly provocative. “This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the doctrinal assessment,” Mueller said in scathing remarks. “Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops, as well.”
The Vatican is still working with the LCWR to find a middle ground and, despite what amounted to a lovefest at Tuesday’s press conference, there is still obvious concern. Sister Sharon Holland, the head of the LCWR, who incidentally was the only sister on the stage without a religious habit, told reporters that there were still hard feelings. “I’m concerned about those who may still be angry,” she said. “It’s a concern to me because it’s not healthy to remain angry.”
Prior to the publication of report, several sisters who coauthored a book called The Power of Sisterhood that was borne of the apostolic visitation (and not the LCWR doctrinal assessment), voiced their concern for the damage the investigations had done. “The Apostolic Visitation broke open the heart of who we are,” said Mary Ann Zollman at an event to launch their book at Loyola University. “It was met with disbelief and confusion. We were hurt and angry.”
But she said through the accusations from Rome and the hurt they caused, the American sisters have banded together. “This wasn’t about one religious congregation or religious organization. It was about all of us together,” she said. “It created a sense of solidarity and sisterhood. And the same was true with our relationship with the laity—we discovered a communal vision for the church and the world.”