Whatever happened to the Vatican’s Apostolic Visitation of U.S. Women Religious conducted 2009-2010 by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life?

That question takes on increasing urgency as the predicted deadline for releasing a Vatican report on that visitation looms in just days: Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary of the Vatican’s congregation for consecrated life, told reporters last January that he thought the final report on the visitation likely would be made public before the Year of Consecrated Life begins Nov. 30.

The visitation had been initiated in late 2008 by then-prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Franc Rodé, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. The cardinal said he had been concerned for some time about the declining vocations among women religious in the U.S., as well as the quality of life of sisters. In a Nov. 3, 2009, interview with Vatican Radio during the visitation, he also expressed concern about a “certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist spirit.’” All individual sisters, as well as their religious superiors, were invited to give their input to a visitator and/or the visitation office, and a final report on the visitation has been anticipated for months.

In the meantime, a recently-released book sheds considerable light on behind-the-scenes maneuvering by some sisters and organizations to discourage religious orders from cooperating with the apostolic visitation. It also reveals the aspiration of some superiors “that the best response we might hope to receive may be that of perpetual silence from Rome.”

The book is titled “Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation” (University Press of America, Inc., Lanham, MD, 2014), and is edited by Sister Mary Ann Zollmann, BVM, and Margaret Cain McCarthy, PhD. It is based on a 2011 survey that asked major superiors about their experience of the apostolic visitation. The survey was the idea of eight sisters calling themselves the “Grassroots Group.”

That “grassroots” moniker is highly misleading, however, for all eight of the sisters are, or have been, on leadership teams in their orders. One, Sister Marcia Allen, CSJ, is president-elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR); another, Sister Mary Ann Zollman, was elected president of LCWR in 2002. Two sisters, Nancy Reynolds, SP, and Lynn Jarrell, OSU, are canon lawyers affiliated with the Resource Center for Religious Institutes (RCRI) that was deeply involved in advising sisters about the visitation.

Orders in both conferences of women religious were invited to respond to the “grassroots” 2011 survey. Members of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious — who represent about 10,000 of the 50,000 sisters in the U.S. — declined to participate. The survey was sent to 328 major superiors who are members of the LCWR. Major superiors head up an order or a province of a large order, and those 328 lead — about 40,000 sisters. Only 143 of those major superiors — returned valid surveys.

Thus, the survey represents the experience and opinion of just 143 sisters, fewer than one-half percent of nearly 50,000 total sisters in the U.S.  Furthermore, those responding sisters were all major superior and all members of the LCWR, so the voices of actual grassroots sisters are conspicuously absent.

Additionally, not all survey respondents were in agreement, so one has to wonder if the survey was merely a vehicle to justify publishing a book of commentary about the visitation in anticipation of the pending release of the Vatican’s final report.

Indeed, the two chapters by Sister Mary Ann Zollman are eerily similar to parts of the August 22, 2003, address Zollman gave as outgoing president of the LCWR, “Tending the Holy through the Power of Sisterhood.” In that 2003 address — also dealing with “power of sisterhood” — she also spoke of “the abuse of ecclesial power” and said: “As women of the church, we are naming, owning, and addressing our impasse with the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of our church.” 

Whatever the case, the book reveals some fascinating, yet disturbing, insights into how some sisters reacted to the apostolic visitation and how some made every effort to sabotage the Vatican inquiry. It also reports a shocking lack of trust in the Holy See by some sisters who, according to the book, were advised by canon lawyers during the visitation to take “legal action to protect congregations’ assets from potential control by Rome” by legally separating their canonical congregations from their civil corporations. Individual sisters had told me during the visitation that canon lawyers heavily influenced the response of their leadership to the visitation, but I had not realized how organized that effort had been until I read in Chapter 6, written by Sister Marcia Allen:

“For the majority of sisters, the most immediate response to the announcement of the Visitation was curiosity. Most did not realize that it was an announcement of a formal canonical instrument of the Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), which that office would use to test the integrity of women living religious life as well as that of the communal life itself. Almost immediately, canonists and those familiar with the term apostolic visitation as it has been applied to other institutions, disabused them of their naiveté and stronger emotions ensued.”

It is revealing that a concerted effort was made to create resistance to the visitation, even among sisters who initially had no problem with the idea because apostolic visitations by superiors are a regular part of religious life.

The book makes clear that canon lawyers affiliated with the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, an organization that offers legal advice to religious orders and grew out of the LCWR, played a major role in convincing some sisters not to cooperate.

“In a series of phone conferences offered during 2009, RCRI members were able to advise women religious about the serious nature of the Apostolic Visitation. They assured them that this was not a friendly visit and they would be well served to temper their habitual hospitality with reserve,” according to the book.

RCRI also is credited in the book with a major role in pressuring visitation officials to remove three parts of the visitation questionnaire that asked particulars about demographics, occupations, properties and finances. So much push-back was mounted that on Nov. 5, 2009, Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, the Apostolic Visitator, wrote a letter to the women’s superiors saying that data no longer was required, even though the visitation office was legally and canonically entitled to the information.

In one of the frequent exaggerations found in the book’s rhetoric, Allen depicted sisters as victims who needed to stand together to defend themselves against an unjust aggressor, even comparing sisters to abused women:

“As they increasingly understood this as a sheer abuse of authority in which they were the victims of unjust accusations that protected the accuser, communities of women religious became bastions of resistance. Decades of ministering to and counseling women suffering from abuse had taught them how to recognize abuse of women when they saw it. Now that they were experiencing it, they applied what they had learned: they made known what was happening and they established support systems.”

Sister Addie Lorraine Walker, SSND, picked up this theme in her chapter “Theological Reflection on the Apostolic Visitation.”  She proclaimed that “The experience of suffering together bonded women religious in a way that no other single event had; and they were transformed, forming a new sisterhood.” (emphasis in original)

Walker also charged that the Church does not honor and respect women:

“Despite the great contributions of women to the building of the church in America, women continue to experience being marginalized: no seat at the table, no voice in the shaping of the report or follow-up decisions that impact the oversight of religious life, and no participation in the overall governance of the church,” she wrote.

Repeated throughout the book was affirmation of the unprecedented innovations made in some religious orders that are of concern to Church officials because they have diluted the unique identity of the religious vocation and distanced some sisters from Church doctrine and authority.

As editor Sister Mary Ann Zollman wrote in her chapter, “The Experience of the Apostolic Visitation”: “Our understanding of sisterhood in community keeps widening as the boundary lines between communities and between religious life and laity become more porous.”

She explained, “we advocate for a church inclusive of difference and appreciative of diversity. We long for creative theologians to be granted a place in genuine theological dialogue. We long for tables with room for those whose authentic loving broadens our accustomed understandings of love: the divorced and the remarried; the homosexual, bi-sexual and transgendered; the married with family whose care for their children precludes the responsible conception of another child. We long for the full release of the gifts of women and laity into positions of leadership in the church, bringing the whole church to life in new ways.”

Yet, while the demands of these sisters are articulated, noticeably absent is any consideration of the responsibilities these sisters have as vowed religious in the Catholic Church.

It’s a sad book, really, full of unhappiness and defiance. Whatever the intention of the book’s creators, the reality is that the book vividly depicts the confusion and disarray among some women religious and ironically makes the case that the apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious was indeed very badly needed.