The final report on the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious reads at first blush like a love letter to U.S. sisters, an effort to smooth all the feathers that were ruffled by the Vatican study.

However, 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. So the report will not satisfy those who hoped the visitation would be buried and forgotten; nor will it satisfy those who hoped for a mandate of sweeping reform.

The report acknowledges immediately that the visitation was initiated because religious life in this country “is experiencing challenging times,” and “the very existence” of some orders is threatened. This acknowledgement seems to be a nod to Cardinal Franc Rodé, who initiated the visitation in 2008 but retired before it was concluded.

The new personnel taking over the congregation for religious after Cardinal Rodé were very cool toward the visitation at first, but, apparently, a reading of all the reports submitted by the apostolic visitor, Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, provided them with new insights into the need for the visitation.

At the Vatican press conference today, where the final report was released, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said that, as with the Vatican visitations in Australia and Ireland, this one was done to listen, to “show the heart and face of the Vatican” and to show love and understanding. The cardinal also said that sisters who did not cooperate with the visitation still were encouraged to do so now.

Indeed, all participants in the press conference, including Sister Sharon Holland of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), said that the experience was very positive for U.S. sisters, not only because the visitation teams were so respectful and professional, but because the visitation prompted needed self-evaluation.

 

Specific Requests

Whether that self-evaluation will be productive will certainly vary from order to order, depending on openness to evaluation of any kind. The report did make some specific requests that give a clue to some of the “concerns” found during the visitation:

  • Noting that candidates to religious life lack good theological and spiritual training, the report asked religious orders to provide solid formation programs.
  • The report said that orders have written guidelines for solid spiritual and liturgical practices, but it hinted that those guidelines are not always followed and asked each order to evaluate its actual practice of liturgical and common prayer.
  • The report acknowledged that some sisters do not live in community for various reasons and urged orders to “strengthen their communities, that they might become ever more convincing signs of communion in Christ.”
  • Reference to some sisters’ love affair with the “New Cosmology” was made in a section titled “Called to a Life Centered on Christ.” The report said, “Caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith” and called upon religious orders to be certain their spiritual practices and ministries are “in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.”     

This last concern resonates with part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith mandate to reform the LCWR, even though that ongoing reform is a separate initiative of the Vatican and conducted by a separate office within the Roman Curia.

 

Other Crucial Areas

Other areas of religious life were touched on in the report, but some crucial areas were not fleshed out as well as those enumerated above.

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.

On the matter of finances, the report bemoans the difficult financial position of many orders but raises no questions about proper stewardship of resources other than to ask for individual and corporate witness to evangelical poverty. When sisters objected to giving financial data to the visitation office, that requirement was dropped, so this section was based on incomplete information.

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.

Thus, only time will tell what will be the full effect of the visitation on U.S. women religious. Some sisters indicate that their orders already are working on areas they identified in their self-evaluation, but other sisters may continue to resist even helpful Vatican input.

 

Classic Religious Life Endures

What is very clear is the fact that women religious are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the report notes the median age of sisters is in their 70s. The orders best positioned to continue are those that have retained a classic style of religious life by living and praying in community and following a corporate apostolate in the name of the Church, for they are attracting the young vocations.

Not even an apostolic visitation will be able to save the orders that continue to pursue the path of ignoring the Vatican and “birthing new forms of religious life,” for the Catholic Church’s classic understanding of religious life is the form that has been proven to endure.

Ann Carey’s specialty is women religious,

and in 2013, Ignatius Press published her latest book,

Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal.