WASHINGTON — While the leaders of several American women’s congregations are showing reluctance to participate in the apostolic visitation — a Vatican inquiry into the state of religious life in America — ordinary members who support the visitation report they are being silenced by their superiors.

One sister “of almost 20 years now” told the Register by e-mail Dec. 8 that “we too have been silenced. We were told this was family business, and we are not to share it with others.”

But what her congregation’s leadership is not explaining, she wrote, is the danger such lack of cooperation with the visitation might pose for the survival of the community.

“What is so needed is for a canon lawyer to explain objectively what consequences can result [from] refusal to participate. … Can we be suppressed? Can we lose our canonical status?”

A second sister of 15 years who e-mailed the Register the same day agreed: “Though we are by no means in the minority (and are, perhaps, even a silent majority), we are not the ones with power, so our concerns go unheeded.”

She went on to describe her congregation as having “fallen from” its tradition, adopting a “liberal political agenda” and certainly needing the “shot in the arm” from the Vatican inquiry to get out of the “congregational mess” in which she and many other faithful sisters find themselves.

“I can fully attest to the need for this visitation,” she concluded. Her community’s leaders “want Jesus but not the Church. This separation is untenable for a Catholic.”

Both women are members of a new Web discussion group for sisters on the outs with their leadership about the apostolic visitation.

The discussion group, at Groups.yahoo.com/group/SistersSupportingApostolicVisitation/, was started in early December to enable sisters who support the apostolic visitation to communicate with each other anonymously. It’s moderated by Ann Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities, a 1996 history of the numerical decline and political radicalization of many American congregations. By Dec. 21, there were 79 members in the online group.

On the other side of the debate over the apostolic visitation are the leaders of three congregations contacted for an Associated Press story in early December that ran under the headline “Catholic Sisters Challenge Vatican Investigation.” In the story they explained why they were not responding fully to a questionnaire sent to 340 women’s congregations by the apostolic visitation.

Sister Mary Waskowiak, who is president of the Maryland-based Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, with 4,000 members, discussed the questionnaire with other leaders of her congregation via conference call and e-mail. There was a sense that developed from that that the questionnaire came from “the framework of religious life that is not current and does not reflect the lived experience of women religious today.”

In the end, as president, she sent the apostolic visitation office a copy of the congregation’s constitutions and a “very well-crafted letter.” Her congregation is open and ready for “non-adversarial dialogue.”

Inappropriate Questions?

Sister Mary said some questions, such as one asking how the members prayed, were “inappropriate” because they were too personal.

Also, the questions did not relate to the missions of the congregations. “We have a good story to tell,” Sister Mary said. “We want to tell the story of 150-plus years of service. … And the questionnaire doesn’t seem to recognize that.”

Sister Nancy Schreck, president of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa, agreed: “Many of the questions just don’t refer to us and the work we do. We are highly committed to serving the poor in the world, but there are no questions about how we are doing in that regard.”

Both women have concerns about the motivation behind the apostolic visitation. Sister Nancy notes that while the official motive is a general concern for the welfare of the “consecrated life” and “religious women,” another reason was apparently given by Cardinal Franc Rodé, the prefect of the Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in a news interview. He spoke of concerns raised at a symposium on religious life at Stonehill College in Massachusetts last year, which Sister Nancy believes had a traditionalist agenda.

Sister Nancy said the concerns that some feel about the decline in numbers of American women religious (from 180,000 in 1965 to 75,000 in 2002, according to Kenneth Jones, author of The Index of Leading Catholic Indicators) may be misplaced.

“Those numbers back in the ’50s were an aberration,” based on promotion by the institutional Church of the life in orders plus the postwar baby boom that included many big Catholic families, she said. Ongoing prosperity has led to smaller families and fewer American postulants, Sister Nancy said.

“But the religious life isn’t about numbers or having a future as a community,” she said. “It is about being alive to why we are here now.”

As for a recent surge of applicants in Africa, she notes the poverty endemic there and the resulting strong appeal of the stable and secure life provided by religious life.

“I disagree with that,” said Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, head of the Religious Sisters of Mercy based in Alma, Mich. “I’ve been to Africa many times, and the young women who join are very serious and have a very strong desire for the religious life.”

While Sisters Nancy and Mary are both past presidents of the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious, which represents well over 90% of American women religious, Mother Mary Quentin is president of a younger group, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

And whereas the first organization is under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a separate apostolic visitation and has questioned the apostolic visitation of religious communities of women, the Council of Major Superiors is a self-conscious alternative to the older organization that is avowedly loyal to the Vatican and supportive of the visitation.

“We’re honestly very pleased at the opportunity it gives us to look at our congregations and to ask questions — like why we are diminishing,” says Mother Mary Quentin.

Not that most communities belonging to the council are shrinking. On the contrary, most are growing, she says, because they are offering what young women really want from religious life: service, communal prayer and living, and public witness of the life in Christ through wearing the habit.

“Our American postulants certainly aren’t joining because they are looking for a meal ticket,” said Mother Mary Quentin. “Most have B.A.s and could hold down good jobs in the secular world.”

Denied Internet Access

Mother Mary Quentin has heard — she says “to my horror” — from women religious who have been silenced by their congregation’s leadership. “They have even gone so far as to block access to the Internet to squelch participation in the visitation.”

“I can only offer consolation and encourage them to bear their suffering. I can’t counsel them to disobedience against their leadership,” she added.

One of the congregations associated with the Council of Major Superiors is the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, whose motherhouse is in Nashville, Tenn. From there, Sister Marianne Sartain told the Register that the 150-year-old congregation never doffed its habit nor abandoned its communal prayer, worship and life. It is attracting 15 new postulants a year and has nearly doubled to 250 members since she joined in 1965.

The congregation has welcomed the visitation. “We don’t have a problem. It comes from the Church, and we’re consecrated to the Church,” she said. “But in addition, we welcome any opportunity to deepen our community spiritual life through reflection.”

Steve Weatherbe writes

from Victoria, British Columbia.