Vatican Calls Loretto Head to Rome to Discuss Sisters' “Dissent”

(photo: Photo: “Alvesgaspar”, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The president of the Sisters of Loretto has expressed surprise that she has been summoned to the Vatican to discuss several “areas of concern” regarding her order.

This summons was contained in a letter from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) to Sister Pearl McGivney, the president of the Loretto Sisters. She informed the order’s members about the summons in a June 1 letter that was leaked to the National Catholic Reporter.

The Reporter’s June 9 article stated that the summons “may raise questions” for other U.S. sisters because the Vatican “has at least in this instance used material” gathered in the 2009-2011 CICLSAL apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious.

The story quoted Sister Pearl: “We had no expectation that six years later [after the apostolic visitation of Loretto] we would find ourselves being asked to come to Rome to address any outstanding issues."

Actually, the Loretto Sisters are not the only order that has received such a summons to come to the Vatican for discussions, but the Loretto president is the only superior thus far who has discussed such a letter with the press.

No one should be surprised that the Vatican is using information gathered from the apostolic visitation to try to improve the quality of life for women religious, as that was the central purpose of the visitation. The visitation office, under the direction of Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, made clear from the beginning that after her report was submitted to the Vatican, each order would receive feedback from CICLSAL.

In a Jan. 12, 2010, letter to superiors of U.S. women’s orders, she wrote: “Each order of sisters in the U.S. will receive some kind of feedback from that curial office ‘for the purpose of promoting its charismatic identity and apostolic vitality in ongoing dialogue with the local and universal Church.’”

This is the same process that was followed during the apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries a decade ago: Feedback was given privately to each seminary, and changes deemed necessary by the Vatican were quietly implemented. Now this is happening with orders of women religious as a natural outcome of the visitation.

It is ironic that during the visitation, many sisters complained that they were not being told what was in the visitors’ reports, and now that they are getting feedback from the Vatican, they are surprised and/or offended.

I suspect much of that surprise is because many sisters assumed that since the visitation was conducted in a professional, friendly, respectful manner, and the new leaders appointed to CICLSAL seemed more sympathetic to sisters than the previous leadership, nothing would come of the visitation.

In fact, I heard that very assessment from Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon at an Oct. 17, 2013, regional Call to Action meeting at the University of Notre Dame. Sister Florence was then the outgoing president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. When someone in the audience asked her about the visitation, she said she thought nothing would come of it because the reports were sitting on the floor in a Vatican office, for there weren’t enough English speakers in that office to process them.

The reports may have been processed at a snail’s pace, but the letters going out to superiors now do demonstrate that the Vatican has taken the visitation seriously and feels a responsibility to make corrections in some orders, as happened with the seminaries.

Many of those areas that raised concerns from the Vatican also existed in some orders long before the apostolic visitation, and the visitation reports perhaps reminded church officials that past problems were persisting in some cases, so action is now necessary.

The Sisters of Loretto are a prime example of this phenomenon. For example, the Vatican letter to Sister Pearl listed as a concern the order’s policy on vowed sisters “who are known to hold positions of dissent from the Church’s moral teaching or approved liturgical practice.”

Several familiar names spring to mind regarding this point. First would be Loretto Sister Jeanine Gramick, who transferred from the School Sisters of Notre Dame to the Loretto order in 2001 because her SSND superiors required her to observe a directive from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to permanently stop any pastoral work with homosexual persons because of serious errors in her treatment of homosexuality.

The Loretto superiors apparently have felt no obligation to rein in Sister Jeanine over the years: Her public support for “gay marriage” is all over the Internet, and along with another Sister of Loretto, Mary Ann Cunninghan, she is a leader of the so-called National Coalition of American Nuns that publicly challenges Church teaching on contraception and abortion, as well as other issues.

Another Loretto transfer of notoriety is Sister Maureen Fiedler, who is a frequent critic of Church teaching, and has been an outspoken proponent of women’s ordination to the priesthood for years.

The Vatican letter also included ongoing concerns about the role of lay “co-members” in the Loretto order, as well as problems with recent revisions of articles of incorporation. It is no secret that the Loretto leadership has been dueling with the Vatican for two decades over their lifestyle, governance and propensity to allow their lay “co-members” — some of whom are not even Catholic — to exercise decision-making roles for the order, to have authority roles over vowed sisters and to tap into the order’s financial resources for their sustenance and outside projects.

In fact, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross — as they were known when they taught my father and his siblings and then me and my siblings at our parish school — have now changed their name to “Loretto Community” to include the co-members as well as the vowed sisters.

Another area of concern highlighted by CICLSAL included “ambiguity regarding the congregation’s adherence to some areas of Church doctrine and morality.” One can readily understand this concern simply by reading the identity statement of the Loretto Women’s Network, made up of Loretto sisters and co-members. That statement includes support for “ecclesial dissent” as well as abortion rights and ordination for women.

By calling the superiors of such orders to the Vatican to discuss troubling issues, the CICLSAL is simply exercising its responsibility and duty to protect the canonical rights of sisters and the institutional integrity of religious orders. Catholics should be gratified, not surprised.