Vatican and Sisters

04/20/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015


Now and then I make visits, not visitations, to Catholic premises, usually university campuses. I started doing so in the years of the Second Vatican Council, some 50 years ago. At that time, a Protestant in such precincts was a bit unfamiliar, even exotic, although that quickly changed during the prime years of the ecumenical movement.

Sometimes audiences on these Catholic campuses included religious orders. I recall a gathering of sisters at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, which attracted hundreds, all of them at that time easily identified, clad as they were in black garb.

Last week, I can't remember seeing more than a couple of sisters at Fordham University in New York or the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. But the status and doings of religious orders and their members come up frequently in programs and conversations.

Thus at Fordham, in an informal give-and-take, someone mentioned the decline in the number of sisters -- which is radical -- and the closing of Catholic parochial schools -- which is frequent --without comment.

A moment later a professor reported having attended a mass on Easter Sunday where she saw a diminished congregation with few children. A veteran Fordham professor asked, 'Well, don't you think the two are linked? Without the nurture of parish day-school, not many are ready to make lifelong commitments to community worship, etc." (I paraphrase; it takes professors longer to say something like that, but, in any form, the observation was valid.)

These comments about sisters and the health of Catholic community life are constant.

So sudden have changes come that it is hard to find landmark moments from which to do sighting, measuring, and envisioning. But such a moment came last week in front-page news about something that did not happen. The Vatican inquisitors, as most media accounts liked to speak of them, quietly dropped pursuit of deviations among leaders and the faithful sisters in general.

Three years ago, no doubt acting at the behest of disgruntled and suspicious bishops and underlings, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith initiated inquiries and pursuits in order to smoke out heretical doctrines and practices. Last week the Congregation and the leaders of the sisters' response group "marked the conclusion of the inquiry" and in a news release spoke of the "spirit of cooperation" that was alive and well.

The president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), Sister Sharon Holland, noted that "deeper understandings of one another's experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the Church" had become evident. Does anyone think such understandings could have happened had the meetings been marked only by argument? Argument forces people to dig in, paint "the other" negatively, and try to win.

What is clear is that -- shall we say in the mini-era of Pope Francis? -- the preferred mode of interaction is not argument but conversation. Conversation prompts questions, cultivation instead of digging in, and an attempt to win understanding.

So as the Vatican venture "fades," the sisters survive with their good name revered anew.

Years ago, memoirs, cartoons, Hollywood images, and generalized whining pictured the sisters as disciplinarians and out-of-touch elders. Now, amid and despite cultural debris, the works of women religious have gained new images.

Non-Catholics who pay attention to who educates, nurses, heals, does social work, takes risks, readily look to the enduring, if diminished, orders of women religious. They express regret for their numerical losses, admiration for them as they outlast harassers, good wishes for their health, and many renewals of hope.

Although not technically members of Catholic "religious orders," they join men and women who are also seen as "religious" in many kinds of faith communities, doing what those sisters were chartered to do and for centuries have done: serve others, outlast "inquisitors," and become conversation partners and co-workers.


Goodstein, Laurie. "Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Catholic Nuns' Group." New York Times, April 16, 2015, U.S.

Poggioli, Sylvia. "Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Nuns." NPR, April 17, 2015, News/Religion.

Fox, Thomas C. "Going forward: LCWR after the 'doctrinal assessment'." Global Sisters Report: A project of National Catholic Reporter, April 17, 2015.

NCR Staff. "Timeline of interactions between LCWR, doctrinal congregation." National Catholic Reporter, May 8, 2014.

GSR Staff. "Vatican press release on the end of the mandate for LCWR and the joint statement." Global Sisters Report: A project of National Catholic Report, April 16, 2015.

Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

Image Credit: epSos .de / flickr creative commons.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

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