On Jan. 4, Cardinal Franc Rode resigned as head of the "cabinet office" in the Vatican that deals with religious orders, including communities of nuns worldwide. It's called the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life. He is being replaced by a Brazilian, Archbishop Joao Braz de Aviz. And the new second in command is an American, Archbishop Joseph Tobin.
American nuns and Vatican-watchers wonder what's afoot. Rode, by all accounts, is an arch-conservative with an archaic view of religious life that resonates with the 18th century, rather than the 21st. His most famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) project was a formal "investigation" of all active orders of nuns in the United States, formally announced at a press conference in January 2009. A month later, the Vatican announced a "doctrinal investigation" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization representing the collective leadership of about 90 percent to 95 percent of all nuns in the United States.
These investigations came out of the clear blue sky, without any allegations of wrongdoing that usually prompt official probes. And they brought howls of protest from nuns themselves and many in the laity. Typical was the comment of a friend of mine: "Now ... let me get this straight. Some priests committed sex abuse. Bishops covered it up. And so they're investigating nuns?" The investigation of nuns has nothing to do with sex abuse, of course, but that scandal led some to ask if this is an attempt to deflect attention away from the sex abuse debacle.
The leaders of women's communities, a group that usually seeks dialogue with Rome on difficult issues, protested the entire process. When a written questionnaire (phase 2 of the investigation) was sent to all communities, a very large percentage protested its intrusiveness and simply refused to fill it out.
These women are not radicals who enjoy spoofing the Vatican. If anything, they are moderate centrists in their communities. But they were simply so incensed that they engaged in serious underground collaboration across the country so that no community would be a lone ranger in resistance. The result? Very few questionnaires were returned to Rome on the appointed date. These women had reached their limit.
The problems with the investigation are legion. First, the Vatican did not give any formal reasons for launching it to begin with.
The process outlined for the investigation violated the values of openness, dialogue and collaboration embraced by American nuns since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. It was in no sense collaborative effort, and the final report to the Vatican on each community is supposed to remain secret, giving communities no chance to correct mistakes or respond to unreasonable findings. Community leaders protested strongly, indicating that this is unacceptable.
And then, the process is headed by a nun from a traditional order, Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, headquartered in Connecticut. I've talked to progressive nuns who know her, and they find her honest, congenial and open as a person. But they are quick to acknowledge that she works for the Vatican in this investigative position, and probably does not have free reign for her best instincts.
At the base of it all, there is a deep-seated concern that the Vatican wants to rein in American nuns, return them to traditional ministries and lifestyles, put them back in habits, curtail their independence and keep them from speaking out on public issues.
When the Leadership Conference spoke out in favor of health care reform in 2010, while the American bishops opposed it, the Vatican went apoplectic. And of course, the nuns' position prevailed. In fact, there are some who believe their public position was pivotal in changing some of the last votes in the House of Representatives.
And of course, some individual nuns have spoken out for gay and lesbian rights, for the ordination of women, and even for a pro-choice approach to abortion.
And although some nuns today still stick to traditional ministries in Catholic schools and parish ministries, they are usually not the off-putting women in enveloping habits made famous in old movies. Thousands are front and center for justice and peace, and often speak for the rights of women. Many are active in environmental movements. Some participate in anti-war and anti-torture campaigns and demonstrations, or protest at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Not a few have gone to jail. Many work with the poor and advocate for the poor in legislatures. And many work with poor women specifically -- in homeless shelters, rape crisis centers and centers that deal with domestic violence.
Some commentators think that Rode and his ilk wanted to put an end to all of this and return American nuns to the classroom and convent.
As a nun who has long been involved in peace and justice work, interfaith collaboration and the rights of women, there is virtually no chance of that happening even if that were Rode's motive, and even if he had stayed. The gospel of justice and peace is part of our bone marrow these days; it is, as official church documents have said, "a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel."
But what about the new men at the Vatican? Will they change course with this investigation? Was the Vatican "burned" by the strong and unexpected criticism and non-compliance by American nuns? Maybe officials in the Curia, perhaps the Pope himself, has decided that it's time to quietly bury this idea -- or at least deliver benign results.
No one knows, but a few signs are positive. Archbishop Tobin has worked with American nuns for decades, and says he admires them. Archbishop Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil does not speak English and has never traveled in the United States, but says he is open to a dialogue with American nuns about the investigation. Both of these men speak cautiously, however, and both work for the Vatican, so they are not independent agents. Still, it's hard to imagine anyone more hard line than Rode, and he's gone. 2011 is likely to open an entirely new chapter of this investigation.