Vatican Concludes Six-Year Investigation of American Nuns 


In 2008, under then-pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican launched a broad investigation into the “quality of life” of American nuns, a move that, to a lot of those nuns, looked like it was meant to forcefully nudge them back in line. On Tuesday, the completed investigation was finally released; instead of being critical, it acknowledged that American nuns are doing a pretty great job, despite dwindling numbers and aging communities.

Since the 1960s, U.S. nuns who don’t live in cloistered communities have become increasingly active politically and socially: teaching, serving the poor, writing books, working for grassroots causes, and occasionally going to prison for breaking into nuclear weapons facilities to decorate them with Bible verses and human blood.

The Vatican, under both Pope Benedict and purported Cool Pope Francis, would seemingly prefer that the nuns did less talking and more meekly serving the church, and launched an “apostolic visitation” to see just what those nuns were getting up to. When American nuns learned of the investigation in 2009, they feared it was meant to root out the disobedient among them; Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, a Berkeley theology professor, wrote an email to fellow sisters warning them to treat the investigators with extreme caution, as “uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house.”

The American-born nun who led the Vatican’s inquiry, Mother Mary Clare Millea, told the Times that the inquiry was simply meant to determine how well the nuns were “living in fidelity” with their mission and promised it wasn’t meant to force conformity. And Cardinal Franc Rode, the Vatican official who launched the investigation, said it was all perfectly innocent, and that news accounts had presented it “as if it were an act of mistrust of American female religious congregations or as if it were a global criticism of their work. It is not.”

The last site visit was completed in 2010, and today, at last, we saw the final report, which is exceedingly conciliatory; it begins with a lovely shout-out to the integral role that women play in the church:

Since the early days of the Catholic Church in their country, women religious have courageously been in the forefront of her evangelizing mission, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalized. Throughout the nation’s history, the educational apostolate of women religious in Catholic schools has fostered the personal development and nourished the faith of countless young people and helped the church community in the USA to flourish. In addition, a great majority of the Catholic healthcare systems in the United States, which serve millions of people each year, were established by congregations of women religious.

The report acknowledged that the visit was “in some ways unprecedented,” and said it was spurred in part by the falling numbers of nuns in the U.S. But it praised their efforts to continue recruiting new nuns, and acknowledged how difficult that is, especially with an “ever-widening age gap” between the sisters and their potential new recruits (the average U.S. nun these days is in her 70s). The investigators also found that the nuns aren’t particularly rebellious towards the church or their bosses: “[T]he majority of sisters have a positive image of their major superiors past and present.”

In summary, nuns are lovely and they’re doing just fine. We probably didn’t need six years to determine that, but there we are. Mother Clare Millea, speaking to the Times about the completed report, said that Pope Francis had acknowledged it was an “arduous experience” and said of the American nuns, “please give all of them my blessing.”

Despite all those nice words, another Vatican investigation of American nuns is ongoing. This one, led by a different office, is looking into the Leadership Conference of American Women Religious, an influential organization that most nuns in leadership positions in the U.S. belong to. The Vatican took over the LCWR in 2012, accusing them of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” That inquiry is ongoing, and isn’t expected to be completed until around 2017.

Vatican officials announce the results of the inquiry December 16. Image via AP

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