Vatican diplomatic successes with nuns, the U.S., and Cuba

by Thomas Reese

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Diplomatic skills were on display at the Vatican this week when it issued its report on the U.S. sisters, hosted a visit from John Kerry, and midwifed an agreement between the United States and Cuba.

First, the nuns.

A sigh of relief echoed through convents all over the United States as the Vatican report on the life and ministry of religious women was released this week. The six-year visitation of religious communities, which had all the trappings of an inquisition when it began, turned into an affirming dialogue by the time it concluded.

The key players in this transformation were Pope Francis, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Mother Mary Clare Millea and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland. Without their diplomatic skills, this could have been a disaster.

The apostolic visitation began in 2008 under Cardinal Franc Rodé, then prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (aka Congregation for Religious), who was concerned about "feminist spirit" among American sisters as well as "irregularities or omissions in American religious life." He clearly expected to find lots of problems and failings among the sisters, which he had heard about especially from "an important representative of the U.S. church," whom he did not name.

Luckily for the sisters, Rodé retired in January 2011 before the visitation was completed. His replacement, Braz de Aviz, proved to be much more positive in his dealing with religious women. He was not appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to the congregation because of any expertise in religious life. (He is not a religious.) He got the job because the Vatican was embarrassed that the largest Catholic country in the world did not have a high-level position in the Curia, and this was the first vacancy available.

Braz de Aviz began softening the visitation soon after taking office, even before Pope Francis was elected. In this, he had an ally in Millea, who had been appointed by Rodé to lead the visitation in the United States. She had reluctantly agreed to head the visitation team and tried to allay the fears of sisters who objected to the whole process. Although traditional by nature, her respect for other sisters and her nonauthoritarian style brought many of the sisters to reluctantly go along with a process that had been begun without consulting them. 

Finally, Holland, a savvy canon lawyer with 21 years of experience working in the Congregation for Religious, was a wise, strong and diplomatic representative for the American sisters after she was elected president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious in 2013. She knew how the Vatican worked and had the respect and confidence of the American sisters.

This visitation could have been a disaster without the diplomatic skills of these individuals. Because of them, the final report had "an encouraging and realistic tone," Holland said. "Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on."

At the press conference that released the report, the participants (including Braz de Aviz, Millea, and Holland) clearly did not want to talk about the other study of LCWR being conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The positive tone of this report, however, will hopefully make it more difficult for the doctrinal congregation to lower the boom on these organizations and the sisters involved with them.

The report on the sisters got more attention than another event at the Vatican this week, the hourlong meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. In describing the meeting, the Vatican focused on U.S. "commitments."

According to Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi of the Vatican Press Office, the topics covered included "the situation in the Middle East, and the commitment of the U.S. to avoid the escalation of tensions and the explosion of violence; also the commitment to promote a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians." These are similar to the topics discussed when they last met in January for an hour and 40 minutes.

According to Lombardi, they also discussed "the United States' commitment to the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison," with the Holy See expressing willingness to assist "in seeking adequate humanitarian solutions for current inmates." The U.S. bishops have repeatedly called for the closing of the Guantanamo prison.

Some countries have offered to accept the inmates from Guantanamo, but it is unlikely that the 110-acre Vatican City State could accommodate any. Vatican support for closing the prison may encourage other countries to come forward. Nor will Vatican support hurt the Obama administration in dealing the opponents to closure in the United States.

Other new topics included Ukraine and Ebola, although they were not discussed in depth because of time constraints.

Noteworthy also was the topic not discussed this time that did come up last time: health care reform. The Vatican brought up this topic briefly in January at the request of the American bishops who continue to object to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. This time, in talks with Kerry, the Vatican focused exclusively on international issues.

The final diplomatic achievement of the week was the release on Wednesday of U.S. citizen and USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned by the Cuban government for espionage.

At his January meeting in the Vatican, Kerry had asked Parolin for help in getting the release of Gross from Cuba. Pope Francis secretly wrote President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, urging them to resolve Gross' case and that of three Cuban prisoners in the United States. In October, the Vatican hosted a meeting between Cuban and U.S. officials that resolved the issue.

The Vatican, which has always had diplomatic relations with Cuba, has long supported reconciliation between the two countries and an end to the U.S. embargo. As Pope John Paul II said during his 1998 visit to Cuba, "Let Cuba open itself to the world, and the world open itself to Cuba." The Cuban and U.S. bishops have taken the same position. 

"Engagement is the path to support change in Cuba and to empower the Cuban people in their quest for democracy, human rights and religious liberty," said Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We believe it is long past due that the United States establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, withdraw all restrictions on travel to Cuba, rescind terrorist designations aimed at Cuba, encourage trade that will benefit both nations, lift restrictions on business and financial transactions, and facilitate cooperation in the areas of environmental protection, drug interdiction, human trafficking and scientific exchanges." 

Although the president cannot end the embargo without congressional consent, he is moving toward re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Now that the president is not running for re-election, he doesn't have to worry about the Cuban vote in Florida. It is also helpful to have the hugely popular Pope Francis in his corner on this one. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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