You have to admit that Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz had a difficult task today. He reported on the visitation of U.S. communities of nuns that began in 2008.
Now, this "visitation" was not his idea or initiative. It was launched by order of archconservative Cardinal Franc Rodé, then in charge of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Rodé is still around and may have a few opinions about the result.
Then, there is Cardinal Gerhard Müller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has issued highly negative reports about the Leadership Conference of Women Religions -- so negative, in fact, that it sparked a Support the Sisters movement in the U.S. Catholic church.
In spite of all the potential criticism from church conservatives, the report presented today is mostly positive. For example, it does not blame progressive religious women for the decline in the number of women entering religious life after the 1950s and 1960s, as have some conservatives over the decades. It simply acknowledges the fact that this period was an abnormal historical phenomenon, not a norm that could realistically be expected to continue.
It praises the ministries of religious women today, especially with the poor, and notes that they resonate with the message of Pope Francis. And it celebrates the growth of associate programs and other attempts to share charism and ministry with the laity.
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But it does take an oblique swat at the fact that most U.S. nuns do not wear distinctive garb. (Time to put that to rest, fellas!) It suggests that the members of each community evaluate their "actual practice" of liturgical and common prayer. It leaves one wondering what's on their minds. Maybe they learned that many religious women are less than enchanted by male-led eucharistic liturgies 100 percent of the time. Or perhaps they have begun to understand that some nuns, like many Catholic women, are seeking -- or creating -- alternatives.
But for me, the really interesting question is this: How will the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith deal with this report? This report has a few cautions, but none of the gross negativity of the doctrinal congregation's report on LCWR. Will this set up a conflict between these two Vatican structures? After all, LCWR is simply the leadership of the communities that were given a generally positive assessment in this report.
Time will tell. Meanwhile, it looks to me like the Vatican, under Pope Francis, wants to declare a cease-fire in its dealings with American nuns and wants to put this whole issue to rest. Let's hope that's true.
There are more important things for nuns to continue to do with full energy: work for justice for the poor; combat racism, sexism and homophobia; save the planet from the ravages of climate change; improve interfaith relations; work to bring peace to the world. Nuns are leaders in all these areas; they don't need any more distractions from these works -- from the Vatican or elsewhere.