Editorial: Sisters deserve an apology for apostolic visitation

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Now that the quaintly named apostolic visitation of U.S. women religious is over and the current leadership of the Vatican agency that oversees religious orders has decided that the women are worthy of praise, admiration and gratitude, it is quite appropriate to ask: "What was that all about?"

The investigation can now be seen for the sham it was, and we as a church should be ashamed of the abuse these faithful women suffered because of it. They deserve an apology.

In the final analysis, it is apparent that the investigation of U.S. women religious by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life was far more about what's wrong with the male clerical culture than anything worrisome about the sisters. The wrong group in the church was placed under scrutiny. Actually, that fact was apparent from the start.

The genesis of the investigation can be traced to worn-out memes from a relatively tiny corner of the church, where ultraconservatives are convinced that the decline in numbers of sisters and priests is, first, disastrous for religious life in general, and two, caused by the orders abandoning old modes of dress and practice, and if only those practices and garb were restored, the numbers would soar again.

The first presumption is based on the false notion that a parochial structure requiring major parish plants with rectories full of priests and convents stuffed with sisters is both the norm and essential for maintaining and spreading Catholicism. Evidence enough exists to disabuse one of the first notion. Rectories full of priests who believe themselves so significantly different from the rest of humankind that they can be accountable only to other men similarly set apart we now know can breed the worst church scandal in hundreds of years.

Demographers have amply demonstrated that the iconic Catholic "plant" of recent decades is an unsustainable model and that the numbers of clerics and vowed women that made such a project possible for a brief time constituted a blip on the historical screen. Those numbers were the anomaly. They had not existed before and likely will never exist again. The often vaunted growth of "traditional" orders should be viewed with caution. Most are small groups and will likely remain a small portion of the population of women religious.

The requirement, then, is not to wish for a return to some romanticized version of 1940s or '50s Catholicism, but to imagine and understand what shape the parochial structure must take in the future and how it will be organized and led. Laypeople will have to take more individual and corporate responsibility for what it means to be Catholic and for passing on the faith. They will have to be trusted to a much greater degree than they now are -- and given positions of responsibility.

The tired old memes were acted upon because men in the church felt comfortable determining that women had a problem, that they (the men) understood what the problem was and that they knew what to do about it without ever consulting women religious. Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Vatican congregation that initiated the investigation in 2008, publicly made the judgment in 2010, long before the process was complete, that "the secularized culture has penetrated into the minds and hearts of some consecrated persons and some communities, where it is seen as an opening to modernity and a way of approaching the contemporary world."

Vatican apparatchiks were quickly surprised by the groundswell of support the sisters received, and must have been dumbstruck by the women's resistance to the process. The Vatican soon realized it was picking the wrong fight with the wrong group at the wrong time.

Several replacements in the congregation conducting the investigation made clear that they were more interested in cooperation and rebuilding trust with the nuns than they were in searching for peccadillos that might be used to prove earlier presumptions. Rodé was replaced in 2011 by Brazilian Archbishop João Bráz de Aviz, who came in saying the congregation "had started listening again" and any problems could be dealt with "without preemptive judgment, and listening to the reasons."

Two years later, Pope Francis came on the scene, and the tone changed even more in the direction of mercy, listening and dialogue. A few months ago, one of the cardinals closest to Francis, Sean O'Malley of Boston, told a national news show that the investigation of the women was "a disaster."

Indeed, it was, and the fact that O'Malley felt free to say so is clearly indicative of the degree of change that has occurred. Francis has given powerful personal witness to this change, by leading all of us, ordained included, to the margins. And there, everyone realizes, he is more likely than not to meet sisters already there.

Go into the worst parts of any major city in the country today, places where now there are only abandoned Catholic churches, and there, amid the decay, the poverty, the broken lives, the immigrants, the undocumented, are women religious -- and increasingly the companions and associates the women have inspired. They were well ahead of the Francis effect in knowing how the church had to change and where it should be headed. They don't do it perfectly, and some of their theological explorations may cause their male counterparts heartburn from time to time. But their lives and their prayer are worthy examples for the church today.

We're glad the Vatican has made this unjustified, ridiculously expensive and unnecessary "visitation" go away. We hope church leaders do the same, and quickly, with the ongoing investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the group that represents most of the U.S. sisters Vatican officials now view with "gratitude" and with whom they seek "collaborative trust."

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 16-29, 2015 print issue under the headline: Sisters deserve an apology.

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