The conflicted and controversial three-year doctrinal investigation by the Vatican of U.S. Catholic sisters in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has formally come to an end, according to a press release from the Vatican this morning and reports in the National Catholic Reporter.
“We are pleased at the completion of the Mandate which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of Religious Life and its practice," said Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM, president of LCWR.
"Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the Church and the people it serves. We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”
Conservative operators within the Vatican have been working for years to bring suspicion on communities of Catholic sisters in the U.S. In the past seven years, they succeeded in launching twin investigations into American nuns.
The first, launched in 2008, was a controversial and unprecedented "apostolic visitation" investigating the finances and communal practices of individual U.S.-based Catholic orders of women religious, representing tens of thousands of women. It ended in December 2014 with a formal backing down by the Vatican office from which it was launched. The final report, issued under Pope Francis, was released at a public press conference in Rome — also unprecedented — in which all those involved made clear statements about the process and emphasized a spirit of forbearance, mercy, and transparency.
The second, launched in April 2012, amounted to a hostile takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. Catholic sisters and is the primary leadership governing body for U.S. Catholic women's orders. LCWR was accused by ultra-traditionalist Archbishop Levada of including "radical feminist themes" and fomenting "corporate dissent" from the church's teaching on human sexuality, among other things. Even though LCWR was founded in 1956 under the urging of Pope Pius XII, it was under Pope Benedict XVI that the doctrinal assessment took place.
One criticism of the hugely popular Pope Francis has been that he did not immediately suspend the Vatican's twin investigations into the American Catholic nuns. However, it became clear soon after his election that he intended to make changes in Vatican leadership — including replacing the heads of the two Vatican offices involved in the twin investigations. It also became clear that he wanted the matters resolved before his visit to the United States in September 2015.
With today's announcement, both investigations have come to a close.
It should not be forgotten that these investigations have taken a terrible toll on Catholic sisters. The women who served their communities in leadership during this time have suffered terribly, both emotionally and spiritually. Women who have dedicated their whole lives in the service of the poor and the promotion of human dignity had their motives called into question in a demeaning, dismissive way by those who abused the power of the Church to exact vengeance for partisan purposes. (The investigation of LCWR came after Catholic sisters came out in support of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare against the wishes of conservative U.S. bishops. The sisters' leadership broke the "religious liberty" bloc and helped pass the ACA, which has provided healthcare to millions of Americans.)
Additionally, the stance taken by the leadership councils of the Catholic women's orders and by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been an exemplary model for all Catholics and non-Catholics, both in the U.S. and around the world, for what civil, respectful, and strong faith-rooted dispute, dialogue, and "reasoning together" as equals looks like. We can all learn from their example. They continue to lead and shape us in human values as they always have done.
Thank you, Sisters! Well done, good and faithful servants.
Rose Marie Berger is a Sojourners senior associate editor.