On the Vatican’s Visitation of American Nuns

Early this year the Vatican launched a three-year, anonymously financed “visitation” of American women religious (i.e, nuns). This visitation apparently has two dimensions: first, an effort to assess the quality of life of the sisters, which apparently extends to exploring why there has been a drop in the number of women entering religious life. But there is also an investigation being conducted of the leadership conference that represents the vast majority of American nuns — addressing concerns that the leadership is not sufficiently compliant with official church teaching on several controversial issues. Needless to say, some observers question the motivation behind this visitation, as well as the manner in which it is being conducted.

Commonweal magazine has just published what, to my mind, is probably the best, and most succinct, analysis of the issues surrounding the visitation, including questions about what is really motivating the Vatican to conduct this investigation and the concerns about the message it is sending, not only to women religious but to the church and society as a whole. It’s well worth reading. Telling in itself is the fact that the author chose to remain anonymous, not because she feared reprisals aimed at herself, but because she was concerned that her superiors — and even her bishop — might become targets.

Cross Examination: Why Is Rome Investigating U.S. Nuns? by Sister X

As a student of Wilber’s integral theory and other theories of human consciousness development (such as Spiral Dynamics), I can’t help but wonder if the church hierarchy represents one level of consicousness — tribal, mythic-membership, with an emphasis on authoritarian governance and the need for internal conformity, the “blue” level of Spiral Dynamics — while the American sisters have begun to embody a different level, more focused on pluralism, justice issues, egalitarianism and self-actualization — the “green” or perhaps even “yellow” memes of SD. If my hunch is correct, then it will be quite interesting to watch how the visitation plays out over the next 2+ years. By the grace of God, it won’t just devolve into the witch hunt that its liberal critics fear it will be; rather, perhaps it can be a means by which the Holy Spirit slowly nudges the church as a whole toward greater health and integration. We can hope and pray.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Anoymous

    Did you know that now the “Visitation” group is trying to get over $1 million from the Bishops’ Conference…privately funded has gone belly up…someone please turn them over and point them back to Rome…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Perhaps this funding issue is, in itself, evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit — not to mention God’s sense of humor…

  • http://episcopalifem.wordpress.com eileen

    Thanks for pointing this out Carl.

    I went to and for a time worked for a college run by the Sisters of Mercy. Despite being raised as a Roman Catholic, it was my first close association with a religious order. It was an illuminating experience, and shaped my mind and subsequent theological thinking in important ways.

    The treatment of women by the Vatican, in part, alongside my own issues with authority, lead me to conclude that I could no longer remain a practicing Catholic. Reading this breaks my heart. I’ve seen first hand the gift that so many of these women have given the world. To think of them struggling to survive in their age and infirmity, after the service they’ve given a church which basically pisses on them, is appalling. If I thought that remaining and dissenting would do any good in the current climate, I’d do it – but I see it for the lost cause that it is.

    Until Rome starts to get hit in the pocketbook over these issues, they will continue to stick their heads in the sand, and lean on their dysfunctional misogynistic authority structure.

    The good that is done in the world on the backs of these women, who live their lives in a state of perpetual self-sacrifice, will be economically very difficult to provide once they are gone…and with what is happening with vocations in this country, they will be gone. I’ve watched the Sisters of Mercy aged dramatically in over the past twenty years. It’s sad.

  • thegreeningspirit

    Looking at this from the window of spiral dynamic and the memes is really great Carl. I bet there are some of the very highly and continually lifelong educated sisters who know what you are talking about there. I doubt if that useful tool for comprehending sometimes almost irreconcilable differences is known or pondered by Rome, whose assessment tools are back several centuries in thinking and culture.

    I think of the Beguines of France and Belgium in the medieval days…women dedicating their hearts and lives to social activism, spirituality, living communaly and not under the thumb of the church or marriage.
    How many times, were they “closed down” in history. I think maybe 13, as I heard somewhere (was it Matthew Fox in his audio program Radical Prayer?).
    Maybe this is the way things will open up for Women who are called to a spiritual life.. and not in the Church Officianale.
    It’s already happening in groups of women who are going forward serving, teaching, mentoring, celebrating and following their Souls. Many many have their roots in Catholicism, and those are rich. But the plant doesn’t stop growing at the root level. The flowering, I must say, is at a good distance from the groundwork.

  • zoecarnate

    Hey Carl, I’m glad you found the Commonweal article. I was going to email it to you yesterday…

    You and I have discussed this; it’d be great if Catholics and Protestants (and Emergence Xianity?) could embrace a truly ‘c’atholic, holarchic model of leadership and plurality – for the health, sanity, and growth of us all.

  • penelope

    Pope Paul VI ALREADY addressed this issue on September 14, 1975 when he CANONIZED the first American born NUN — SAINT ELIZABETH SETON !!!!!

    This once Episcopalean, NY socialite and wife and mother of five, later widow, religous foundress and founder of the catholic school system in the USA is definitely “on top of this” for her following — nuns, students, mothers, orphans. I suggest all American Catholics give the Vatican all the rope for which it asks for itself!!!!!! And , by the way, pray for these guys ’cause …….’ they know not what they do’.


    Cannot believe how American nuns totally disregard their fellow Catholics yet very happy to remain in religious life and accept the generosity of felow benefactors thank God young girls find you totally irrelevent

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Eileen, I don’t know how someone like you in Australia feels so qualified to speak about this topic, but your biased and uncharitable assessment of women religious in America certainly is not consistent with my experience. The nuns I’ve encountered, both in person and via the written word, are all dedicated, hard working, holy women, committed to God and to the church; and they love the Catholic faith so much that they cannot in good conscience silence their own authentic and valid questioning of church authority. More Catholics would do well to follow their courageous example.

  • penelope

    Well said, Carl. We must, in charity, look at things from Eileen’s perspective — she lives on a continent whose only KNOWN contribution to mankind is — UGGS !!!!!!! Let us all enjoy the day offered to the Solemnity of Mary……now there are “two” holy women known to Christendom……Mary…..and Eileen

  • http://Thewebsiteofunknowing Denise O’Connor

    You go eileen. The best thrown at you was an insult to Australia-note not a defense of the irrelevancy of convent life of most contemporary nuns. And what planet is Carl living on having us believe that nonsense about nuns being not in good conscience remain silent about church authority! Anything to up attendance and make a few bucks. It is pathetic.

  • penelope

    Easter 2010 ~ There is only ONE and ONE thing only that REALLY gets a rise out of me…..and that is when TOTAL ignoramae BASH my NUNS !!!!!! What “young girls” are YOU talking about?????? My daughters continue to find the Sisters an integral part of their lives !!!!!

    I am a 59 year old woman who was BORN an orphan on Father’s DAY 1951 in the City of New York !!!!!! When you BASH my nuns you BASH my SAINT and their FOUNDRESS !!!!! And you have the unmitigated GALL to call yourself Catholics and “ladies”, I suppose ????? When did you LAST feed and clothe an orphan AND know their name ???? When did you last spent 40 years teaching children catholic doctrine ???? I could go on but why bother…….since you missed the message of the Gospel in toto, I’m sure there is little any one could possibly say to convert you now to Catholicism. I thought we’d seen the LAST of that ‘ Irish biddy’ generation, I guess not. Meanwhile, I did NOT bash Australia !!!! I love UGGS !!!!!! ~ Penelope ~