Inquisitive Vatican — or Vatican inquisition?


It’s very appropriate that the New York Times highlight one of the developing, perhaps major religious news stories. And it’s even better, most of the time, when that story is told by religion writer Laurie Goodstein, who has a gift for nuance and ability to give her readers revealing details about her subjects in a way that is spare, usually undramatic, but enlightening.

So I was a little taken aback by the way she handled what’s likely to be a hot topic for a while — several Vatican investigations of American nuns. The article has a lot of good, informative material — but some very distracting flaws.

Here’s the lede. Read it and ask yourself: is Goodstein taking sides here?

The Vatican is quietly conducting two sweeping investigations of American nuns, a development that has startled and dismayed nuns who fear they are the targets of a doctrinal inquisition.

Nuns were the often-unsung workers who helped build the Roman Catholic Church in this country, planting schools and hospitals and keeping parishes humming. But for the last three decades, their numbers have been declining — to 60,000 today from 180,000 in 1965.

While some nuns say they are grateful that the Vatican is finally paying attention to their dwindling communities, many fear that the real motivation is to reel in American nuns who have reinterpreted their calling for the modern world.

Who do you think of when you hear the words “sweeping investigation?” And how about the word “inquisition?” Right. Let’s move on — the “oft-unsung” nuns who have adapted to the “modern” world seem to be the heroes of this story.

Part of the problem here is that you have a natural tension between the investigators, notably “apple-cheeked” and habited Mother Mary Clare Millea, and the nuns under investigation. Unless you already think “about time these nuns got their comeuppance,” or have been keeping up with the story of U.S. nuns, as a reader your sympathies are probably more likely to lie with those being “investigated.” The fact that Goodstein quotes liberal nuns in academia and a journalist with strong opinions (formerly a religion writer for the New York Times!) really doesn’t help.

What are the doctrinal issues? How come they don’t get discussed?

Where are the moderates — the nuns who feel called to life in the world, may or may not wear a habit, but aren’t universalists or even into Reiki? Where are the nuns who taught my daughter?

More to the point — what prompted this investigation? OK, so the Vatican provided “only a vague rationale.” Did Goodstein ask Mother Millea? I know you aren’t supposed to be pushy with nuns, but even a “no comment” would have told us something. To her credit, however, Goodstein gives Millea a lot of space to explain the visitations and the standards by which they are being evaluated.

Yes, it’s a challenge to write a story like this one, where much of the intepretation depends on church historians, journalists or the subjects of the visitations themselves. Possibly gaining access to Millea herself was something of a coup, although one has to believe that it was authorized by a higher-up. It’s clearer (who leaked the letter from Cardinal Levada?) why the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is being examined.

Goodstein notes that we don’t know what the Vatican did or didn’t do as a result of the previous visitations. Given that there are nuns willing and interested in talking to the media, I suspect we’ll be hearing more — from one of the sides. But there are many angles to this story, many sides and many opinions. Polarizing it doesn’t serve either the Vatican or the diverse group of U.S. nuns — who remain, in this story, basically “unsung.”

P.S. Tmatt was already on to the story, and has some good background on Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink’s 2007 address to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — which could have set many dovecots aflutter. If you want to read the whole address, Rod Dreher has a link — and commentary.

A Roman Catholic “inquisition,” portrayed by Goya — from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Madeline Peep

    Laurie Goodstein has written extensively on the clergy abuse scandal and understands this scourge and its culprits.
    It is more than ironic that Cardinal Levada has spearheaded this investigation/visitation of religious communities of women. It is helpful to remember that Cardinal William Levada, while still in his position as archbishop of San Francisco, admitted under oath that he knowingly placed an admitted pedophile priest, canon lawyer and chancellor of his diocese-, a Rev. Gregory Ingels,- in charge of creating the clergy sex abuse policies for dioceses all over the country. Levada, who had been selected by his brother bishops to establish norms for reporting clergy sex abuse to civil authorities, put the fox in charge of the hen house..

    It had been both Cardinal Levada and Cardinal Law back in 1985 who were the first churchmen to have knowledge of the enormity of this tragedy against children. Not only did Levada and Law choose to do nothing to protect children, but they actively participated in the cover-up, facilitating further sexual assaults on children by pedophile priests, priests who were allowed to move freely though parishes all over our country and all over the world.

    While Mother Mary Millea may be a wonderful woman trying to do her best, is she not aware of these facts about her boss? Does it sound like the Holy Spirit?

    Do men who protect pedophile priests have anything to teach women about religious life?

  • Dan

    Ms. Peep’s diatribe has nothing to do with press coverage. Should it not be spiked?

    “America,” a heretical Jesuit publication, had a post about this same piece. One of the comments was quite excellent and is worth quoting:

    “The article was nothing special, and exactly what you would expect from the NY Times’ reporting on Catholicism – paint the liberal side as the victim and get quotes from Jesuit sources to support said position. Remember, this was the paper whose favorite prelate was Rembert Weakland. I can remember two puff pieces they wrote on him before his extracurricular activities (and peculiar accounting methods) were revealed. I’m also not surprised America magazine finds it worth noting. The truth, which is sad for many reasons, is that this is a problem that will eventually take care of itself. Young women are not joining religious orders in order to fight the Magisterium. Those Orders that support traditional Church teaching will continue to grow. Perhaps we should see the influence of the Holy Spirit in such developments.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So very typical of the fast fading Times. Use the most negative terms possible to describe anything Catholic or to do with the Vatican.

  • Elizabeth

    Madeline Peep:

    Please explain what your comment has do to with criticizing or supporting the journalism around this story or I’ll have to spike it tomorrow.

    Dan, your comment did mention press coverage, and I appreciate your bringing it to our attention. I do find the epithet “heretical” reduces the power of the quote, because it takes us down quite another rabbit trail.

    It’s OK to have a point of view, but please focus on the journalism and not fighting doctrinal battles here.

  • Susan

    The “non-traditional” female religious are for the most part irrelevant to the average Catholic. The idea that they are “unsung” laborers is a hoot. They do their own thing … and individual nuns pretty much function as any typical American career woman does. The nuns to which the reporter refers are previous generations who supported schools, hospitals, orphanages and the like. There are relatively few who stll do that work.

  • Sabrina


    The nuns to which the reporter refers are previous generations who supported schools, hospitals, orphanages and the like. There are relatively few who stll do that work.

    I’m not sure where you are getting your information about women religious, but it is just not accurate.

    While it is true parish schools are no longer staffed only by women religious, sisters are still an active and major part of the Catholic educational system — many are principals of the parish schools, for example. They also conduct a number of Catholic colleges (in the Philadelphia Archdiocese alone we have Cabrini, conducted by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; Chestnut Hill College, conducted by Sisters of St. Joseph; Gwynedd-Mercy College, conducted by Sisters of Mercy of Merion; Holy Family University, established and headed by Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth; Immaculata U., conducted and headed by Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; Neumann College, sponsored by Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, etc., etc.). Additionally, the Medical Mission Sisters are greatly involved in providing healthcare, as are Dominican Sisters and a number of other orders. In the Philly Archdiocese alone there are more than 60 orders of women religious serving actively in a number of apostolates — and that doesn’t even count any Eastern Catholic women religious serving in this area.

    So, please, watch your generalizations about women religious. They are an enormous and significant part of the Catholic Church in America.

  • Sabrina

    I neglected to mention that most of the academies, outside of the archdiocesan system are also conducted religious orders.

  • Julia

    My alma mater, U of IL law school, has a board of visitors who assemble each year to look over the practices and policies of the school.

    The last time there was a visitation/assessment of Catholic women religious and the religious life in the US was not too long after Vatican II.

    United Way sends the members of its allocation committees around the country to visit the many agencies for which UW solicits and collects money.

    The reporter doesn’t identify the “church hisorians” who say visitation don’t happen without a really serious cause. There was no mention of the visitation after V II or the very common practice of having official visitors in many other situations and contexts in society at large.

    By the way, we also have inquests, investigations, inquiries, interrogatories and the like in the world outside Catholicism.

  • MattK

    “What are the doctrinal issues?”

    After reading the times report that is exactly what I thought.

    Ipse, what do you have against nurses uniforms? I think those uniforms of little white hats, white dresses, blue capes with red lining are cute. More generally, I don’t see anything wrong with a uniform. They let a person know with whom he is dealing.

  • Madeline Peep

    Dear Ms. Evans,

    It is true that when I read coverage on the vatican investigation of communities of women, I cannot help but relect on those who have ordered the investigation. Men who have not investigated each other over the destruction of children and who continue to wield church power seem absurd after a while.
    Those who follow their orders remain a mystery to so many mothers and grandmothers like myself. I understand if you have to spike my remarks. I trust that you understand the grave injustice of clerical power that prompted Ms. Goldstein’s coverage.

    Thank you for the discussion.

  • Marshall

    Technically, the women religious under question are not nuns. It might seem a minor point, but it does mean that those U.S. women religious who canonically are nuns are assumed to be undergoing the same process (good, bad or indifferent) which is not the case. Another reason for keeping the distinction clear is that it might be that nuns have a better sense of the identity and nature of their charism than some of the other orders of women religious do — hence a possible reason the sisters are due for a time of reflection on who they are, what their charism are, etc. (Which, if this is so, doesn’t sound like a nefarious “inquisition” to me.)

  • Ipse

    MattK, I have nothing against cute white uniforms. I do know many nurses who were glad to see the caps go. Doctors do not have to wear headdress. Why should nurses? I understand that the caps got in the way of caring for a patient, especially in emergency situations.

  • Julia

    It is true that when I read coverage on the vatican investigation of communities of women, I cannot help but relect on those who have ordered the investigation. Men who have not investigated each other over the destruction of children and who continue to wield church power seem absurd after a while.

    Investigations of individual people are different than visitations to institutions. There is also a current visitation to the Legionaries of Christ. On the other hand, there were investigations into the individual LC founder and he was ordered to drop out of the public eye and live the remainder of his life in seclusion and penance.

    Here is section of and a link to a very interesting 2003 article in America magazine by an American woman religious academic calling for a survey of her sisters which may answer why the visitation was thought necessary to clarify what is going on in Catholic women’s religious life in the US.

    The renewal mandated by Vatican II energized women religious with new zeal for mission and a desire to renew prayer and communal life. For the most part we conceived of this renewal within an essentially traditional ecclesial framework, seeking to adapt that core reality to contemporary times. But a minority simply could not find the energy to confront all the difficulties involved in revitalizing traditional forms of liturgical and communal prayer. They turned instead to emerging New Age spirituality. Here, they felt, women could create women’s prayer. This sounds more conscious and deliberate in writing than it was in actual experience: it was often as much a drifting as a choice. At times, truly beautiful prayers combining rich Christian tradition and contemporary New Age style grew out of our desire to be inclusive.

    For some sisters New Age vocabulary came to be the only comfortable way of naming things. It fed their spiritual hunger without rousing the tensions that seemed inherent in ecclesial identity. They either severed emotional ties with the tradition or just let it gradually fall out of the picture. Most women religious, like the Sisters of Mercy, lived through this period with heroic amounts of forbearance, patience and accommodation to one another’s differences.

    I did the bolding in the following section:

    among adherents of various faith traditions, including Christianity, are those who claim compatibility between their tradition and New Age thought and practices in ways that they experience as spiritually refreshing. This is what challenges women religious in America at the moment. The questions may be expressed as follows: Is the New Age phenomenon really, as some claim, a “shot in the arm” for our spiritual life? Or is it a major factor in our diminished clarity of identity and purpose, and thereby an unintended “shooting ourselves in the foot”? Can it possibly be both?

    In the article the author who is an academic and a leader in her community also describes other large changes since vatican II and doctrinal matters that need to be clarified. America magazine is not known for being a mouthpiece of the Vatican.

    A sharp reporter might give this author a call and ask her opinion on the current visitation and if it’s what she was hoping would happen.

  • Madeline Peep

    To compare the “visitation/investigation” of religious communities of women to the “visitation” of the Legionares of Christ which was founded by serial child rapist Maciel Macel must certainly be pleasing to ecclestiastical eyes and ears.
    Even a cursory read of church history teaches us of the scapegoating of women and chilren whenever the fancy strikes.
    My question remains: Do men who actively protect pedophile priests have anything to teach women about religious life?

  • Marshall

    Madeline Peep,
    I echo Dan’s comment by re-phrasing it as a question. What do your comments have to do with press coverage? I think you mis-understand the nature of this blog.

    • E.E. Evans

      Marshall you are right. Madeline, you are way off topic. But few of the comments on this post are related to the topic of media coverage. I won’t delete past comments of Madeline’s because then people would wonder what Julia was responding to. But future unrelated ones will go. It’s not my nature to be Draconian, but the cute nurses uniforms chat needs to go, too! ;-)

  • Julia

    Madeline Peep:

    I was not comparing the visitation of religious communities of women to visitations of the Legionaries of Christ.

    I was contrasting the visitation of institutions with the investigations into individuals such as Maciel Macel.

    The reference to the linked article by a religious woman calling for a review of the past 40 years was intended to be a tip to reporters about a good person to contact about the need for a visitation and whether it might be welcomed by some elements of the women’s religious orders.

  • Ken Briggs

    Someone mentioned that I’d been referred to by E.E. Evans as a journalist “with strong opinions” who, by inference, was thus disqualified from rendering sound observations about the investigation. Perhaps. But I’d hasten to enter my own claim that I reached certain conclusions after years of researching the fate of sisters in the period just before the Council until the new century was underway. I’m aware of the habit of labeling as “opinions” anything with which writers don’t agree as a way of demeaning the observations and exalting their own “rational” views. Maybe E.E. Evans has pored studiously over the same span of history with its documents, leaders, regular members of religious communities and come up with a quite different set of conclusions. Fair enough. But I’d appreciate similar consideration. Dig enough and, by golly, reality may begin to present itself no matter how unpalatable it may be to those with fixed notions.

    • E.E. Evans

      Mr. Briggs, I’m sorry that you were insulted by my comments. I had no intention of questioning your research. I never said you were unqualified — I’m sure that your book is very well-researched and your quote adds more depth to the story. I wanted more breadth. My point, consistent with the theme of the post, is that the article felt unbalanced and incomplete to me. I wish that the very talented Ms. Goodstein had included a wider spectrum of opinion. And, by the way, on this topic, I have no fixed notions. Covering the Vatican and its relationships with religious orders, not to mention clergy, is an extremely difficult job, and I admire those who are continually trying to flesh out both sides.

  • Ken Briggs

    More breadth in the book or in the discussion? If the book, does that come from having read it? I don’t think there’s much mystery in the position taken by the Vatican or by the active proponents of it in this country. Those who espouse that view clearly repeat what Rome has said. I spoke to many of them and they stood squarely with the documents from Rome and statements from top officials re: the role of women and women religious. “Radical feminism” is the villain and a return to traditional convent life the answer. As I read the history of those and other aspects of it, this investigation is the next step in the process of trying to restore religious life to the way it was before sisters actually started taking seriously the mandate offered by Perfectae Caritatis. Recently there has been considerable effort to show that the “good” traditionalist communities are thriving while the “bad” renewers are fading, the implication being that they fail because they are disobedient. All you have to do is to go back to the last investigation in the 1980s. My reporting tells me that the growth of “good” places is greatly exaggerated and distorted. Numbers are small and as many leave by the back door as through the front. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve come to see policies toward sisters as a barometer of attitudes toward women in general. Still the most volatile issue in the Catholic church. I appreciate your good will and your own efforts to be fair. Thank you.

    • E.E. Evans

      Thank you for your comments, Mr. Briggs, which do address one of the main points made by those who think the visitations are a good idea.

      I’d be even more presumptous than I usually am if I criticized the findings of your book while only having heard you interviewed about it on NPR. I simply wanted more diversity in people quoted in the article. I wanted to hear from more “ordinary” nuns — the ones going about their work quietly, the moderates, the ones in the middle. But I also understand, having written many stories, that sometimes time and space dictate who we include — and who gets left out.

      Please stayed tuned if you have time — you may get some responses. While I’m sorry for the miscommunication and perhaps should have chosen my words more carefully, I’m glad that you have chosen to comment!

  • Maureen

    If most franchises can’t give hamburgers away, but ten or twelve franchises can’t keep hamburgers in stock for how much they sell and despite how many people want to work there, your corporation might want to visit and see why the latter group is doing so well, and why the former group so stubbornly refuses to copy success.

    As for the experience of most US Catholics, I don’t know. Certainly some thriving orders, like the Nashville Dominicans and the Ann Arbor Dominicans (Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist) staff schools. A few send out principals, and many parish Directors of Religious Education are sisters. (Often not terribly orthodox about what they teach, alas.)

    But in my neck of the woods, the archdiocesan plea for retirement funds for religious actually had to run a commercial where a young woman said she supported the fund because the sisters taught her grandparents. And that’s how far back you have to reach for most of us; Catholic schools are staffed by ordinary lay teachers and run by lay principals (if you can even afford to go to one).

    Oh, and btw — there were a good number of sisters who got in trouble for sexual abuse of minors. Not as many as other groups involved in the Scandal, but it did happen. So if you want to worry about the fitness of people involved in the visitation, worry about that.

  • Dan

    What the article and much of this discussion is missing is head-on confrontation with these questions:

    1. Is it or is it not the case that many Catholic sisters adhere to New Age and/or feminist beliefs that are inconsitent with Catholic teaching?

    2. If the answer to 1. is “there are many such Catholic sisters,” what, if anything, is inappropriate about the visitations?

    One senses that those who are hostile to the visitations have problems with orthodox Catholic teachings. From my perspective, as somone who loves the Church in significant part for what she teaches, criticism motivated by a desire to change or undemrine Church teaching has no value at all.

    I agree with Ken Briggs that “radical feminism” is perceived to be the villian. And it is the villian. Although I have not done the research Mr. Briggs has done, anyone who is familiar with the Church knows that feminism has infected large swathes of it and most particularly certain orders of sisters. And make no mistake about it: Feminism, with all its focus on autonomy and power, is antithetical to Catholicism.

  • Julia

    I grew up with many religious women and men as relatives, mainly Jesuits, men & women Benedictines and Sisters of St Joseph. I watched what happened to them during the 60s and 70s up close.

    I think the focus on feminism as the problem is turning this into a men v women problem. The 2003 article I linked above by a concern woman religious academic better explains what she saw then as the main problem.

    I apologize for the long quote, but it is very apt. She is not calling for a return to the pre-Vatican II era. She focusses on the negative consequences of adopting New Age thinking and linking it with a claimed women’s religious sensibility.

    If we are unable or unwilling to review the last 40 years and to make decisions based on that analysis, then it is unlikely that any amount of future planning will matter. Ambiguity and loss of identity will doom us. That is exactly where New Age falls short. Lacking theological substance, it can neither ground nor sustain our transformation. It has “feel-good-now” potential, but will only be replaced by the next, new, now moment as it unfolds. That points up the urgency of this dialogue. Honest conversations need to occur at every level of membership, direct conversations that focus on where we have come from as well as on our concrete hopes and desires for the future. If not, we risk allowing ourselves to be drawn willy-nilly into courses of change we did not intend.

    This is not a call to return to the past. The challenge toward the future is not in romantic or nostalgic idealization of either religious life or Catholicity. Rather, it is in the ability to integrate and articulate an identity grounded in authentic Catholic faith tradition. Speaking to a convocation of theologians and bishops at Loyola University in New Orleans in March 2003, Monika Hellwig addressed the need for Catholic institutions of higher learning to take very seriously their task of grounding students in the “Catholic intellectual community that understands its own tradition in some depth.” She noted the following: “The question that I think we need to reflect on and consider is whether our student bodies are sufficiently grounded in their own tradition to be genuinely ecumenical in their study rather than simply confused” (Origins, 4/20). This is the task that faces women religious today as well. Only true clarity about our core identity and an appreciation of the depth of our Catholic tradition can liberate us to incorporate elements from a variety of spiritual traditions and still be credible ecclesial communities

  • Little One

    The only sisters who have anything to worry about are those who have become part of the world and lost their Catholic identity in daily practice of their prayer life and support for the Church’s teachings yet they still trade on their identity as Catholic sisters.
    There is money and counterfeit money. There are sisters and “counterfeit” sisters and I hope this capable nun sent out from Rome will detect the fakes and help them stop passing themselves off as Catholic but have the integrity to face up to their false position and apply to leave their order.
    If an order “dies” so be it. The Holy Spirit will inspire new orders

  • Charles Nordstrom

    It seems that there is a tremendous amount of inimical speculation going on from all sides concerning an “investigation” that has hardly begun, has released precious little if any findings and issued no conclusions/recommendations. Would not a truly unbiased, objective and neutral observer with no agenda wait until the investigation is complete before championing or denigrating it?
    The article in question and its critique seem to have become irrelevant here.
    I realize that investigations produce in the guilty, the not guilty and the insecure great anxiety. They can be very unpleasant experiences.
    However, what has shocked me the most in all the comments here was the lack of faith. No one exhibited any faith in the Holy Spirit. What a shame!