Entered into evidence

Vatican investigates women religious

Two years ago, we ran a survey asking women religious to respond to the Vatican investigation. While we’ve yet to hear an official response from the Leadership Council of Women Religious regarding the Vatican’s assessment, we know that many women religious weren’t happy about the investigation when it was announced.

Surprise visits from relatives can spark a range of reactions in anyone: excitement, anxiety, anticipation, stress. When congregations of women religious in the United States got the news last January that they would be hosting some extended family from Rome, it caused all of those reactions and more.

This visit wouldn’t just be a social occasion; the Vatican’s Congregation for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CCL) highlighted the decrease in membership for many religious orders, the increase in median age, and changes in apostolic work as issues that, according to the visitation’s website, “need to be better understood and assessed in order to safeguard and promote consecrated life in the United States.”

The specific task of the visitation-or investigation, as it’s more commonly called-is to “look into the quality of the life of women religious in the United States who are members of apostolic religious institutes,” according to the CCL. That covers approximately 59,000 women religious in 400 apostolic congregations; cloistered and contemplative congregations will not be visited.

The national board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) put an optimistic spin on the inquiry: “Any opportunity that calls for greater reflection on our lives can be an occasion for the celebration of achievements and an examination of areas for growth. We hope that the visitation can offer that type of experience.”


But the announcement of the visitation-which came by letter from Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the CCL, to leaders of LCWR and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) last January-caused many to wonder if there weren’t hidden motives behind it. And the CCL’s decision to keep confidential the final report troubles many.

In part because of that confidentiality, U.S. Catholic conducted its own “visitation” of sorts, and this final report compiles our findings. Our completely optional, unscientific online survey provided a forum for American women religious to assess the quality of their own lives, raise their concerns about the present and future religious life, and share their thoughts on the visitation process itself.

Only U.S. women religious participated in this survey (see other readers’ responses on page 20). We received more than 800 responses from sisters belonging to more than 100 congregations and living in 39 states and 6 countries. As in any family, while some members are comfortable airing their opinions openly, many aren’t. Two thirds of respondents requested anonymity because they don’t want to “rock the boat.”

Nun alike

No one knows the stereotypes of sisters better than the sisters themselves. The women religious of lore are either “a bunch of childish, silly, emotionally stunted women (think Sister Act) or a bunch of raving feminists who never go to Mass, who all want to be priests, and who hate the pope,” writes a respondent from Indianapolis.

Many commented that the biggest misunderstandings are that all women religious are alike; they all live in convents and work in schools or hospitals; and as Religious Sister of Charity Kathleen Bryant of Culver City, California sums up: that they “are boring, weak women who couldn’t get a date or hold down a job, and we are out of touch with reality.”


Of course, there’s also the idea that “in order to be a ‘real nun’ you have to wear funny-looking clothes,” writes a sister from Niagara Falls, New York.

It doesn’t take much of an investigation to dismantle those stereotypes. While teaching and nursing may have employed most women religious 50 years ago, the sisters who responded to our survey work as community organizers, translators, spiritual directors, professors, counselors, IT professionals, archivists, missionaries, superiors, and executive directors. They work in soup kitchens, jails, retreat houses, nursing homes, parishes, and on Capitol Hill. They work with youth and young adults, people with AIDS, nonprofit boards, and animals. They work for environmental and economic justice, for fair housing, for peace.

A respondent from Albuquerque said the best decision that her order made in light of the reforms of Vatican II was “to encourage the sisters to further their education and to allow sisters to follow the call of the Holy Spirit in regards to their ministry choices and living choices.”

New habits

The topic of living choices can be a thorny one for women religious. Fifteen percent of respondents live in a large community of more than 15 women-although several of those said that’s because they are in assisted living at their order’s motherhouse. While 10 percent said they prefer a large community, 69 percent said they prefer a smaller, more close-knit household.

“Apostolic community life was not meant to be lived in large numbers,” says Sister of Charity Sharon Carpenter of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. “Ministry is our primary focus. Sharing community life with fewer sisters means it is intentional in ministry support, shared prayer, recreation, meals, and participation in the larger community.”

Many respondents disapprove of sisters living alone, including some of the 21 percent of respondents who themselves live alone (many of whom explained they do so out of necessity, not choice). But 13 percent say they would prefer to live on their own. “God is always surprising me with new challenges, different people, and opportunities for reflection,” says a sister in Walsenburg, Colorado. “Living alone gives me time to pray for others and their concerns.”

Despite the fact that many women religious have had greater choice about what to wear during the last four decades, debate over attire remains lively. “I wore a habit for a number of years and enjoyed the pedestal I occupied,” writes a sister from San Rafael, California. “Without the habit I connect more readily with people and gain respect through those relational encounters, not by how I look.”

Fifty-six percent of sisters agree they should wear the professional and casual dress that is appropriate today, while 30 percent think sisters should have a choice, and 9 percent favor habits (including 2 percent who want full, traditional habits).


Though she wears secular dress, Providence Sister Mary Roger Madden of Saint Mary of the Woods, Indiana says, “The years have ‘wisened’ me a little and I think our witness is better served by a simple uniform dress.” But a sister in Oakland, California suggests it doesn’t seem to matter: “For 39 years I have worn regular clothing, and I find that people often know I am a religious sister.”

Respondents of all ages, locations, and congregations, no matter their theology or ideology, no matter their work, dress, or community, shared a deep appreciation for and love of religious life.

“My experience as a woman religious has been one of support, challenge, joy, commitment, and community,” writes a sister from Washington, D.C. “My relationship with God continues to be enriched through both ministry and community.”

“I absolutely love this life-if I had a thousand lives, I’d hope God would grant me the same!” responds a sister from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“This has been my life for 50 years. It has been fulfilling, filled with growth, friendships, and love,” writes a sister from Ashland, Wisconsin. “It is a life that has been gift-not always easy, not always perfect, but always worthwhile.”

An uncertain future

Still, women religious have concerns, not the least of which is money. “We are not supported by the church, and we get no more financial assistance any more than any other Catholic,” writes one California sister.

The history of congregations’ poorly compensated service in schools and hospitals combined with a large and growing number of sisters who need expensive assisted living and nursing care is a financial double whammy for congregations. Add to that situation the fewer new members to help support the community, and it’s clear that the viability of many congregations is tenuous.

“It takes courage to commit in times of great change with diminishing numbers,” writes a sister in San Antonio. “We are seriously dialoguing with our younger members so that we do all we can to equip them to go forward and be faithful.”

Even if money problems were resolved, issues of sexism and patriarchy within the church would be just as daunting. “The institutional church’s failure to address systemic sexism is one reason educated Catholic women hesitate to become more intimately associated with the church in a religious community,” writes a sister from Cleveland.

A respondent from Joliet, Illinois offers her disappointing assessment of the situation on the ground: “In my experience of 60 years of parish ministry, too many of the male leadership are threatened by our competence and work ethic.”

Mixed motives?

All of those things-money, sexism, and concern for the future of religious life-are rolled up into the biggest concern for most sisters right now: the investigation. The time and resources involved, the added expenses, and the uncertainty of it all weigh heavily on the hearts of many respondents.

“I was shocked when I heard the news of this investigation,” writes a sister from Illinois. “It seemed to come out of nowhere, and many question the motives behind it.”

While some sisters don’t mind the actual visitation, they do question the way it’s being carried out. Many point to the cultural differences between Rome and the United States that make clashes inevitable. “For American women religious, honesty, openness, and transparency are very important,” writes a sister from Culver City, California. “We wonder about the secrecy and the mostly unknown and unexplained ‘agenda.’ ”

Fear has caused many to share their thoughts only on the condition of anonymity. A Michigan respondent speaks for many: “Because of the secrecy of the investigation, I do not trust that there may not be reprisals. I am sorry that there is such a hostile atmosphere.”

Some question the need for the visitation: “The Vatican approves our constitutions and therefore knows who we are,” says Sister of St. Joseph Jackie Griffith in Savannah, Georgia. “So this study is unnecessary and a waste of time and money.”

Some take issue with what seems to be an underlying motive. “We are being singled out for being good daughters of the church,” writes Notre Dame Sister Liz Tiernan of Seattle. “We took seriously the mandates of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council to ‘throw open the windows’ of the church. We simply tried to carry them out.”

Others wonder if the reason is even less noble: “I have this horrible little feeling that they would rather use our financial savings (which we are counting on to support the sisters in ill health and old age) to pay the bills from priestly indiscretions,” says a Pennsylvania sister, whose feeling was echoed by others.

On the bright side

A handful of respondents suggest that congregations of women religious can rise above the confusion, stress, and irritation caused by the investigation.

“While on one level the visitation is insulting and unjustified, the way we respond needs to be one that continues to call for an openness and authenticity of relationships,” says a sister from Olmsted, Ohio. She sees it as a chance to live her congregation’s charism of humility: “It calls us to respond as Mary did, open to God’s call, depending on God in all things, pondering God’s word, and speaking the truth about the needs of those in her life.”

And others suggest that there may be an upside to the investigation. “The whole exercise will shine a bright light on our lives,” says Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Angela Hibbard of Detroit. “As a result, women religious will receive a great deal of support from the People of God.”

Indeed, in October the U.S. Congress passed a resolution to commend Catholic sisters for “their humble service and courageous sacrifice throughout U.S. history,” and women religious leaders in Asia and Oceania issued a statement supporting their American sisters, while the California bishops did the same in November. An online letter campaign (thankyousister.com) gathered letters from those who expressed their appreciation for sisters.

Hibbard is hopeful: “These unforeseen consequences will prove to be a blessing, and maybe the people who started this process will learn something, too. Who knows?”

And the survey says…

1.) Sisters who take controversial stands on interreligious dialogue, homosexuality, and women’s ordination are:
Prophetic leaders guiding the church in new directions – 67%
Outsiders, but sometimes worth listening to – 8%
Dangerous radicals who have lost their roots – 2%
Other – 23%

2.) Respondents feel that U.S. women religious in general areappreciated by:
The laity – 95%
Non-Catholics – 75%
Priests – 54%
U.S. bishops – 29%
The Vatican – 15%


I became a woman religious because…

It was the women religious that I met. They were happy; they were educated; they were spiritually sound.
Sister Therese Denham, C.S.J.
Los Angeles, Calif.

I entered later in life after a successful career in corporate America. I wanted a life that focused what I did in a prayerful and meaningful way that was not just about me or my small circle.
Sister Janice Smith, S.P.
Chicago, Ill.

Every time the apostles were called in scripture, I felt that call deep in my heart.
Name withheld
Macon, Ga.

I remain a woman religious because…

I am happy in the life I lead, attached to the congregation and its members, and grateful for the opportunities I have daily to grow in the love of God and neighbor.
Sister Karen M. Kennelly
St. Paul, Minn.

I cannot imagine a more fulfilling and satisfying life these last 58 years! God has been so loving to me. I want to share that love with others.
Name withheld
Joliet, Ill.

It fits me to the core. There is nothing else I would rather do.
Sister Deanna Rose von Bargen
R.S.C.J., San Jacinto, Calif.

The biggest misconception about women religious is…

That we are a bunch of dour old ladies.
Sister Deidre G. Jordy
S.P., San Bruno, Calif.

That we gave up family life. Over the years I have felt a part of so many families that I cannot keep up with all of them.
Name withheld
Herrin, Ill.

That because we are women, we feel oppressed because we can’t be priests. Not so. The feminist agenda doesn’t apply to all women religious, just some.
Name withheld
Washington, D.C.

The question I wish the Vatican visitors would ask us is…

How are your congregational members’ ministries helping to build a culture of peace and right relationship?
Sister Mildred Baker, I.H.M.
North Ridgeville, Ohio

How do you see the Spirit at work in your congregation?
Name withheld
Dayton, Ohio

What would be missing if your congregation were no longer present?
Name withheld
Salina, Kan.

Sisters, what can we do for you?
Name withheld
San Diego, Calif.

I think the purpose of the investigation of U.S. women religious is…

An attempt to “rein in” women who have been faithful to the call of Vatican II to return to our founding charisms and to adapt our way of living to our times.
Name withheld
San Antonio, Texas

To help the many sisters who are being held hostage by their leadership that have, with LCWR’s help, taken their congregations in an anti-church direction.
Name withheld
Boston, Mass.

Motivated by fear of the influence and inner authority that sisters in the U.S. have, and fear that that power may be copied in developing countries where religious life is exploding.
Name withheld
San Rafael, Calif.

I think there are many motives,
including finding out about women religious’ property, trying to control us, wanting to turn back the clock, and diverting attention from the priest abuse cases.
Name withheld
Washington, D.C.

I’m not sure-but isn’t it odd that it is happening during the Year of the Priest?
Name withheld
Rego Park, N.Y.

The best decision my religious community made in light of Vatican II was…

To revisit the mission and charism of our founders.
Sister Margaret Hickey, N.D.
Omaha, Neb.

To undertake systematic renewal; to accept diversity, not uniformity, as vital; to retain community living and corporate ministries while branching out to individual ministries.
Sister Lois Darold, C.S.J.B.
Staten Island, N.Y.

To send our sisters to study theology.
Sister Mary McNulty, O.P.
Oak Park, Ill.

The worst decision my religious community made in light of the reforms of Vatican II was…

Having so many people choose to live alone.
Name withheld
Cincinnati, Ohio

Dropping silence and a uniform habit.
Sister Doris Jurgenson, O.S.F.
West Point, Neb.

The primary reason so few young women are joining religious orders today is…

Families do not want them to come, we do not have finances to advertise, and they see themselves as servants of the “old and dying church” if they join.
Name withheld
San Francisco, Calif.

Young women don’t necessarily see the connection between ministry and the support that community gives.
Name withheld
Madison, Wis.

Parents and young women have told us that it would be difficult to commit oneself to an organization that so openly discriminates against women and bars women from decision-making.
Name withheld
Albany, N.Y.

Common possessions and vows of obedience and poverty can look almost socialistic compared to the materialism and gross capitalism that are constantly promoted by the media.
Sister Joanne Koehl
Cincinnati, Ohio

Our membership qualifications are outdated and do not respond to young, intelligent women who feel called to a temporary commitment to religious life.
Name withheld
San Bernardino, Calif.

As a new religious myself, I have had people shocked at my life choice and try to dissuade me.
Name withheld
Chicago, Ill.

My view of the future of women’s religious life is…

We’re planting the seeds of the future new form of religious life. As difficult as this visitation may be, it has the potential to further the birthing process.
Name withheld
West Springfield, Mass.

Most groups will disappear.
Name withheld
St. Louis, Mo.

Smaller, more prophetic, and holier groups.
Name withheld
Bedford, Ohio

Very hopeful. Many new forms of religious life are emerging for women and men who want to work together for the betterment of our planet. These new forms of religious life respect the intelligence of their members and foster their personal growth and maturity.
Sister Jeannine Gramick
Mt. Rainier, Md.

General Comments

Send those apostolic visitors to see the “Women and Spirit” exhibit at the Smithsonian! Several centuries of variety, vitality, and vision are all there.
Sister Mary Denis Maher, C.S.A.
Cleveland, Ohio

At first, I was very angry that after 50 years, my quality of religious life was being questioned by the church. Now I am more hurt than anything.
Name withheld
Albany, N.Y.

We have been loyal to the church and generous in our religious lives. Let us live our lives in peace and free from harassment.
Name withheld
Albuquerque, N.M.

Few other groups in the church have been as faithful to the gospel call as women religious. The gospel message of inclusion, mutuality, responsible freedom, and justice-oriented ministries will continue no matter the heavy-handedness of the Vatican.
Name withheld
Chicago, Ill.

This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75. No. 1, pages 12-17).

Image: Tom Wright

About the author

Heather Grennan Gary

Heather Grennan Gary is on staff at the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

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