Randy Engel
Sisters in rebellion - non serviam (Part I)
An Apostolic Visitation and CDF investigation
By Randy Engel
April 22, 2012

In a papal audience of November 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, acting upon the initiative of Franc Cardinal Rodé, C.M., Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, gave his consent to an Apostolic Visitation of the General Houses, Provincial Houses and Centers of Initial Formation of the principle Religious Institutes of Women in the United States (cloistered, contemplative orders are exempt). He also granted to Cardinal Rodé all the faculties necessary to order and carry out an investigation into the state of consecrated life of women religious in America. [1] In doing so, the pope, acknowledged the official character of and the importance the Holy See attaches to the Visitation which is expected to last three years and cost $1.1 million dollars, an expense which will be borne by the American bishops and ultimately Catholics in the pews.

On December 22, 2008, Cardinal Rodé issued a decree nominating Reverend Mother Mary Clare Millea, Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as the Apostolic Visitator ad inquirendum et referendum. [2] Upon the completion of her investigation, Mother Clare, who resides in Rome, is expected to file a detailed and confidential report and set of recommendations with the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation, who will prepare the final presentation summarizing the findings of the Visitation for the Holy See.

It was not until a month later, however, on January 30, 2009, that news of the Apostolic Visitation was made public at a media conference held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. and chaired by Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, F.S.M.G., who acted as a spokesman for Mother Clare. Just hours before the opening of the press conference, leaders of the two canonically approved, but rival organizations for women religious in the United States — the "progressive" Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the more "traditional" Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) — received a formal letter from Cardinal Rodé announcing the start of the Visitation. [3] The latter was pleased with the announcement, the former distraught.

Sister Ackerman opened the well-publicized media event on a high note citing the many contributions that women religious such as Saints Elizabeth Ann Seton, Francis Xavier Cabrini, Rose Philippine Duchesne and Mother Théodore Guérin have made to the Church and society in America in the past. She also acknowledged the role of today's 59,000 Catholic sisters representing more than 400 religious congregations, in building and maintaining a vast network of schools, health care facilities, and social centers for the most needy and for their "commitment to the cause of truth and justice." [4] Nevertheless, she said, the decline in vocations, the rise in the median age of religious, and certain societal changes have presented women religious with "obstacles and challenges" that must be addressed — hence the need for the Visitation. In the words of Cardinal Rodé, the Visitation has as its objective "an increase in vocations and to assure a better future for women religious." [5]

Phase I of the Visitation program began in early March 2009 and concluded on July 31, 2009. It involved a series of fully voluntary meetings and conversations in Rome and the United States between the Visitator, an American herself, and 125 superiors general of major congregations. Another 119 expressed their hopes and concerns regarding the future of their own congregation to Mother Clare using other forms of communication.

Phase II began on September 18 and was to have ended on November 20, 2009. A Questionnaire of Religious Institutes was sent to the generalate and/or province of 341 apostolic congregations asking for detailed information on their institute as well as a copy of the congregation's fundamental documents. [6] The Questionnaire is divided into three sections:
    Part A — The opening section of the Questionnaire is primarily data driven and statistical in nature — numbers of postulants, novices and temporary and solemnly professed sisters; their ages, race and ethnicity, living arrangements, numbers of infirmed or retired sisters, types of ministries, numbers seeking/receiving transfer to another institute, exclaustration, and indults of departure; and membership of congregation in national or international organizations (LCWR, CMSWR, etc.). This information is being collected and processed by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. for the Apostolic Visitator and her staff. [7]

    Part B — This is the key section of the Questionnaire and the most controversial as it deals with the traditional essentials of the consecrated life. The major superior or her delegated respondent is asked to describe the founding charism of her institute and how its members understand and live out their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

    If the institute is "moving toward a new form of religious life," the respondent is asked, "how is this new form specifically related to the Church's and your institute's understanding of religious life?" [8]

    Other requested empirical data includes a detailed description of the Governance of the Institute including the procedures for dealing with sisters who dissent publicly from Church teaching and discipline; Vocation Promotion; Admission and Formation Policies including the instruction of new members on "the foundations of Catholic faith and doctrine through the study of Vatican II documents, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and post-Conciliar documents. (emphasis added)" ;[9] the Spiritual/Liturgical and Common Life lived out by members of the congregation including the institute's relationship with the local Ordinary; Mission and Ministry including the specific apostolic purpose of the institute as stated in its Constitutions and carried out by its members; and finally, Financial Administration which reflects each religious' obligation to faithfully live out her vow of poverty and to share her goods with the poor.

    The reader will kindly note that the Questionnaire's reference to Vatican II and the decrees and documents which followed in its wake as the centerpiece of renewal for women religious institutes is found throughout the official Apostolic Visitation website as well as the Instrumentum Laboris (2008) the working paper that spells out the nature, purpose, and basic procedures and timetable for the Visitation. [10]

    Part C — Initially, all superiors general were required to submit to the stateside Apostolic Visitation Office located in Hamden, Conn., a copy of their Constitutions; Plan of Formation; official minutes of documents and decisions of the last two General/Provincial Chapter meetings; the names, birth dates, addresses and type of ministry of each sister belonging to the congregation; list of properties owned or co-sponsored by the institute; and a complete copy of the most recent independent audit or last internal financial statement. Because of the confidential nature of the questions, Sections B and C were to be sent directly to the Visitation's headquarters in Hamden.
In addition to the required filings of each major superior for her own institute, every sister, having secured a copy of the Instrumentum Laboris from their superior, was asked by Mother Clare, to reflect, personally and/or communally, on the topics contained in Part B of the document and invited to render her thoughts and opinions, on the various matters covered in the questionnaire with a guarantee of strict confidentiality.

Phase III begins this spring, when Mother Clare and official Visitation teams composed of women and male religious in good standing will conduct on-site visits to a representative sample of religious institutes. All team members are required to make a public profession of faith and take an oath of fidelity to the Holy See. [11] The visitation teams will listen to the superiors and members of the religious communities through written communications and personal meetings.

Phase IV will conclude with Mother Clare's filing of a comprehensive and confidential report with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life on each and every institute assessed, whether or not they will have received an on-site visit.

Investigation of LCWR by the Vatican

Running concurrently with the Apostolic Visitation is a separate but related investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome into the politics of the Maryland-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), whose 1,500 members are alleged to represent 95% of the 59,000 women religious in the United States. William Cardinal Levada, Prefect for the CDF, has appointed Bishop Leonard P. Blair of the Diocese of Toledo and a member of the USCCB Doctrinal Committee to chair the ongoing inquiry.

The Roman Congregation for Religious created the Conference of Major Superiors of Women in 1956 for the purpose of giving leaders of pontifical orders of women religious in the United States a greater voice in the Church especially with regard to the fostering of religious vocations and the living out of the consecrated life. In 1971, over the objections of the Holy See, the Conference renamed itself, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which reflected its new ideology and purpose. Over the years, as an official, canonically established entity, the leaders of the organization have met regularly with Curial officials.

In 2001, LCWR officers were called to the Vatican to report to the CDF on the initiatives taken or planned by their Conference to promote the reception of the Church's teaching among their member communities as they relate to the non-ordination of women (see John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis); the promotion of a false ecumenicalism (see CDF Dominus Jesus) and the intrinsic immorality of homosexuality. [12] Eight years were to pass before the matter attracted any further concern or attention from the LCWR.

The rude awakening for the LCWR came in the form of a letter dated February 20, 2009, from the Office of the CDF addressed to Sister J. Lora Dambroski, OSF, president of the LCWR, in which the Prefect, Cardinal Levada, announced the creation of an investigative team headed by Bishop Blair which would be making "a doctrinal assessment of the activities and initiatives of the LCWR," as they relate to the promotion of the three same areas of concern voiced years earlier — female ordination, the theology of religious pluralism, and the morality of homosexuality. [13] Conspicuous by its absence was any reference by the CDF to LCWR's support for abortion and abortion advocacy, and the issue of euthanasia.

On April 22, 2009, LCWR officers met with Cardinal Levada during the time usually reserved for the organization's annual consultation with the Congregation for Religious, which generally has jurisdiction over problems related to the consecrated life. However, the LCWR is not a religious institute or congregation per se. So while Cardinal Rodé will be kept advised of the "assessment" of the LCWR and be involved in whatever decisions are reached, and Bishop Blair has been appointed to chair the inquiry from the States, it is the CDF which, ultimately, will have the last word on the subject. As yet, no process or timetable has been established for the assessment, although a meeting between officers of the LCWR and Bishop Blair and his staff is expected some time in the spring of 2010.

Rumblings of Discontent and Rebellion

Amid continuing optimistic and concessionary official statements from Rome concerning the Visitation and the LCWR doctrinal inquiry, there have been indisputable signs of discontent and organized rebellion among some of the nation's superiors major and women religious to both initiatives by the Holy See. Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the rise of the feminist-eco-lesbian ideology within the leadership covens of the LCWR over the last half-century.

After Phase I of the Visitation was concluded by Mother Clare in the summer of 2009, 21 "testimonials" from superiors general with whom she had visited were posted on the Visitation's official website (www.apostolicvisitation.org). Fifteen of the testimonials come from representatives of congregations who are affiliated with the LCWR, and the remaining six from the more traditional CMSWR and the Institute on Religious Life or are unaffiliated. [14]

While all correspondents uniformly praised the gracious and respectful manner each was received by the Visitator, there were concerns expressed by some LCWR members related to the motivation for the Visitation and the manner in which it was organized. [15] From the outset, the leaders of the LCWR have been angry that the Vatican had not consulted them before announcing the Visitation. The formation of the Blair Committee to investigate the orthodoxy of the LCWR was a double whammy.

Other LCWR-affiliated superiors expressed their dissatisfaction in an outpouring of worn-out post-Conciliar clichés, all too familiar to CFN readers, including the desire "to live with integrity the directions and spirit of Vatican II in concert with our lived experiences... ."; the need to follow the "yellow brick road" leading to dialogue... .; "the importance of building common ground,"; and, my personal favorite from the President of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, "the "BVM hopes that the official church affirm the beauty and power of the diverse charisms of religious life; open up the pathways to dialogue about actions and decisions that flow from our theology and ecclesiology; and celebrate the integrity, fidelity, and authenticity of our lives." [16]

At the organization's annual meeting in New Orleans on August 11-14, 2009, LCWR members also complained about the comprehensive and "intrusive" nature of the Visitation Questionnaire which allegedly violated personal privacy, and then ironically turned around and complained about the strict confidential nature of the Visitation reports which preclude their ever having access to the final evaluations of their institutes. [17] Alas, the poor innocents were simply carrying out the reforms and renewal mandated by the Second Vatican Council.

Even though the Holy See has every canonical and civil right to all of the information contained in the Questionnaire, some, we don't know how many, but possibly a majority of the superiors general refused to answer all the questions. The leaders of the congregations were joined in their resistance by individual sisters who likewise declared their intension not to respond to the Questionnaire in part or at all.

On November 5, 2009, Mother Clare announced that document number 5, 6, and 7 in Part C of the Questionnaire dealing with individual sisters and their ministry, properties owned by institute, and updated audits or financial statements of the institutes, were no longer required. It appears that the rebel forces have won a small but symbolic victory in wresting this concession from the Visitator, and, true to form, they wasted little time in exploiting it to their advantage.

Less than three weeks later, Thomas C. Fox, the editor of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote a lengthy online article titled "Women religious not complying with Vatican study." [18] According to Fox, the Visitation Questionnaire had met with a wall of grassroots universal resistance, among a majority of the respondents. A number of congregations had consulted with their canon lawyers and been advised that since they are not officially a part of the Catholic hierarchy, their main responsibility is to their congregation and its members, hence they are not required to provide answers to questions they found objectionable.

In an attempt at damage control, on December 4, 2009, the Office of the Apostolic Visitation issued a short news release stating that while it was true that some congregations had entered incomplete Questionnaires, this action would have no effect on the implementation of Phase 3 of the Visitation, on-site visits to select congregations, which will begin, on schedule, this spring.

It appears that the war is just heating up.

Part II — The Roots of Rebellion in Women Religious Institutes

One of the women religious who Tom Fox interviewed for his NCR article of November 24, 2009, claimed that "Vatican II took us out of the ghettos and into ecology, feminism and justice in the world." "The Vatican still has a difficult time accepting that," she said. [19] How this tragic state of affairs has been permitted to come about is the subject of our second installment in this series on the past, present and future of active women religious institutes and congregations in the United States.


[1]  All the Vatican documents on the Apostolic Visitation are available online at www.apostolicvisitation.org.

[4]  Ibid.

[7]  CARA specializes in applied 'social science' research projects for the Catholic Church in America and the USCCB, and has conducted numerous studies for and about women religious in the United States.

[8]  Ibid, Part B, 1.E., p. 9.

[9]  Ibid, Part B, 3.H., p. 11.

[10]  Instrumentum Laboris for Apostolic Visitation (Prot. N. 16805/2008).

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  The Institute on Religious Life was founded by Fr. John Hardon in 1974 to promote the "authentic" consecrated life. See http://religiouslife.com/about_irl.html.

[16]  Ibid.

[17]  LCWR news release, "LCWR Explores Critical Issues Against the Backdrop of Vatican Studies," Aug. 17, 2009.

[18]  "Women religious not complying with Vatican study," Thomas C. Fox, November 24, 2009. Online at http://ncronline.org/news/women/women-religious-not-complying-vatican-study.

[19]  Ibid.

Note: This series appeared in Catholic Family News — April-June, 2010.

© Randy Engel


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Randy Engel

Randy Engel, one of the nation's top investigative reporters, began her journalistic career shortly after her graduation from the University of New York at Cortland, in 1961. A specialist in Vietnamese history and folklore, in 1963, she became the editor of The Vietnam Journal, the official publication of the Vietnam Refugee and Information Services, a national relief program in South Vietnam for war refugees and orphans based in Dayton, Ohio... (more)


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