Catholic Church Investigating U.S. Nuns

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If you’re a nun, you probably know about this. If you’re a Catholic, you might or might not. But I would guess that if you’re outside the Catholic Church, you haven’t even heard of the investigation of U.S. nuns that the Vatican has been conducting for over a year.

There are actually two investigations. One is known as an Apostolic Visitation, which Church historians say was traditionally ordered when a Church institution had gone seriously astray. Is that what the Vatican thinks has happened to American nuns? The wording on the web page of the “Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States” is (intentionally?) vague. Apparently it is felt that there are “concerns” that need to be addressed, but the web site doesn’t say what those concerns are.

The second investigation of nuns is a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It was ordered by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is headed by an American, Cardinal William Levada. The LCWR drew the ire of the Vatican decades ago during Pope John Paul II ‘s visit to the U.S. when it called for the ordination of women. In 2002, it was warned that it was not doing enough to promote the Church’s teachings on three issues: the male-only priesthood, homosexuality and the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the means to salvation.

Some speculate that the investigations were triggered by conservatives in the Catholic Church who are dismayed at the trend among some American nuns to forgo the habit, live outside the convent, and work for causes that are not specifically Christian-oriented.

There are a few things that bother me about these investigations:

  1. The Catholic Church seems to be  more concerned about appearance than about results. What difference does it make whether or not nuns wear their habits? Perhaps the male leaders (and all the leaders at the top are male) are afraid that they will tempted to participate in “un-Christianlike” behavior if they don’t always have the habit to remind them (and others) that they are nuns.
  2. The ones who are calling for these investigations are all male. They’ve appointed a woman to be in charge of the Apostolic Visitation but she’s just doing their dirty work. She may even believe that the Visitation is a good thing, that it will lead to more support for nuns and their work. While it may do so in some cases, it seems much more likely that nuns will find their activities more closely scrutinized and controlled by the male hierarchy of the Church.
  3. I’m also bothered by the insinuation that only Christian work is God’s work. There are many ways to serve God and they don’t always have to be under the blanket of a religion. Isn’t it enough for those being helped to know that the nuns who are helping them are representatives of the Catholic Church? The insistence on Christian work only furthers the divide between the world and the church.
  4. The Catholic Church uses nuns as a kind of work force instead of valuing them as religious leaders. They are there to convert others by their example, to do the work that priests don’t want to do and to uphold the teachings of the Church (teachings that were established by men).
  5. The implication of this whole affair is that nuns are to be kept in their places. They are not to ask for anything (like the ordination of women); they are only to obey. They’re not being asked what they want changed to make their jobs easier; they’re being asked what they’re doing to make the Church’s job harder. It’s insulting that women are being investigated when they have no real input into the workings of the Church.
  6. And why is it that only American nuns are being investigated? Could it be that they are more likely to be “infected” by an independent attitude?

I’m not a Catholic, but I don’t think I have to be to recognize patriarchy when I see it.

It will be interesting to see what these investigations turn up. But more than likely the average person won’t be kept informed. I found out about the investigations by accident; it will probably take some digging to find out the results. I’d love to know what nuns are thinking about this whole thing, but it seems that most of them are keeping their opinions to themselves (or at least not expressing them to the outside world).

For more information, check out:

U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny.” New York Times, July 1, 2009.

Vatican Probe of U.S. Nuns Moves Quietly Forward.” womensenews.org, February 10, 2010.

Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States web site.

Leadership Conference of Women Religious web site.

Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns, by Kenneth A. Briggs  (Doubleday Religion, 2006).

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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