Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vatican scrutiny puzzles some nuns

As the Vatican takes a close look at what might be done about the rapidly diminishing number of Catholic nuns in the United States, some women religious are questioning the motives behind the sudden interest in their congregations.

The first “apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious” is vaguely described as an effort to “comprehensively assess and encourage the growth” of those institutes.

The visitation kicks into its second phase next month, when questionnaires will be sent to nearly 400 institutes across the country.

“I think everybody is just kind of waiting to see what is happening,” said Sister Jean M. Thompson, a Franciscan nun who serves as the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo’s vicar for religious.

“People are wondering what it’s all about. We don’t really know locally. We don’t know exactly why this is being done.”

The scrutiny has piqued the interest of women religious in Western New York and throughout the country, since the number of women religious has been declining for decades without drawing much Vatican interest.

“It feels like it came out of the blue,” said Sister Susan Bowles, a member of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur.

And some nuns are skeptical following the apostolic visitation of U. S. seminaries in 2005 and 2006. That investigation by the Vatican was widely viewed as a response to the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis, and critics slammed it as a veiled effort to blame gay men for the scandal and banish them from seminaries.

A few have suggested the current visitation is a step toward turning back the clock on religious life, which has changed dramatically over the past several decades.

American nuns have moved from serving primarily as teachers and nurses into much broader ministries, including professional areas such as law and academia, even as their numbers have shrunk from about 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 60,000 today.

They’ve largely dispensed with habits, and they often live outside of convents and motherhouses, working independently of diocesan bishops in areas of their choosing, including some that push the envelope on official Catholic teaching.

“We’re not the monastic communities we once were,” said Sister Marcella Nachreiner, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Williamsville.

Many nuns say they gravitate to where today’s needs are, with the blessing of their communities.

“We are the people who have reached out to the poor, stuck it out when others wouldn’t or couldn’t,” said Bowles, who characterizes her own ministry as “out of the box.”

She serves in a parish and as a community organizer with VOICE-Buffalo, an interfaith activist group that prods area elected officials to act on issues such as improved housing and health care reform.

“We are working in worlds we never expected,” she said.

Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Hamden, Conn., is leading the visitation. Her office did not respond to telephone calls from The Buffalo News.

The visitation Web site cites “challenging times” for those in religious life.

“The Congregation for Consecrated Life is aware that many new congregations have emerged in the United States while many others have decreased in membership or have an increased median age. Apostolic works have also changed significantly because of societal changes. These and other areas need to be better understood and assessed in order to safeguard and promote consecrated life in the United States,” the Web site states.

In the first phase, Millea met with 127 leaders of communities of religious women over the past several months.

The next phase begins in August, when Millea’s office will send a questionnaire to each generalate or provincial office of apostolic congregations in the United States, asking about “various aspects of its life and ministry.”

On-site visits will be conducted by teams of nuns in 2010, and Millea plans to prepare “an objective and representative report,” likely in 2011, for the Vatican office known as the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Millea has said that the visitation will be a “dialogue that is open and cordial.”

But in a widely circulated e-mail that eventually was published in the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and a professor of New Testament studies and Christian spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., had a far different interpretation.

Schneiders said the visitation amounted to a “hostile move” that was meant to be intimidating.

“We just went through a similar investigation of seminaries, equally aggressive and dishonest. I do not put any credence at all in the claim that this is friendly, transparent, aimed to be helpful, et cetera,” she said.

Locally, sisters were more guarded in their comments, and some viewed the visitation as an opportunity to make more people aware of their work.

Women religious in Western New York have nothing to hide, said Sister Nancy Hoff, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas — New York, Pennsylvania, Pacific West Community.

“I don’t think we have anything to hang our heads about,” Hoff said. “I have every hope the apostolic visitation process will reaffirm the great contributions of women religious to the church and society and people in need.”

Women religious “just have to be open” to the visitation, said Sister M. Lorianne Tylczynski, provincial minister for the Felician Sisters Buffalo province.

“I don’t foresee anything negative coming out of it,” she said.

But in light of the seminary inquiry, many sisters “aren’t terribly excited” about the visitation, said Nachreiner of the Sisters of St. Francis.

But it could ultimately be beneficial by showing that religious life remains “an option for women,” she added.

The number of women religious in the Buffalo Diocese has fallen from 3,300 in the 1960s to about 950 today, with many of them aging in infirmaries.

The “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of 1,500 nuns in leadership posts in their communities, involves questions about how effectively the group conveys official Catholic teaching.

The assessment was called for in February by Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief enforcer of doctrine.

Levada referenced a 2001 meeting between the conference and Vatican doctrinal leaders, when the Vatican was questioning whether the conference had done enough to “promote” the church’s teaching on controversial issues such as the all-male priesthood, Catholicism as the primary path to salvation and “the problem of homosexuality.”

“Given both the tenor and doctrinal content of various addresses at the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in intervening years,” Levada wrote in a letter, “this dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present.”

Representatives of the leadership conference met in May with Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo and Monsignor Charles Brown regarding the doctrinal assessment, which will be a main topic during the conference’s annual assembly in August, expected to draw 750 members.

“We are looking forward to clarifying some misperceptions that have been expressed about [the Leadership Conference of Women Religious],” Sister J. Lora Dambroski, conference president, said in a prepared statement.
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