Nearly a year ago, Roman Catholic sisters were told, by the Vatican, that they were paying too much attention to social justice issues, and not enough time on anti-abortion actions, or gay marriage.
The subsequent investigation by the Vatican, resulted in a series of statements, discussions, and meetings that were met with concern on both sides, especially with the very public show of support by lay (non-religious) people in American cities, large and small; replete with candlelight vigils on the steps of churches, and cathedrals.
Appointed to the task of re-orienting the sisters to closer, some say, more traditional Catholic doctrine has been Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, as “apostolic delegate,” who last week held a closed-door meeting with their leadership, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) at their annual national assembly in Orlando.
Also present were uniformed guards who were posted to prevent unauthorized entry, and the sisters themselves were asked not to speak with the media, by their president, Sr. Florence Deacon..
According to the National Catholic Reporter, “A few of the members expressed appreciation that Sartain spent time at their assembly; others said there was a general sense of frustration, fatigue, and disappointment with the direction of the afternoon.”
In what some observers noted, the sister’s questions and concerns were not addressed, but Sartain gave an overview of his comments about “the role of religious life in the church,” and focusing on Jesus.
What was more telling, especially to more liberal Catholics, is that their “role is to be thinking with the church and fidelity to the magisterium of the church,” a hallmark of the last two pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Membership in the U.S. Catholic religious women orders have take a nose-dive over the last few decades, as opportunities for women in America have increased threefold since the advent of women’s liberation, and the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s; both of whom increased women’s work away from traditional work as homemakers, teachers, nurses, secretaries, and nuns.
The Vatican has been looking askance at the women’s orders in the United States for some time, as they have doffed their traditional billowing black and white habits in favor of pantsuits, and even jeans, as they have increasingly worked with the poor, the indigent, and now the newly immigrated.
They are also an ageing group, with an average age of 60, which has had some of the more waggish Vatican watchers wondering if the whole discussion is moot, since attrition may take away the irritation factor for the Roman Curia.
LCWR represents over 80 percent of the American sisters and they, themselves, have been in the sightline of Rome, for some time, as a target that needed addressing.
The lack of detail from Sartain, was frustrating to many of the nuns present, but besides the security detail, the gag order, was also frustrating, especially, to National Coalition of America Nuns, Board Coordinator, and New Ways Ministry Co-Founder, Jeannine Gramick , a Sister of Loretto, who told me Monday in an emailed statement, “In this age in which the Church is demanding transparency from the Church hierarchy, it is shocking that Sister Florence Deacon, the LCWR President at the opening of the Assembly, asked the members not to talk with the press. The Vatican-LCWR confrontation supersedes LCWR and will determine the future direction of the US Church. The interactions between Archbishop Sartain and the LCWR leadership belong to the people. There should be no secrecy or closed-door sessions.”
Of course, secrecy is no stranger to the Roman Catholic Church, who has been, until recent confrontation by civil authorities, especially secretive about its pedophile priests, and who, according to national columnist Maureen O’Dowd, is acting more like a “multinational company” rather than a church.
Alongside secrecy, avoidance also was present in Orlando, with Sartain, not even giving direct responses to the sisters after their round-table discussions, preferring instead to; once again, speak of the general nature of religious life.
For many present their reputation has been tarnished by Rome, and without accuracy, or reason; which may account for Sartain saying that ‘”There is no critique of your social mission,” but less than a year ago, was criticized by the Vatican and the right wing of the church, for those very missions’ and which would like to see the sisters silent and submissive; their often caricatured role in old Hollywood movies, but was often, in real life, more true than not.
But, despite four previous opportunities, Sartain has remained silent, to the frustration of the sisters and their leadership; and even when they gave an official comment to Rome’s investigation, was only told, without any detail, that their response contained “deficiencies.”
And, last Thursday was no different, even when asked point blank by the sisters to explain what the deficiencies were, Sartain still remained silent.
Gramick, however, noted that, “the best guarantee for a fair hearing is to be public. Furthermore, the whole Church has a right to know what's being discussed if we want our Church to become open and honest. We talk about transparency, so we need to practice it.”
But, LCWR has not said whether or not they will release details of the meeting.
She quotes Ken Briggs, religious commentator, for Newsday and The New York Times, who said, earlier in an NCR piece: "For the most part, sisters have obeyed the Vatican's order to remain silent about the investigations. It is a striking gesture of trust toward an institution that has heaped scorn on various aspects of renewal for decades. Their voices on some of the issues that matter most aren't heard.”