What ever happened to the apostolic visitation of women religious in the United States that was announced in 2009? Is it still happening? If so, how is it going, and what might be the outcome?
Many people have been asking these questions, for Church officials have had very little to say publicly about the visitation. This silence is common practice with apostolic visitations, which normally are initiated to address problems of some kind. The lack of public discourse, however, should not be translated as inactivity.
In fact, Mother Mary Clare Millea, the American superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who was appointed by the Vatican to conduct the visitation, had personal meetings with more than 100 religious superiors during phase one of the four-phase visitation. In the second phase, orders were asked to respond to a questionnaire about their work, life, and prayer together as well as their financial status. In the third phase, teams of visitors called on nearly 100 congregations of women religious during 2010. That on-site visiting phase of the apostolic visitation was completed in December.
All that now remains to be accomplished is the fourth phase: preparation of a report by Mother Clare that will include results of the interviews conducted by the teams of visitors, as well as information Mother Clare gathered from the other 300-plus congregations that did not receive an on-site visit. During 2011, Mother Clare will write and submit her report to Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Each order of sisters in the US will receive some kind of feedback from that curial office “for the purpose of promoting its charismatic identity and apostolic vitality in ongoing dialogue with the local and universal Church,” wrote Mother Clare in a January 12, 2010 letter to all US women superiors.
While the visitation is on schedule, and anecdotal reports indicate that the on-site visits went very smoothly and amicably, the entire project has faced significant challenges, including confusion about the apostolic visitation and the separate doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; the resistance of some women religious; the manipulation of the visitation process by some religious superiors; and the role the media has played since the announcement of the visitation.
The apostolic visitation and the LCWR
Just over two months after the apostolic visitation of women religious was announced on January 30, 2009, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) revealed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was conducting a doctrinal assessment of that organization. The LCWR is canonically established by the Vatican, as are superiors’ conferences in other countries, and thus is answerable to Church authorities. The LCWR has a membership of about 1,500 sisters who are on leadership teams in their orders. These members lead about 85 percent of the 50,000-plus sisters in this country, so the organization has considerable influence with most orders of women religious.
The doctrinal assessment of the LCWR followed a 2001 warning by the CDF about problems within the LCWR involving Church teachings on homosexuality, the ordination of women, and the central, salvific role of Jesus and his Church. Concerned that the LCWR had not made significant changes in eight years, the CDF appointed Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, a member of the US Bishop’s Committee on Doctrine, to conduct a thorough doctrinal assessment of the LCWR unrelated to the apostolic visitation of US women religious. Bishop Blair completed that assessment in late 2010 and sent his report to the CDF, which will consult with Pope Benedict XVI in deciding any action regarding doctrinal issues with the LCWR.
In spite of the fact that the apostolic visitation and the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR are being carried out by two different curial offices, some biased media reports have treated the two studies as one, often characterizing them as a combined “attack” against US women religious orchestrated by the all-male hierarchy. Likewise, the LCWR has taken a defensive stance, depicting US women religious as victims of the two studies. In her August 13, 2010, address to LCWR annual assembly, outgoing president Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA said women religious were “quavering with the continuing ecclesial inquiries and canonical assessments,” which she listed alongside other cataclysms of 2010 such as earthquakes, the Gulf oil spill, mudslides, sex abuse scandals, and “the quakes that health care reform generated within our Church and country.” She did not mention that she and other prominent sisters had caused that particular “quake” by publicly supporting the health reform bill that the US bishops opposed because it allowed public funding of abortion and did not offer sufficient conscience protection for health care workers.
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