Tuesday, August 18, 2009

American Nuns and Vatican Investigation: Who's Footing the Bill?

Some fascinating—and important—information is emerging these days about the seamy underside of the current Vatican investigation of Catholic religious women (that is, nuns) in the United States (and here). To be specific, what’s emerging is a strong suggestion that this investigation, which is premised on the notion that American nuns are rebellious, disobedient daughters of the church, is being spearheaded and funded by groups outside the Vatican itself.

Last week, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents about 95% of American women religious, met in New Orleans for its annual meeting. At the end of the conference, the group issued a press release. (The press release in question is the first on the page to which the link points—the 17 August press release). This document states,

Following analysis of the experience of these studies [i.e., the Vatican investigation of the quality of religious life of American nuns, and of the doctrinal fidelity of LCWR itself] thus far, the leaders noted that while their orders have always been fully accountable to the church and plan to collaborate with the Vatican in these studies, they request that those conducting the inquiries alter some of the methods being employed. Among the expressed concerns are a lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources for the stud¬ies. The leaders also object to the fact that their orders will not be permitted to see the investi¬gative reports about them that are being submitted directly to the Vatican.

American religious women want to know who is paying for this probe of the quality of their religious life and their doctrinal fidelity. Where’s the money coming from? Who wants this investigation undertaken?

Religious women are asking. And Rome’s not telling.

As Paul Moses says in a posting to the Commonweal blog yesterday, it would be prudent for Rome to aim at “reasonable disclosure” in response to these concerns. And as he also insightfully notes,

The larger issue lurking here is the extent to which major donors wield outsized influence in the Catholic Church. That is a story that would really take off with the right opening.

Several recent articles provide valuable information about precisely why American nuns are seriously disturbed by the way in which this investigation is being conducted. As Sr. Sandra Schneiders notes in an article yesterday at National Catholic Reporter, there are concerns (and these are shared by some bishops and priests) about both the fact and the mode of the investigation.

In Schneiders’ view, several features of how this investigation is being carried out are “problematic or repugnant to intelligent, educated, adult women in western society.” Though the Vatican has known for some time that it intended to conduct this probe, those who are the object of the probe—American nuns—were not done the courtesy of being told this by the Vatican. American women religious discovered that they were under Vatican investigation by reading this in the secular press.

And that fact in itself appears to confirm the suspicion that someone (or several someones) outside the Vatican is funding this investigation for political reasons that have little to do with its ostensible goals. It appears that independent parties, perhaps those who are funding the investigation, clearly have had much more knowledge about what is going on, how the investigation is going to be conducted, and why it is being conducted, than nuns themselves have had.

And so I think American women religious are quite right to ask: Who’s paying for the Vatican to investigate American nuns? And if the investigation is being spearheaded and funded by groups outside the Vatican, what’s the motive of those groups?

Schneiders notes other problematic aspects of the process being used: there’s a single Vatican “visitator” who will investigate all 60,000 or so American nuns. Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been given that task, with no consultation of American religious women as she was selected. As Schneiders notes, Mother Millea has spent much of her life as a nun outside the United States and belongs to a small community with a single tiny American province.

Communities and individual nuns will be administered a lengthy, detailed questionnaire (compiled by whom? Rome is not saying), whose results will be collated—apparently by the sole “visitator”—and reported to the Vatican by the “visitator.” In a secret report. Which the nuns under investigation will not see, nor have any chance to respond to.

A subsequent phase of the investigation will also involve “site visitations” of selected religious congregations. Teams for those visitations will be chosen for this purpose—you guessed it: by the “visitator”!—and they’ll be asked to swear oaths of loyalty to Rome.

As Sandra Schneiders notes, the way this process is being conducted seems to have more to do with Rome's desire to engage in an unwarranted surprise attack on American nuns than on listening to and dialoguing with these daughters of the church:

In other words, whatever the Vatican may have intended, the initiation of this "visitation" was calculated to appear to many Americans, Catholic and others, inside and outside religious life, not as an invitation to respectful and fruitful dialogue and ongoing improvement of their lives but as an unwarranted surprise attack. One religious speaking to me referred to it as "the Pearl Harbor model of dialogue."

The very fact of the visitation implies that American nuns are already under suspicion, that they have already been found guilty in “an ecclesiastical analogue of a grand jury indictment” which bears all the hallmarks of such legal processes (which have long since been abolished by most western nations): “. . . the grand jury can compel witnesses to testify under oath; proceedings are secret; defendants and/or their counsel may not hear the witness against them.”

Oh, and as Mary Hunt points out in an article yesterday at Religion Dispatches, all this—the unwarranted and intrusive probes, secret reports, loyalty oaths—and then more: the nuns being investigated are expected to provide hospitality for the “visitator” and her teams. And for their travel, too, if possible.

Stinky, stinky business. All about power and control. And the need to slap religious women in the face because they provide a convenient symbol of a generalized “disobedience” on which the Vatican and people like Cardinal George are fixated now, as things fall apart. As people stop listening. As people shake their heads about the fact that there has not been a similar investigation of American dioceses to find out why two-thirds of American bishops have harbored priests they knew to be child molesters. And how much money has been spent to silence victims, fight mean-spirited court battles, silence the media—money donated by faithful Catholics to support parishes and schools and Catholic ministries.

As Hunt notes, only the men in the Vatican itself seem to be under the illusion that most of us are hanging on the words of their latest proclamations. Many nuns have been too busy to be preoccupied with concerns about playing self-protective political games with the Vatican. Instead, they’ve been preoccupied with what they see themselves called to do: live the gospel and the charisms of their founders in ever-changing cultural contexts.

As they have done so with a fidelity and creativity that puts their male counterparts to shame, they have pioneered faithful yet creative ways for Catholics in general to appropriate their religious tradition in a postmodern cultural context:

Postmodern Catholicism is a different animal than its pre-Vatican II cousin. Catholics (women and men, lay and clerical, secular and religious) think for themselves, forming new syntheses of faith and solidarity. Nuns, perhaps more than many other Catholics, took the mandates of Vatican II seriously to rethink and reground their communities in the charisms of their founders, and to develop ways of living out those values in contemporary society. Their many ways of doing so have given rise to a variety of communities, ranging from very traditional to interreligious groups that serve as models for how the rest of us can live. This variety is emblematic of the whole Church, which has changed from being “Catholic” in the strictly identifiable Roman-focused way, to something closer to the original Greek sense of “catholic,” meaning universal, broad, and inclusive. It is this tension that is at play in the investigations.

And note that even as this investigation is underway, unfortunate news continues to break regarding the founder of the powerful, highly funded male religious community the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel. Back in February, we learned that, in addition to his well-documented history of sexual abuse of seminarians (which finally earned him Rome’s censure), Maciel had also fathered a child whom he supported in secret with funds from his religious community.

Now, as Colleen Kochivar-Baker reports in an incisive posting yesterday on her Enlightened Catholicism blog, it appears that Maciel fathered not one but several children. And he may have introduced them to Pope John Paul II, one of his strongest defenders in the Vatican.

And that story is extremely apropos. It provides a necessary backdrop to the sordid Roman investigation of American religious women. As Jason Berry and Gerald Renner note in their exhaustive investigation of Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ Vows of Silence, Maciel and the Legion are powerfully wedded to wealthy right-wing Catholic (and secular) groups, who undoubtedly played a key role for many years in helping to suppress negative information about Maciel’s life, and in shielding the community from Vatican investigation.

If those same wealthy right-wing Catholic and secular groups and their filthy dollars (and euros) are not behind this investigation of American nuns, with its demeaning insinuation that Catholic religious women are disobedient daughters of the church, I’ll eat my hat. And recite a loyalty oath to Rome as I swallow it.