Nuns hopeful on U.S. prelate's role in Vatican probe

January 3, 2011

(RNS) The recent appointment of an American archbishop to the Vatican
office overseeing a wide-ranging investigation of U.S. nuns has the
sisters and their supporters breathing a little easier.


Archbishop Joseph Tobin has already acknowledged the "anger and
hurt" among U.S. nuns caused by the probe in his new role as the
secretary, or No. 2 official, of the Vatican's Congregation for
Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.


Tobin, who grew up in Detroit, has said he will work to heal any
rifts between American sisters and the Catholic hierarchy in Rome. He
also hopes to lift a shroud of secrecy surrounding the probe.


"We're very excited by his appointment," said Sister Mary Ann
Flannery, director of the Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, Ohio. "He's
coming from an American culture that believes you have a right to defend
yourself, a right to have your voice heard."


The investigation, officially known as an "apostolic visitation," is
meant to "look into the quality of life" in sisters' religious
communities, according to the Vatican.


Currently, the investigative reports are to be kept confidential and
turned over to the Vatican panel. Not even the nuns who participate will
be allowed to see them.


"That is so offensive," said Flannery. "We basically don't trust any
of this."


But Tobin, who took over his new position in September, said in a
recent interview with National Catholic Reporter newspaper that he will
work to make the investigation more transparent.


He told the newspaper he will "strongly advocate" for the rights of
nuns to know the findings of the investigation and to respond to them.


"I'm hoping he will be allowed to fulfill his goal of working for
more transparency," said Flannery. "I hope no power (in Rome) finds a
way to stifle his voice."


The investigation, begun in December 2008 and scheduled to continue
through 2011, has been criticized by many U.S. Catholics as an attempt
to rein in U.S. nuns because they are regarded by church hierarchy as
too independent and generally too liberal on social issues.


Many sisters answered the call of the church's Second Vatican
Council (1962-1965) which encouraged social activism, freedom of
expression and conscience and respect for other religions.


Critics believe the hierarchy in Rome is trying to turn the clock
back to a more conservative and traditional church.


"The heart of the issue is not about nuns," said Sister Diana
Culbertson, a retired professor of literature and Scripture at Kent
State University. "It's about the interpretation of Vatican II. The
current hierarchy of the church does not have the same interpretation of
Vatican II as we do."


Culbertson, who refers to the investigation as the "nunquisition,"
said: "They see us as Marxist-feminist radicals. Rome has a picture of
American nuns that doesn't correspond to the picture we have of
ourselves.


"They want us in our place. But we don't make vows to the hierarchy.
We make our vows to God."


Though Culbertson welcomes the appointment of Tobin to the Vatican
panel, she challenges his call for a "reconciliation" between the
Vatican and U.S. nuns.


"Reconciliation suggests we both have something to apologize for,"
she said. "Nuns have no apologies to make."


The investigation was ordered by Cardinal Franc Rode, Tobin's boss
at the Vatican office. Rode appointed Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior
of the Connecticut-based Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to carry
out the investigation.


Millea has mobilized teams of investigators to visit and take notes
in sisters' communities across the nation. Those conducting the
investigation have declined to comment about it.


Earlier this month, five investigators spent five days at the
Cleveland-based Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph. Spokeswoman
Gina Sullivan said the investigators were polite, gracious and
well-received by the congregation. Investigators met with nuns in groups
and individually.


"We weren't apprised of the reason for it or what they were looking
for," Sullivan said. "We still don't know what the outcome will be.
Whether we will ever know remains to be seen."


The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit theologian at Georgetown University
who has been an outspoken critic of the investigation, said the
appointment of Tobin is "extraordinary."


"It's also extraordinary how he has been outspoken about the
visitation," said Reese. "This guy has been forthrightly acknowledging
that the visitation has upset people tremendously in the United States
and that the Vatican has to respond. It's obvious he has heard the
concerns."


A separate Vatican panel is investigating the Leadership Conference
of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents the leaders of 95
percent of the nation's 59,000 nuns.


The investigation, begun in spring 2009, is called a "doctrinal
assessment of the activities and initiatives" of the leadership
conference, particularly questions around a male-only priesthood, "the
problem of homosexuality" and the role of Jesus in salvation.


Officials of the conference have declined to discuss details of the
investigation but Sister Annmarie Sanders, a spokeswoman for the
conference, said LCWR leaders have had no communication with the Vatican
panel since April.


Asked whether she feels the nuns' conference is being kept in the
dark regarding the investigation, Sanders said, "Very much so."