Vatican Official: "Anger and Hurt" among American Sisters

John Allen's has a lengthy, revealing and surprising interview with Archbishop Joseph Tobin, Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Vatican office running the "apostolic visitation" of women's religious communities in the United States.  It's all here on NCR.  Archbishop Tobin acknowledges the "anger and hurt" of American woman religious and also hopes for what many congregations have been requesting after the visitation is completed: feedback.  Some questions:

So far, have you worked much on the visitation of American women religious?


I wouldn’t say it’s a daily issue in the dicastery, because there are so many other ones, some of which may be more urgent in a local area. But [the visitation] is certainly there. I met Mother Millea last month and had a chance to hear her experience. I’ve also met with different people, such as the past president of the LCWR and other American religious who are passing through Rome.  I’m picking up the impression that it’s not as bad as people thought it was going to be, but there still is a need for a strategy of reconciliation.

What do you mean by that?

A number of leaders of women’s congregations have said to me that they’ve been surprised by the depth of anger and hurt that exists among the sisters. I think that can’t be ignored. It has to be addressed, it’s a sign of the times.

Do you have a sense at this stage of how to address it?

I think it would be arrogant on my part to say that. I remember talking to a couple of sisters, and I said, ‘Look, I’m not naive enough to think that trust can be built overnight, or even through a nice meeting, but at least we’ve got to talk.’ I also don’t think the answer is just with me. I think my dicastery and others have to hear the experience of women religious, and women religious too have to hear the experience of pastors and this dicastery. We have to try to heal what can be healed.

One source of concern often expressed by women religious is that they’re not going to see the results of the visitation or have any opportunity to respond. What can you say about that?

I really believe that people have a right to some sort of response. I don’t want to do Mother Millea’s job, in the sense of sitting here in Rome and contradicting instructions she’s received. But I can say that my experience of visitations, having done them for 18 years in seventy countries, is that there always is feedback … always. That’s a respectful part of the dialogue, and it also makes sure that the visitation isn’t a flash in the pan, or what’s worse, some sort of trauma that’s unresolved. You don’t want people to feel like they’ve been punched but they don’t know what it was all about.

Your intention is that people will get some kind of feedback?

Yes. All my experience tells me that’s the way to go. I don’t want to subvert the visitation teams by proclaiming something in an interview, but I will strongly advocate for feedback.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tom Maher
8 years 4 months ago
Like any human organization women religious organiztions must be audited by their parent organiztion, the church in Rome, on a regular basis.  Without feedback and correcive action all human organizations tend toward entropy i.e to lose energy and direction and start to mutate in ways that don't make sense and could even be  harmful to the existance of the larger organization.  So organizations that are made up exclusively of celibrate women which is something very rare in the world and throught history certainly should also be audited regularly.  And of couse secret audits do not make sense.  The purpose of an audit is to bring to light dysfunctions and worse and yes incosistancy with policies of the larger society and the policies of the larger worldwide organiztion, the Catholic church.  

It would be very troubling if women religous organizations, as such a visible part of the Catholic  church, to act as if they are free agents independent of the church or society and accountable only to themselves.  Women religious organizationd make no sense independently functioning as free agents accountable only to themselves and their collective individual consciences or in disregard of the wider Catholic church. .  Women religious must be accountable to and responisve to the church and society.  Rather as a very visible part of the church and society they are must be highly accountable and must maintain good relations with the church and society.  Like any organization such  as the army , the post office. a business or a university, women religious organization must serve society, in this case the church, and be responsive to society and the church. 

The appearance is that what the nuns have lost a sense of accountability that any that a visble part of the church must have.   It does not seem justified for nuns as a visible part of the Catholci church to be aloof from the larger church in Rome which is making inquiries that are to be expected.  Not to expect close involvment from Rome would be very unrealistic on the part of nuns if this is what in fact is happening.   The large church is impacted by what the nuns do or do not do and what directions the nuns are taking.  The nuns like any organization must be held accountable and serve the church.  
Adrienne Krock
8 years 4 months ago
"Archbishop Tobin acknowledges the "anger and hurt" of American woman religious"

It seems from my experience as a that you could just leave off the word "religious" and reveal the experience of many of us, religious or lay, myself included. It would be gratifying to see the Vatican acknowledge any of that. If they start with the religious, and actually move beyond acknowledging it to addressing it, that would be a lovely start.
Vince Killoran
8 years 4 months ago
Tom writes that "The appearance is that what the nuns have lost a sense of accountability that any that a visble part of the church must have."

I don't know about "appearances" but it seems to me that, compared to the hierarchy, our American women religious are quite accountable where it counts. Archbishop Tobin-a "liberal" with political savvy-has been sent in by the Vatican to clean up the mess begun by the hamdanded Curia who mistakenly  brought iron-fisted methods down on the authentic act living out of one's religious vows.
Molly Roach
8 years 4 months ago
If the Church of Rome seriously and systematically audited its bishops for dysfunction, then perhaps auditing of the women religious in one nation would
not smell quite so badly.  And I would think that an audit is for far more than ferreting out dysfunction: surely it is to clarify what the strengths are.    
charles jordan
8 years 4 months ago
One of the main reasons that the visitation of American women religious in congregations or societies or orders of pontifical right (sans cloistered nuns) is a grievous insult was the implication that the religious communities are not and were not in compliance with their own constitutions, and Canon Law.  That is, if there were specific incidents of this, then it would be right for the Curia to work with the superiors of the community to rectify any actual failures, or correct any Curial mis-perceptions.  This was never established. All the communities being visited are living according to Curial approved constitutions. Also, the major superiors of these communities and their leadership associations spend thousands of dollars regularly reporting to the same Curia in person.

This is in addition to the customary and usual visitations that the major superiors make by visiting each religious regularly.



The latest from america

Join Kirsten Powers, CNN analyst and USA Today columnist, and Rev. James Martin, S.J., Editor at Large of America Media and New York Times best-selling author, for a live show celebrating the 100th episode of Jesuitical.
America Media EventsApril 24, 2019
Most converts I know have an elevator speech on why they became Catholic. My Catholicism just sort of “happened.”
Reilly CosgroveApril 21, 2019
Pope Francis greets the crowd after delivering his Easter message and blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 21, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis prayed for victims of the attacks in Sri Lanka and called for peace, highlighting 18 conflicts around the world.
Gerard O’ConnellApril 21, 2019
Certain memories linger in our hearts with special clarity. For me, a long-ago Holy Saturday that marked the day before my reception into the Catholic Church is one of those.