The Vatican’s misguided investigation of American Catholic nuns seemed thoroughly steeped in chauvinism from its inception three years ago by the church’s male-dominated bureaucracy. Rome’s move against widely respected churchwomen was puzzling and provocative in an era of scandal by male priests committing child rape and being repeatedly shielded by their male superiors.
Wisely and unexpectedly, the inquiry was ended in obvious diplomatic retreat Thursday, and soon followed by an hourlong meeting of the nuns’ beaming leadership with a welcoming Pope Francis. There was no mistaking the message that the reforming spirit of Francis’s fresh broom had poked sharply into another corner of the Vatican. The extraordinary effort to have the Vatican take control of the sisters’ main communal voice — the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — ended with none of the aggressive bombast of Rome’s initial announcement of the inquiry under Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.
The final report said rather limply that the oversight by the church’s doctrinal office “has been accomplished” with both the office and nuns going forward in a “spirit of cooperation.” There was no further mention of the “serious doctrinal problems” cited in Rome’s original blanket complaint that “radical feminist themes” were permeating the nuns’ lives — lives the church laity quickly rose up to defend as the epitome of Christian charity.
The 57,000 nuns in the United States were left free of doctrinaire prodding, free to continue helping the needy in myriad ways that reflect well on the church, particularly after the child abuse scandal. Proactive orders like the Sisters of St. Joseph, whose members felt they were under close hierarchical watch, are unimpeded in their efforts to revolutionize the treatment of imprisoned women.
What was actually laid bare by the Vatican’s inquiry was the considerable strength of the American sisterhood. Nuns remain unstinting at day-to-day charity in the most suffering corners of society. They continue building educational and intellectual resources personified by respected female.