It felt like a one-two punch to American nuns. First, the Vatican said last December that it was launching an apostolic visitation of the 340 women's orders to evaluate how well they are "living in fidelity" to the church's guidelines for religious life.
The second probe is more ominous. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — which enforces theological purity — is investigating the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents about 90 percent of women's orders. In February, the Vatican wrote the leadership conference, asking the group to clarify its stand on three doctrinal issues: that only men can be priests; that homosexual practice should not be sanctioned; and that the Catholic Church provides the way to salvation.
"As women religious, we wouldn't believe that we've done anything to create the need for this," says Nancy Schreck, president of Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa. "It feels like an affront to us."
Schreck says the Vatican typically only launches this kind of inquiry when a group goes seriously astray. Even after the priest sex-abuse crisis, she notes, the Vatican refrained from investigating the priesthood or men's orders in the U.S., although it did conduct a visitation at seminaries. Schreck wonders if Rome is putting the sisters' behavior in the same category.
"I can't help but have some suspicion about where this is coming from and who's really behind it and what they're trying to do," she says.
Split Over Vatican II
Schreck and others believe Rome is trying to stamp out the last vestiges of Vatican II — the 1960s Vatican effort to liberalize the church, after which sisters took a new approach to ministry. Many traded their habits — the traditional nun's garment — for street clothes and left their convents for apartments closer to those they served. Others became activists for the poor and immigrants, and some advocated for gay rights and the ordination of women.
Sister Camille D'Arienzo, a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, says these actions are at odds with the more conservative views of the church headed by Pope Benedict XVI.
"I don't know what they're afraid of," she says. "What I would guess is some of the more conservative bishops in the U.S. might see the sisters moving with spirit of Vatican II in a way they're not comfortable with. So it may be some effort to kind of rein us in."
That's fine by Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan. After all, she says, the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy.
"We knew what we were getting into when we came to the altar and said, 'I promise, I do vow indeed poverty, chastity and obedience,' " she says. "I was old enough to know what I was talking about. For those of us who live it and love it, we can say, yes, sometimes it grinds us, but we're better for it."
Sheridan is superior general of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Mich. At her convent, the sisters live in community, pray together three times a day beginning at 5:30 in the morning and wear ankle-length habits.
"We love our habit. We designed it ourselves," she says, laughing. "We have a navy blue for the winter months, and a light blue pinstripe for the summer months. They're actually very attractive."
She paused. "You want to join?"
I don't have the stamina, but many others do. The average age of the women in Sheridan's convent is 38. The national average is 70. A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that most young people are entering conservative orders like Sheridan's.
Generational, Cultural Schisms
Ann Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis, says she hears all the time from sisters distraught about the often rebellious stands of their leaders. Carey says it's fine if the more "liberal" don't want to follow Rome.
"If they don't want to adhere to what religious life is defined as in the Catholic Church, then don't do it. Do something else," she says. "But I think what many of the sisters are tying to do is change the nature of religious life and change the nature of the church."
Carey notes that the leaders have been pretty blunt in their defiance. In the assemblies in recent years, they have called for "loyal dissent" and an end to "patriarchy." They say they have shifted from being "obedient daughters" to "mature women who have something to say about the church, its teaching and practice."
Carey says the most startling statement came two years ago, when the keynote speaker at the nuns' assembly said that many of the women's communities have become "post-Christian."
"I think it has gotten to the point where there have been some very prominent sisters who have been so open in their dissent and have given so much scandal that I think the Vatican finally decided it had to act," she says.
But Sister Nancy Schreck says as followers of Jesus, the sisters must voice their views when they feel the Vatican is wrong — on things like caring for gay men and lesbians, and the equality of women. Such discussion is the American way, she says, adding that these disagreements reflect the larger tension between Rome and the U.S. church.
And no matter what the outcome of these inquiries, she says the U.S. sisters will not back down on their core beliefs.
"We've come too far to step back into something we wouldn't believe in," she says.
The Vatican has not said when it will issue its findings and decide the fate of American sisters.