Vatican Officials, US Women Religious Meet

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, July 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

Vatican Officials, US Women Religious Meet


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


A Vatican doctrinal investigation of the largest leadership organization for U.S. women religious appears to have been complicated by the group's support last March of health care legislation opposed by the U.S. bishops.

In meetings with Vatican officials last April, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious repeatedly fielded questions from Vatican officials about its support for the legislation despite the fact that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had argued the bill would allow federal funding for abortions.

The Leadership Conference, along with a number of other Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association, disagreed with the bishop's interpretation of the legislation, saying it did not allow for federal funding of abortions.

Last March, in the final days of a highly politicized health care debate in Congress, the Leadership Conference offered support to a Senate-backed House bill that eventually passed 219-212.

'The Leadership Conference supported the legislation, saying it would bring health care coverage to an additional 30 million people.

President Obama signed the measure, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, on March 23, leaving a visible rift between the bishops and women religious. The issues involved now appear to have gone beyond specific health care legislation to include the proper use of church authority, who can speak to moral and political issues, and the scope of constitutional rights of vowed religious.

Elements in these thorny issues have been thrown into the mix of the ongoing doctrinal assessment by Vatican officials of the U.S. women religious leadership, an internal Leadership Conference document indicates.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States and claims more than 1,500 members, representing about 95 percent of the 68,000 U.S. women religious.

It was in February 2009 that the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by U.S. Cardinal William Joseph Levada, sent a letter to the conference, announcing the doctrinal assessment. Levada cited Vatican doctrinal concerns with the conference dating back to 2001.

The Levada letter set no timetable for further discussions or resolution of the issues involved. The outcome of the assessment could have a significant impact on the future of the conference and, in turn, the leadership of U.S. women religious communities, possibly leading to Vatican demands for new methods of communication among women religious or even new structures of leadership.

However serious the outcome of the doctrinal assessment could be, it has received relatively little public exposure in large part because the process has been overshadowed by a far more public Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious congregations, which was initiated two months before and is now in the second year of a three-year process.

This second Vatican inquiry, officially called an apostolic visitation, was announced in December 2008 and involves the nation's apostolic religious communities. This investigation is being carried out by the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, headed by Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rode.

When Rode's congregation first announced the study of U.S. women religious communities, it cited as reason falling numbers within them and a need to determine their "quality of life."

Whatever the Vatican intentions, many U.S. women religious have seen this probe as an affront. They say they were never consulted, were never involved in its planning or execution, and will not be allowed an opportunity to refute allegations before the report is passed along to Vatican officials for consideration and possible action.

As a result of these objections, some religious communities have not been fully compliant with the study, although there have been no reports that communities singled out for personal site visits have been less than receptive. …

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