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U.S. Catholic nuns face Vatican probe

Amityville, NY: Twin sisters and nuns Ascension, left,

Amityville, NY: Twin sisters and nuns Ascension, left, and Jonathan Lynch, both 82, attend Mass at The Sisters of St. Dominic in Amityville. (Sept. 3, 2009) Credit: Newsday / Photo by Danielle Finkelstein

For 156 years, the Dominican nuns based in Amityville have run schools, staffed hospitals and ministered to the poor, the infirm and the lonely.

Now, like Catholic nuns across the United States, they find themselves the focus of an investigation by the Vatican, and this month they will begin receiving questionnaires on their prayer lives, missions and finances. In an unprecedented move, Rome is scrutinizing not only the sisters but their national umbrella organization. The president-elect of that group, Sister Mary Hughes, also is the head of Long Island's Dominican Sisters of Amityville.

The Vatican has said little about why it launched the overall inquiry, called an "Apostolic Visitation," which is expected to last two years. But according to a working document it released, the inquiry is aimed at examining the nuns' "quality of life."

The Vatican says it is concerned about the sisters' prayer lives, declining ranks, and "fidelity to the Church's teachings," among other issues. It asserts the inquiry will be a positive experience for the nuns. With the exception of cloistered nuns, all 59,000 sisters in the United States are subject to the probe, which does not include nuns in any other country.

"It was a surprise," said Hughes, who was recently voted president-elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization also under investigation. "Clearly, what this is pointing to is that there is a need for greater dialogue, if there is any misunderstanding among some about the apostolic work of religious congregations."


Bishop: Inquiry could help

Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre called the inquiry "a very positive move. I have no problem with it."

Murphy, who is widely described as a Rome insider, said the Apostolic Visitation could help the nuns address issues such as declining vocations. The number of religious sisters in the United States has declined from 179,954 in 1965 to 59,601 today, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

"We're not running witch hunts," Murphy said. "The church is a church that has a right to ask people, 'Are you living up to what we gave you' " when you were made priests, sisters or brothers?

But at a time when the Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by the priests' child sex abuse scandal, many nuns and their supporters are mystified and miffed by the Vatican inquiry.

Some church observers see the probe as an attempt by conservatives in Rome and in the U.S. Church to rein in nuns who became too liberal after Vatican II, the 1962-65 council that reformed and "modernized" the church. Many nuns abandoned convents, tossed away their habits, moved into new ministries such as working with the homeless and sometimes expressed support for ideas that run contrary to church teachings such as ordaining women as priests or permitting birth control.


Focus on 'climate of dissent'

"Some American bishops and other players in the church have long been concerned about what they see as a climate of dissent," said John Allen, Rome correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter.


Francine Cardman, a theology professor at Boston College, called the probe a male-led attempt to "tidy up after Vatican II . . . I think it's outrageous, I think it's unnecessary. I think it is meant to intimidate."

Sister Jean Amore, head of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood - besides the Dominicans, the other major congregation of nuns on Long Island - said the probe "was unexpected and it's out of the ordinary." She added that historically Apostolic Visitations are a "tool used by the pope to gather information to look at a situation that seems to be problematic or needs to be corrected or amended. It's serious."

Still, she and Hughes said they hoped to use the Apostolic Visitation as an opportunity to show all the good work their orders have done for decades.

The inquiry is being led by Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a traditional, habit-wearing order based in Hamden, Conn. She has already met with heads of women's religious congregations, or received lengthy letters from them.

This month the orders are to receive a detailed questionnaire they must fill out. That will be followed by on-site visitations of some orders. Finally, a report with recommendations will be delivered to Rome, though the nuns will not be allowed to see it.

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