American nuns get an unexpected olive branch from the Vatican

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: There was a press conference at the Vatican today, and unexpectedly there was praise from the Catholic church for American nuns. A top cardinal said ‘Religious women have courageously at the forefront for the church in the United States, selflessly tending to the spiritual and social needs of the poor and the marginalized.’ The positive tone came as a surprise to many. Our friend Jane Little regularly reports on religion. So, Jane let’s scratch below the surface here because it was not the rap on the knuckles that was expected for American nuns, was it?


Jane Little: Certainly not when this process was launched six years ago, no. Then, some nuns were very annoyed and some said they wouldn’t cooperate with the process and expected a crackdown. In fact, they’re all breathing a collective sigh of relief today because instead of this feared crackdown on dissent, as you heard the cardinal there, he was heaping praise on them, as does the report, which expresses profound gratitude for their ‘dedicated and selfless service.’ I think that underlines how different in tone this document is from another report released two years ago under a different pope. Times have clearly changed. The Rome-based American nun who was tasked with doing this review, Sister Clare Millea, was clearly very emotional at the press conference, as she, in turn, thanked the cardinal.


Clare Millea: Your message to us today shows that you do understand our ongoing struggle to faithfully serve the church in challenging times despite our shortcomings and limitations.


Little: Clearly more love in there than most sisters could ever have imagined when this process was launched.


Werman: This was much different than that report from two years ago, which announced a crackdown on leaders of American nuns. How far did that report suggest a crackdown on nuns in the US should go?


Little: It was received with fury and indignation was that report, and it’s not all that surprising that they were furious because it accused American nuns of engaging in corporate dissent, of ignoring church teaching on matters such as abortion and homosexuality, said they were in grave doctrinal crisis, were radical feminists in need of reform. A large number of American Catholics sided with them and really said ‘Look, here we’ve got the male hierarchy out of touch, tainted with the scandal of sexual abuse while the nuns are quietly going about their business, feeding the poor and the hungry and carrying out the work of the gospel,’ so it really set off a confrontation. This report is clearly an olive branch and so far it’s been taken as such. The head of leadership conference that is under this reform process welcomed this report as affirmative and realistic.


Werman: Is this sigh and relief for American nuns kind of the force of Pope Francis at play here once again?


Little: I think you could say that Whether it’s directly or indirectly, there have been changes of leadership underneath him. There’s clearly a change of wind, if you will. Two years ago when this other report was launched, one sister who was a target of the criticism said ‘Look, this is all politics. It’s got nothing to do with the church, it’s politics.’ Since then, she’s said ‘Well, the political scene has shifted under Pope Francis. We’ve been the political football in the past. Perhaps things are changing.’


Werman: So, what now? How will American nuns get energized if their numbers are dwindling?


Little: That is the problem here, that this was a wider review of what’s happening in religious life in this country. It really highlights ongoing challenges, dwindling finances and vocations chief among them. There are roughly 50,000 sisters in the US. That is a huge drop from almost 200,000 fifty years ago, and the average age of an American nun is in the mid-70s and there are too few younger women to take up leadership positions. I think the church will be hoping that Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the States next year may boost morale as well as numbers.


Werman: Journalist Jane Little, always good to hear from you. Thanks.


Little: Great to talk to you Marco. Thank you.