Rome’s scrutiny of American Nuns

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By The Editorial Board OF THE NEW YORK TIMES           

Six years ago, in the midst of the scandal over child abuse by rogue Catholic priests, the Vatican shocked many of the laity by ordering a sweeping investigation into the behavior and fidelity of the 50,000 American nuns who quietly labor in hospitals, prisons and outposts of the nation’s impoverished. The inquiry, ordered by the church under Pope Benedict XVI, seemed a deliberate distraction from the abuse scandal, and was tinged with male chauvinism.

Now, under the more egalitarian Pope Francis, the inquiry has been concluded with a generally positive report that mainly praises the sisters and their works in words of gratitude and encouragement.

The report should help counter the fear and discouragement that many sisters felt when Rome ordered the inquiry into the community life and finances of the nation’s 350 women’s religious orders. Far from discouraging the social justice ministries that nuns have pioneered, the report urged the sisters to continue their work taking on “the structural causes of poverty.” It even quoted Francis’s call for “a more incisive female presence in the church.” No means for achieving that were suggested, though the sisterhood was a bastion of good works during the harrowing scandal that saw hundreds of men dispatched from the priesthood.

Unfortunately, there is a second, more ill-advised inquiry still to be completed – into whether the national leadership of the nuns has taken on what a ranking prelate termed “a certain secular mentality” and “a certain feminist spirit.” The inquiry was begun under Benedict when Vatican officials expressed concern that teachings on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood might have been criticized at leadership conferences of American nuns.

That inquiry seems incongruous in the new era of Pope Francis. “Who am I to judge?” he respectfully asked last year, when interviewed about gay members of the church. In any case, the inquiry, when finished, should focus firmly on what the Catholic laity already appreciates – how the good deeds and integrity of modern sisters can help redeem the church from scandal.

© 2014 The New York Times Company, 20 December 2014