Vatican Investigates U.S. Nuns For Straying From Catholic Doctrine05:28

This article is more than 12 years old.

The Vatican is in the midst of two wide-ranging investigations of nuns in the United States.

The first investigation is known as an "apostolic visitation." The Vatican calls it a "look into the quality of life" of women's religious institutes. The second focuses on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — a group that represents 95 percent of women's religious orders. The conference said it was told the investigation was warranted because it has not done more to promote church teachings.

To learn more about the investigations, we spoke with Dr. Alice Laffey, a former nun who teaches religion at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

Bob Oakes: Is the Vatican concerned about whether some nuns in the U.S. are not adhering closely enough to Vatican doctrine?

Dr. Alice Laffey: Yes, the culture of the United States is different from certainly cultures in different parts of the world. We, for example, have a very individualist culture, so Europeans in general will look at Americans and see us as very individualistic.

When at the time of Vatican II, Roman Catholic nuns were asked to seek the signs of the times and make adaptations to better be able to speak to the modern world, some of the adaptations that were made were in accord with American culture. Some of them certainly facilitated the ministry of sisters and others became problematic.

What are you talking about when you say they became "problematic?" Give us a specific about what the Vatican might find problematic. Are we talking about something as simple as the fact that many nuns in the U.S. no longer wear the habit or that they do not go to Church often enough or receive the sacraments?

I would say probably both. Rome sees them really as one of their arms and assumes that what Rome says they will do or they will think.

You are saying the Vatican might be thinking that U.S. nuns are not doing a good job representing today's Church or at least today's Church as it is defined by the Vatican.

Right. You know, I'm very hesitant to say all Vatican officials or all nuns because it's much more complex than that. There is a small group that is very vocal and that those people get attended to. And Rome is concerned because they see people opting for social justice ministries, which are a good thing, but less attentive to a male, patriarchal, hierarchical Church.

Are you talking about the part of the investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious where a letter to the order said that it had failed to promote Church teachings on issues such as the male-only priesthood and homosexuality? What do you take from that?

Well, I take from that that you are public persons of the church.

How do you imagine that these culturally independent people — the nuns across the U.S. — are going to take all of this? And I know that it is a broad-brush question because you cannot speak to or speak about every nun in America.

I think that some of them will be offended because they have given their lives to try to serve the people of the church and they have been hurt. I think others will be angry, but I think the anger is related to being hurt.

One of the problems that the Vatican is having with the leadership conference of major superiors right now is not just the homosexuality thing. The head of the major superiors — in talking recently at one of her major talks — said that there is more than one Son of God. Salvation doesn't just come through the Church. Now this is a real issue. What she was referring to is other religions. This is clearly pushing the envelope.

So I think homosexuality is one thing and the ordination of priests is one thing. But I think the issue right now does have to do with maintaining a unique and important place not only for Christianity, but for Catholicism.

The number of nuns in the U.S. has declined dramatically in the last 50 years. There are about 60,000 across the U.S. now, but that compares to 180,000 in 1965. Are you worried that these investigations could affect those numbers?

No. I think that women who are going to enter are going to enter. A religious vocation is really much more about an experience of God and a call to service in the Church through a particular way of life.

This program aired on July 4, 2009.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.