Leaders of a significant number of the nation's Roman Catholic sisters are challenging aspects of a Vatican investigation of their communities, declining to answer questions they say are ambiguous, inappropriate and out of step with the probe's stated purpose.
The heads of three large congregations of sisters said in interviews with The Associated Press they did not fully answer a questionnaire that was due in late November _ potentially leaving large holes in a three-year study of more than 340 orders with 59,000 members.
The investigation, called an apostolic visitation, was announced as an exploration of the quality of life of Catholic sisters whose ranks are in steep decline.
But some sisters fear the Vatican aims to crack down or push them toward more traditional roles, citing questions about dissent from church teaching, manner of dress and other issues.
Sister Mary Waskowiak, president of the 4,000-member Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, said most of the roughly 28 congregational leaders she has spoken with either left some answers blank or sent copies of their constitutions, which spell out their congregations purpose and mission and are approved by the Vatican.
"The church has a right to call us to accountability," said Waskowiak, who did not answer all the questions. "I acknowledge that. I still do not understand the real motivation for this ... I am concerned about a lack of transparency on the part of the Vatican congregation" that ordered the investigation.
It's unclear how the Vatican will respond and whether orders will face consequences for not answering all the questions, said the Rev. Lawrence Jurcak, president of the Canon Law Society of America
"Certainly the response to a question may simply include, 'Here's why the information you're specifically asking for, we do not have available to us, we cannot provide," Jurcak said. "That can be considered a legitimate response."
Waskowiak, like others who agreed to speak about their concerns, emphasized that her response was not resistance but instead respectful and consistent with her community's identity.
"We have a good story to tell," Waskowiak said. "We want to tell the story of 150-plus years of service, the many sisters in education, in health care. We have a great story to tell about walking with people. And the questionnaire doesn't seem to recognize that. It's very legalistic."
Some questions are inappropriate, she said. One seeks to explore how sisters pray _ an internal matter no superior has the right to judge, Waskowiak said.
The questionnaire asks for basic demographic information and about steps taken to recruit new members _ as well as more pointed details about who exercises authority over sisters who live alone, the names of presenters at workshops and whether liturgies follow approved guidelines.
After extensive efforts to involve its 536 member in the process, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary did not complete the questionnaire and instead sent a short cover letter and a copy of its Vatican-approved constitutions, said Sister Mary Ann Zollman, the order's president. She said the documents were the clearest, most comprehensive response.
"I'm sure there are those who will see it as being uncooperative," Zollman said. "For us, it's a response of integrity."
How communities deal with sisters who dissent from church teachings _ one of the most controversial questions _ is an internal matter, she said. She said some questions "had nothing to do with judging the authenticity of our life."
Others were ambiguous, requiring the categorization of sisters as working in fields such as education or social justice when several definitions might fit, said Sister Nancy Schreck, president of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa, who did not answer all the questions, either.
She said some members of her community are nervous because Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rode, who ordered the investigation, has said he was influenced by a symposium on religious life he attended in fall 2008. The event featured several talks from traditionalist Catholics criticizing the direction of most U.S. sisters.
After the modernizing Second Vatican Council of that decade, many sisters embraced Catholic teaching against war and for workers rights, stopped wearing habits and shed their traditional roles as teachers or hospital workers and took up activism.
Some have gone further, questioning church teaching on abortion, gay marriage or the celibate male priesthood. Others have stressed the value of other religions.
More conservative orders that wear habits and pledge fidelity to Rome _ groups that are in the minority, but attracting new members _ are answering the Vatican's questions.
"I do not understand the fear," said Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, superior general of the 80-member Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich. "Surely, we all must face the truth that there is a decline in vocations in religious life. And it is the role of the church to ask the questions."
Sister Kieran Foley, spokeswoman for the apostolic visitation office, acknowledged that some congregations sent incomplete answers _ a development first reported by the National Catholic Reporter.
Foley said the information being sought is basic and the inquiry is being "undertaken at the highest authority of the Catholic Church" to better understand the welfare of U.S. sisters.
She said plans are moving forward for the next phases: reviewing replies that continue to arrive and conducting onsite visits to select congregations next year.
On the Net:
Apostolic Visitation, http://apostolicvisitation.org