A much-anticipated Vatican report on U.S. women's religious orders, which was ordered under Pope Benedict XVI, will be released Tuesday in Rome — and its contents will be closely watched for any sign of changed relations between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and nuns under Pope Francis.
The study is one of two separate Vatican inquiries of American nuns that angered many Catholic sisters, who considered the reviews an attempt to bring them more under the authority of the all-male church leadership. Some sisters would not fill out the study's questionnaire or participate in on-site interviews.
The other investigation, by the Vatican's guardian of orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was released in 2012. It focused narrowly on the major umbrella organization for sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and concluded the organization had strayed from church doctrine and had to change. The Vatican appointment of an archbishop as overseer for the Leadership Conference prompted an outpouring of support for the sisters from the American public.
Mary Ann Hinsdale, a Boston College theologian and a member of Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, took part in the nationwide review of religious orders, although some in her order refused. The study was announced in 2008 with little explanation.
"When this started out it was seen as an imposition and unfair. I still think a lot of people would say that," Hinsdale said. "But I think we tried to turn it around so that we in fact could tell the real story of who we are."
The inquiry, called an Apostolic Visitation, was initiated by the Vatican office that oversees religious orders and aimed to look at the sisters' quality of life. Their numbers have dropped from about 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 50,000 this year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Most sisters are elderly, and the national retirement fund meant to support them and members of men's religious orders has a projected shortfall of several billion dollars.
Cardinal Franc Rode, then-head of the Vatican office for religious orders, said in 2009 that the review was not a sign of mistrust. But he said there was concern about "a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain 'feminist' spirit," Catholic News Service reported.
Theological conservatives have long complained that many sisters have become too liberal in their activism and outlook, and failed to follow Catholic teaching on all issues.
The questionnaire for the study sought information on topics ranging from finances to mission, including how the orders deal with sisters who are disobedient; whether the communities' prayers follow the church's liturgical rules; and how the orders educate members on doctrine.
Mary Ann Zollmann, who was president of the Iowa-based Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary during the inquiry, said some orders took steps under canon law to protect their assets out of fear they could be seized as a result of the review. Zollmann, a co-author of "Power of Sisterhood," a book about the investigation, said the head of the Vatican study eventually said orders did not have to provide the financial information after all.
Since the review began, Rode has left his post. The new leader of the office, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, last year told heads of women's religious orders a "new attitude" of cooperation and equality was needed between Vatican officials and nuns worldwide, according to The National Catholic Reporter.
Francis has repeatedly praised the work of religious sisters, but Hinsdale said, "I don't know what he would think of some of the feminism of some American women religious."
Sister Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference, will be one of the speakers at the Rome news conference where the report will be released. Holland said in a statement that "our expectations" are that the study has yielded an "accurate report of both the blessings of U.S. women's religious life as well as its challenges."
Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, leader of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which represents more traditional American religious sisters, will also attend the news conference. She said in an email that these reviews "are an aspect of healthy governance in religious life" that "illustrate transparency and accountability."
Zollmann said it was an encouraging sign that Vatican officials had organized a formal release of the report with U.S. leaders participating.
"I can't imagine this announcement would be made in a public press conference if there was going to be something that was going to awaken and evoke the rawness of all of this once again," she said. "I don't think we would be hearing it spoken in that venue if that were the case."