An unprecedented Vatican investigation of U.S. women's religious orders that alarmed Roman Catholic sisters when the inquiry began years ago ended Tuesday with a report signaling a softer approach under Pope Francis.
The report praised sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor and promised to value their "feminine genius" more, while gently suggesting ways to serve the church faithfully and survive amid a steep drop in their numbers. There was no direct critique of the nuns, nor any demand for them to change — only requests that they ensure their ministries remain "in harmony with Catholic teaching."
"There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this report," said Sister Sharon Holland, head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization for most U.S. religious orders. "Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on."
The laudatory language contrasted sharply with the atmosphere in which the review started under Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Franc Rode, who in 2008 initiated the nationwide study when he led the Vatican office that oversees religious orders, said there was concern about "a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain 'feminist' spirit."
Rode left the post while the review was still under way, and his successors had said they wanted a friendlier relationship with the sisters.
Still, many nuns remained concerned about the outcome of the investigation under Francis' still-young pontificate. Some nuns had taken legal steps during the inquiry to shield the financial assets of their religious orders in case of a Vatican takeover.
The report expressed hope that sisters would take "this present moment as an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust" with the church hierarchy. Many sisters have complained that their work often went unrecognized by priests and requested improved dialogue with bishops to clarify their role in the church and give them greater voice in decisions, according to the report.
Before the news conference releasing the report in Rome, leaders for the sisters and the nun who oversaw the review, Mother Mary Clare Millea, attended the pope's daily Mass in the Vatican hotel where he lives and spoke with him briefly, where he offered his blessing.
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, based in Maryland, said in a statement the document signaled "a hope for future dialogue and communion among and between women religious and church leaders."
"The report is clearly focused on cooperation. It's clearly focused on dialogue, which I think is not necessarily what people expected back in 2008 when this issue came up," said Jana Bennett, a specialist in Catholic theology and ethics at the University of Dayton, Ohio.
Still, American nuns are dealing with the fallout from a separate investigation from a different Vatican office. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012 ordered an overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. sisters. The doctrine office said the organization strayed from church teaching and promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain was appointed to oversee the Leadership Conference, potentially through 2017.
Holland said she was "working hard and working well" with Sartain and other Vatican-appointed delegates, and the process might end sooner than originally expected.
"We're moving toward resolution of that," she said.
Both investigations prompted an outpouring of support from many rank-and-file American Catholics who viewed the inquiries as a crackdown by the all-male Vatican hierarchy against the underpaid, underappreciated women who do the lion's share of work running Catholic hospitals, schools and services for the poor.
Theological conservatives have long complained that after the modernizing reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, women's religious orders in the U.S. became secular and political while abandoning traditional prayer life and faith.
The nuns insisted prayer and Christ were central to their work.
Along with praise, the report offered a sobering assessment of the difficult state of American religious orders. The current number of 50,000 U.S. sisters represents a fraction of the 125,000 in the mid-1960s, although that was an atypical spike in U.S. church history.
Financial resources to care for sisters are dwindling as they age, and the orders have struggled to attract new members. The report asked the sisters to make sure their training programs reflect church teaching and their members pray and focus on Christ.