The New York Times published an extraordinary article this week based on interviews with two dozen gay Catholic priests and seminarians in 13 states. “Out” men and women today are often widely admired, but most of the interviews had to be conducted anonymously because the Vatican still treats homosexuality as “objectively disordered” — a policy that persists even though the representation of gay men in the priesthood is higher, probably far higher, than in the general population.
The relevant catechism about sexuality does not condemn people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” just those who act on those tendencies. In other words, you can be gay so long as you don’t do anything about it. The Times article rightly presents this distinction as a trial for the priests involved — one of the last major throwbacks to the era of “the love that dare not speak its name” (as Oscar Wilde’s partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, put it). But I wondered how the church’s policy on homosexuality affects men and women, as well as boys and girls, who are not priests.
The gay priest is required, generally, to uphold the official teaching of his church and of his superiors, making him a collaborator in the suppression of his gay brothers and sisters outside the clergy. In this way, without intending to, the victimized become victimizers. How does that play out, to take an example, in the confessional? If a penitent confesses homosexual activity to a gay priest, does the priest channel God’s forgiveness of a sin that he does not himself consider a sin? This is just one of the many ways in which we Catholics, if we refrain from criticizing this particular stance of our church, contribute to the persecution of the LGBTQ community.
The deepest irony is that a priest who is required to go against his nature is told that he must do this because of “natural law.” The church’s quaint theory of natural law is that the first biological use of an activity is the only permissible use of that activity. If the biological use of sex is for procreation, any other use is “against nature.”
The absurdity of this view is made clear by considering the first biological use for eating: the sustenance of life. If every other use of nutrition is against nature, then any diet beyond what is consumed for life-maintenance is a sin — in other words, no wedding cakes, no champagne toasts. Yet the church continues to adhere to so-called natural law because it underpins doctrine on all sexual matters, including the condemnations of abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research.
Given the stakes in these and other matters, the ban on gay sex involves a larger “church teaching” than the single matter of homosexuality.
Priests and bishops who cover up male homosexuality are prone to a mutual blackmail with those who commit and conceal heterosexual acts by the clergy — sometimes involving women, including nuns, who have been victimized by priests. The Times’s portrait of gay priests was followed by a powerful Feb. 18 article revealing that the church has internal policies for dealing with priests who father children. The Vatican confirmed, apparently for the first time, that a priest with progeny is encouraged to ask for release from his ministry “to assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child” — there being no requirement in canon law that a priest perform this basic act of love for his offspring and the child’s mother.
Secrecy in one clerical area intersects with secrecy in others. There is an implicit pledge that “your secret is safe with my secret.” If there are gay nuns — and why would there not be? — that adds another strand to the interweavings of concealment.
The trouble with any culture that maintains layer upon layer of deflected inspections is that, when so many people are guarding their own secrets, the deep examination of an institution becomes nearly impossible. The secrecies are too interdependent. Truly opening one realm of secrecy and addressing it may lead to an implosion of the entire system. That is the real problem faced this week by Pope Francis and the church leaders he has summoned from around the world for a conference at the Vatican to consider the labyrinthine and long-standing scandals of clerical sex abuse.
Pope Francis said on Tuesday that the Roman Catholic Church had faced a persistent problem of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and even bishops, the first time he has publicly acknowledged the issue.
Catholic nuns have accused clerics of sexual abuse in recent years in India, Africa, Latin America and in Italy, and a Vatican magazine last week mentioned nuns having abortions or giving birth to the children of priests. But Francis has never raised the issue until he was asked to comment during a news conference aboard the papal plane returning to Rome from his trip to the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s true,” Francis said. “There are priests and bishops who have done that.”
The pope’s admission opens a new front in the long-running scandal of sexual abuse by priests, recognizing nuns who have tried for years to call attention to their plight. With the #MeToo movement going strong, and Francis under pressure for neglecting the victims of child abuse, the nuns’ pleas have gained traction.
In November, the organization representing the world’s Catholic women’s religious orders, the International Union of Superiors General, publicly denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” that contributed to abuse, and urged nuns to report abuse to law enforcement.
A top official in the Vatican office that handles sexual abuse allegations resigned last month after a former nun accused him of making sexual advances during confession. The official, the Rev. Hermann Geissler, chief of staff in the Vatican’s doctrinal office, denied the allegation, the Vatican said.
An article last week in Women Church World, the women’s magazine of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, blamed the abuse on the outsize power of priests.
“The abuse of women results in procreation and so is at the origin of the scandal of imposed abortions and children not recognized by priests,” wrote the article’s author, Lucetta Scaraffia, a feminist intellectual and the editor in chief of Women Church World.
Asked about these developments on Tuesday, Francis said that it was a continuing problem and that the Vatican was working on the issue. Some priests, he said, have been suspended.
“Should more be done? Yes,” Francis said. “Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path that we have already begun.”
Francis recalled that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, had been “a strong man” who he said had sought to remove priests who committed sexual abuse and even “sexual slavery.”
Francis spoke about a case in which Benedict dissolved an order of nuns “because a certain slavery of women had crept in, slavery to the point of sexual slavery on the part of clergy or the founder.”
A Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said later that Francis was referring to the Contemplative Sisters of Saint-Jean, a small group in France that confronted a variety of problems.
Even though the abuse of nuns gets less attention than the abuse of children and young men, it is not new. In the 1990s, as the child sex abuse crisis was starting to emerge in the United States, leaders of women’s religious orders wrote several reports calling attention to cases of priests abusing nuns.
Many examples came from Africa, where priests were said to have turned to nuns for sex during the spread of AIDS. One sister at the time, Maura O’Donohue, wrote of a case in Malawi where priests impregnated nearly 30 sisters in one congregation. When they complained to the archbishop, she wrote, they were replaced.
Last year, a nun in India accused a bishop of repeatedly raping her between 2014 and 2016. The bishop was arrested after she reported him to the police, a decision that divided the local Catholic community. Many priests celebrated when the bishop, who faces trial this year, was released on bail.
In a high-profile case in Chile, the Vatican is investigating reports that priests abused nuns. Current and former nuns said the women had been removed from the order when they reported the abuse.
Last summer, an investigation by The Associated Press found cases of abuse of nuns in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, and reported that the Vatican had not adequately punished offenders or supported victims.
At a conference in Pakistan recently, Sister Rose Pacatte, who is based in Los Angeles, spoke to leaders of women’s religious orders on how to prevent abuse.
“Don’t report to bishop or priest as the first step to deal with the situation,” warned one slide in her presentation. “They may be the abusers or may protect them.”
Last year, Mary Dispenza, a former nun who works with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims’ advocacy group, helped popularize the hashtag #nunstoo on Twitter. She intended to gather stories of people abused by nuns, but started to hear from nuns about abuse by priests.
“I’m really angered by the words of the pope just now,” Ms. Dispenza said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I am angered by the Pope not standing up and really speaking out about the tragedy, and actions he will take.”
The majority of the pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates was focused on interreligious dialogue with the Muslim world, and it culminated with the signing of a sort of manifesto for brotherhood with Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s influential Al Azhar mosque.
Asked on the plane home about conservative criticism that he had been Pollyannaish in his approach to the Middle East and been taken advantage of by the Muslim sheikhs, Francis joked, “Not only the Muslims,” and noted that his critics felt he had been manipulated by just about everyone.
“I want to say this clearly, from a Catholic point of view, the document has not moved a millimeter” from church teaching codified in the Second Vatican Council. He said he took the extra step of having the document vetted by a tough Dominican theologian, who approved it. “It’s not a step backward,” he said. “It is a step forward.”
He also made it clear that he had continued to voice his concerns about the persecution of Christians in the region — which he said his flock knew all too well — but that either “me or another Peter,” meaning a successor pope, would surely visit more Muslim countries.
Earlier Tuesday, the pope celebrated Mass at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi before roughly 135,000 Catholics, many of them migrants from India, the Philippines and South America, who had come to the Emirates to work.
The Mass, also attended by 4,000 Muslims, was the largest public celebration of a Christian rite in the history of the Muslim country, where the worship of other faiths is tolerated but is not typically done in such a public way.
The next major event on the pope’s schedule is a meeting with presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences at the end of February in Rome to focus on a response to the global sex abuse crisis that is threatening the pope’s legacy and the moral capital that is the currency of his pontificate.
During this month’s Synod of Bishops, an international gathering at the Vatican, Deborah Rose-Milavec and Kate McElwee, who lead groups dedicated to advancing women in leadership roles in the Roman Catholic Church, made sure that Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod’s general secretary, was presented with a hefty pink folder.
Inside was a petition with more than 9,000 signatures and one specific request: Allow female religious superiors at the synod to “vote as equals alongside their Brothers in Christ.”
The petition’s request, said Ms. Rose-Milavec, the executive director of Future Church and Ms. McElwee, who holds the same post at the Women’s Ordination Conference, was a minor volley in what has seemed to be an insurmountable battle to get the male-centric Catholic Church to pay serious attention to women, who represent about half the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics but count for little where it matters.
Vatican synods are held every few years. Women have emerged as a major concern of this one, which opened earlier this month and focuses on how the church can better minister to today’s youth in an era of emptying pews.
“The presence of women in the church, the role of women in the church,” has been repeatedly raised, in the synod’s plenary meeting and within smaller working groups, said Sister Sally Marie Hodgdon, the superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, and a synod participant. “The youth bring it up, as have some of the bishops and cardinals.”
“Clearly,” she added, the issue of women will be in the final document, which will be voted on Saturday.
But women, who make up about a tenth of the 340 or so synod participants, won’t be among the voters. Until this synod, only ordained men were allowed to vote on recommendations to the working document, whose final draft is given to the pope, who can include as much as he wants in his own post-synodal reflection.
This year, though, two men who are not ordained but are the superiors general of their respective religious orders have been granted the right to vote. Sister Hodgdon, too, is a superior general, but she has no voting rights.
For some Catholics, the difference clearly smacks of the sexism that “underlines the grave marginalization of women in the church,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, the editor of a monthly insert on women in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. “It’s a clamorous injustice. It demonstrates that the criteria they use is not between priest and lay people, but between women and men,” she said.
The cover of the October insert, “Women, Church, World,” depicted a woman shouting angrily. The intent of the issue, Ms. Scaraffia said, was to encourage debate and to get women “to protest every time there is a reason to protest.”
“What are they afraid of? One woman voting, honestly!” said Ms. McElwee, of the Women’s Ordination Conference, who helped to draft the petition and was an organizer of a protest that coincided with the synod’s opening, on Oct. 3.
Standing outside the gates that lead to the synod hall inside Vatican City that day, several dozen women and men chanted: “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “More than half the church.” The protest was peaceful — “a prayer groups is more disruptive,” Ms. McElwee said — but still drew the attention of the police, who brought the protest to a halt, identified all the protesters and forced some to delete footage of the demonstration from their mobile phones
The petition to allow female superiors general a synod vote was a “strategic” move toward their more equal participation in church matters, Ms. McElwee said, adding that she realized it confirmed the “ultimate fear” of some clerics who see it as a step down a “slippery slope that could eventually lead to women’s ordination” as priests.
Such ordination, Ms. McElwee said, was “the last door that’s closed to women,” though there are many doors in between. Church teaching says that women can’t be priests because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.
Those numbers have not raised the loud warning bells in the Catholic Church that they should have, critics say.
“For the first time in history women are leaving at greater rates than men,” said Ms. Rose-Milavec. “That is a deep dive.”
Pope Francis has spoken often of a more-incisive presence for women in the church, and six women occupy senior roles in the five dozen departments that make up the Catholic Church’s governing body, the Holy See. Critics say he needs to do more.
In 2016, Francis appointed a commission to review the place that female deacons had in the early church, a move seen by some as possibly opening the way to female deacons in the modern era. But the commission has not made its finding public, and the cardinal who heads it made clear last June that advising the pope on modern-day female deacons had never been on its agenda
“Through his positive statements, Pope Francis has really raised women’s expectations about the changes that he plans in order to bring more women into leadership roles,” Petra Dankova, the advocacy director of Voices of Faith, replied in a written response to questions. “But concrete actions have followed slowly and without an overarching plan.”
Voice of Faith, based in Liechtenstein, is pushing for women to gain full leadership roles in the Catholic Church. It has urged the close-knit group of cardinals who advise the pope on various issues that it should establish a special advisory board for women, Ms. Dankova said.
The question of their involvement in the church, she added, “is too complex and it cannot be expected to be somehow solved on the side without a concentrated attention and without the collaboration with women themselves.”
That suggestion has fallen on deaf ears, although some top prelates at the synod have been vocal in their support of women.
On Wednesday, speaking to reporters at a daily Vatican briefing, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Bishop’s Conference, said that the issue of women’s roles in the church was “important for the entire church,” which must understand the evolution of women’s equality as a gift from God.
“We would be foolish not to make use of the potential of women,” Cardinal Marx said. “Thank God we are not that stupid.”
Male religious superiors at the synod have also been supportive, and the umbrella groups of both male and female superiors general have drafted a concrete proposal to allow women superiors to participate as voting members in future synods. If ratified by their respective boards, the proposal would be presented to the pope, Sister Hodgdon said.
After living in Rome for eight years, Sister Hodgdon, an American, said she has learned that the ways of the Church took time. Female superior generals were not likely to get the right to vote in this synod, she conceded. “But do I believe it will happen for the next one? Yes, I really do believe that.”
The next synod is scheduled for October 2019, and will focus on issues related to the Amazon region.
When Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick was struggling with alcohol addiction in the late 1970s, there weren’t a lot of options for Catholic women religious.
“There was nothing for sisters,” Merrick said.
The then-28-year-old middle school teacher spent three months at Alina Lodge, a treatment center in Blairstown, New Jersey.
“People didn’t expect me to have issues with God or issues as a woman,” said Merrick, now executive director of the women’s program at Guest House, a residential treatment facility in Lake Orion, Michigan, for priests and religious.
She was hesitant to share her innermost thoughts with the laywomen in the program at Alina Lodge.
“It did help me, but there were areas like my spirituality and my sexuality that I didn’t feel comfortable mentioning because no one expected me to need to discuss these areas,” Merrick said.
Public accounts of mental health disorders and addictions among women religious have been rare, as have details of treatment and recovery. That may in part be because of the pervasive shame those illnesses can elicit, as well as a historical tendency for those who struggle with them to be directed only to spend more time in solitary prayer.
That is changing as knowledge and attitudes about mental illness evolve. Though difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it’s become clearer over time that addiction and mental health disorders are pegged to a combination of factors, including chemical imbalances and possibly brain abnormalities. Some individuals have also experienced grief and depression as they watch their communities cope with declining numbers and aging membership.
There’s “still such a strong stigma in mental health,” said Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, CEO at Southdown, a treatment center in Holland Landing, Ontario, that now is open to men and women in Christian ministry. “It’s in part the belief system that ‘If I’m helping people, I can’t be weak.’ It’s embarrassment and probably shame.”
For a time, she said, “most of our facilities, us included, kept a low profile to protect the people we have. [But] more and more of us are saying that doesn’t counteract the stigma.”
Overlooked and underserved
This newer sensibility has led to a quiet revolution in mental health care tailored to the needs of women.
“When we started our program, it was clear that women religious tend to be underserved by the medical community,” said Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a priest and psychologist who headed the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, and now teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Women were trained not to take care of their own needs, not to complain and to look after everyone else … especially women religious.”
Changes in how the church now approaches mental health issues among its own can be traced back about 70 years (though well before the clergy sex abuse crisis became public knowledge), when Catholic religious congregations became more rigorous in the way they approached vocational discernment.
“Others supported Ripley’s pursuit but eventually favored a center that would serve ‘all professionals,’ ” Gardner said. “Ripley’s insistence on a priests-only facility removed him from the venture, but he continued to pursue his mission to open a Guest House for alcoholic priests.”
The Guest House program for clergy and men religious was launched in the 1950s, and a program for women on the Lake Orion campus opened in the 1990s. (Hazelden, founded in 1949 and with 17 locations in the country, was an early resource for women religious and other people of faith.)
Sister Frances (not her real name), then a schoolteacher, arrived at Guest House more than a decade ago because her provincial leader told her she needed to get help. Frances is now part of a different community.
During her nine months at Guest House, Frances said, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Previously treated for depression and part of a 12-step program, Frances said that when she arrived, she was “not very far from drinking again because of the difficulties I was having, whether they were my moods or my relationships. That confused me: Why was I being sent to a treatment center?”
Part of the reason Frances spent such a long time at Guest House was the challenge of weaning her off the medications she’d been prescribed and finding a new treatment baseline, said Merrick, head of the women’s program there who has stayed in touch with Frances.
At the end of her treatment, Frances had discovered, as she grew to trust the staff and her companions, that “I was lovable. I’m able to love and be loved because I’m Frances.”
Mental health screening for candidates considering religious life wasn’t generally practiced before the 1960s, says Georgetown University medical ethicist and research scholar Daniel Sulmasy, who spent more than 25 years as a Franciscan friar. “People who were very quiet and talked about seeing angels were considered mystics and moved along in the system. Only after taking vows were they considered mentally ill and sent to places like state mental hospitals.”
Vatican II: questioning convention
The reforms that came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s were a watershed moment for Catholic sisters. They modified their dress, pursued professional degrees, went out to eat, and applied for their own credit cards. But for those who might have a mental disorder or a suppressed addiction problem, the new freedoms brought potential danger as well as opportunity.
It was a time when many who had embraced religious vocations in a top-down, highly controlled structure actually became adults, says Southdown’s Heiderscheit. Some left religious life to get married or because they determined it wasn’t for them.
Many stayed, but some struggled with the transition, she said: “People who had entered religious life at a very young age in communities with a controlling, authoritative style didn’t trust their judgment as adults.”
While this story focuses on women, men religious and clergy grapple with the same issues.
“When you look at the pathology rate around the world, including the United States, we see that women and men are similar, but they also have psychological and spiritual differences,” Rossetti said.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, a 1988 graduate of the Guest House program, is candid about his sobriety — but he doesn’t parade it. That’s because of his belief, he said, that the journey away from addiction “isn’t my recovery, and isn’t my achievement. It’s a gift from God. I’m gratefully testifying to what I’ve been given. But I also think that AA and other 12-step programs have a very healthy suspicion of [self-] promotion.”
Rates of depression are higher for women, who are more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Rossetti said, while men have higher rates of sociopathy and malignant narcissism.
Treatment protocols for women also differ, he said. When the women’s program at St. Luke began three decades ago, Rossetti turned to the women in management, both members of religious orders and laypeople, for help. “It was very different, with a greater emphasis on group work and treating pathologies more prevalent in women as well as time for communal prayer and Scripture.”
While women were very supportive of each other, sometimes they needed to be able to challenge one another and learn to use their anger in a positive way, he said. The St. Luke program integrates single- and mixed-gender sessions, Rossetti said.
A piano teacher and, later, a music therapist, Kinney, who would use the money she made to buy booze for herself, recalled that parishioners at the time were “delighted to give you a bottle” of liquor as a gift.
In the early 1970s, when Kinney was seeking help for her addiction to alcohol, “it was treated in the mental health field and not as the brain disease it is,” she said.
Though she saw mental health professionals, she didn’t make progress. Instead, she became hooked on medication. While a stint at Hazelden was helpful, she said, “I couldn’t sustain it. I was too intellectual for AA. I couldn’t picture myself in it. I didn’t want anyone to know I had this awful disease.”
Kinney applauds the creation of specialized programs for women, saying they do better in community-based settings. When she and program co-founder Sr. Letitia Close began their work in the 1970s, the main addictions for sisters were alcohol and prescription drugs. Eventually, their network expanded to include eating disorders.
Now, sisters in the support system are grappling with shopping, spending, gambling and hoarding. Looking ahead, Kinney said, “We haven’t yet seen the full-blown effect of the internet on the brain.”
She said she and Close launched their network in part to counter the isolation that can come with fighting an addiction. They gave their first workshop in a convent infirmary, concerned that older sisters would think their subject matter was scandalous. As it turned out, she said, most of their seniors knew someone who had died of alcoholism.
“Like anything else, the more a substance becomes accessible, the more the addiction shows up, but it’s still always there.” She tells of a contemplative sister she knows who said she never bought alcohol for herself — but fermented it in her cell.
While they didn’t focus specifically on mental health, many women’s congregations have long emphasized a proactive approach to overall wellness, Heiderscheit said.
A battery of psychological tests has been a pre-entrance requirement for more than 40 years among the Adrian Dominicans, says Sr. Patricia Siemen, the congregational prioress. In the year she’s been in leadership, she’s taken part in two mental-health-related interventions in her 641-woman community.
After meeting Merrick at a conference last year, Siemen attended one of the Guest House “Walking with the Wounded” seminars for sisters in leadership.
“One of the things we hope to do as congregational leaders is to open up the topic of addiction and educate our women. It could happen to any of us, depending on our DNA,” she said.
Merrick and other Guest House staff work closely with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, attend professional meetings to publicize their work, and are invited to give workshops around the country.
At Guest House, many female residents are treated for addictions like alcohol or overeating. Men are more likely to be abusing drugs such as heroin and cocaine or becoming enmeshed in sex addiction, Merrick said.
The treatment center and congregation jointly work out ways to make care possible.
“We run $2 million in the hole each year,” Merrick said. “We take care of it by doing fundraisers and through donations. Somehow, God provides.”
A typical Guest House stay includes individual therapy once a week, group meetings four times weekly, and a spirituality group, as well as informal time with other sisters.
“I look for balance being restored in a person’s life,” Merrick said. “Some of the best therapy happens after the staff goes home.”
Facilities for the Guest House female clients include private suites, a dining hall and their own chapel.
When a sister is ready to return home, a Guest House staff member helps reintegrate her back into her community by doing a workshop focused on the disorder or addiction, Merrick said. Sisters may return to the center every three to six months for a week’s refresher.
Now provincial superior for the Sisters of Notre Dame, Sr. Mary Anncarla Costello was the vicar for religious for the Los Angeles Archdiocese when she heard about the Guest House program. When she became leader of her community, she attended an introductory seminar with other team members and has referred sisters to the treatment center.
“One of the unique things about Guest House is that it provides care and support with an understanding of the religious life,” including prayer and access to the daily liturgy, Costello said. “We talk about being holy sisters, brothers and priests, but we also want to be whole.”
The long view
Religious communities can face a more general mental-health challenge as vocations ebb and friends, many advanced in age, get sick or die. Since she became congregational prioress last year, Siemen said, 41 members of her order have died.
“Women’s congregations are dealing with a tremendous amount of loss,” she said, including the end of a ministry, death or departure of sister colleagues and friends, and depletion of energy. If they aren’t doing the necessary work of grieving or are doing it alone, their depression is liable to increase, she said. “We know that grief is better accomplished together and not as a solitary.”
Heiderscheit says the sadness runs deep and has myriad causes.
“There’s always a debate over whether it’s depression or anger that we have shoved underground into depression about our future,” she said.
But somehow, the work will continue, she said. “The charism will be passed on to somebody else. We need to be gracious and gentle women and let it go.”
While loss may cast a shadow on their lives, women religious continue to rely on spiritual and communal resources, mining the latest insights from science.
Levo now consults on well-being and how to promote it, within both congregations and individuals. “What does that look like across the board: physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally? This is a personal journey, but it’s also a social and a communal journey.”
Tobin takes the long view. It’s worth remembering, he said, that priests and religious are emerging from an “anomalous” period in religious life in the United States — one that in the 19th and 20th centuries saw a surge of vocations. A sense of loss (he said he feels it sometimes himself when he visits fellow religious in a medical center and sees the “great men of my generation so weak and feeble”) can lead to diminishment and depression, or it can result in a greater sense of divine care and providence.
Though there has been an “ebb and flow, religious life will always be a part of the church,” he said.
Others who have spent decades as counselors, administrators and researchers also see reason to be encouraged.
The use of psychological testing and other screenings, as well as extensive time in formation before taking vows, has resulted in priests and sisters who are often healthier than the general population, Rossetti said. Living in community, helping others and embracing the discipline of spiritual practice all promote sound living, he said.
“As women move toward equal standing [in society], then they can be more proactive about dealing with their mental health. People are beginning to realize that women have a right to be helped when they need it.”
Heiderscheit said she sees a positive trend in the work that goes on at Southdown.
“A lot of what’s turning the tide are the new things we are learning about addiction and mental health,” she said.
“My part is to help other women religious be healthy and well; then I think I’m doing what God wants me to do in this part of my life.”
Catholic activist Sister Simone Campbell suggested senior clergy at the Vatican are more preoccupied with power than confronting issues that affect the faithful, like clerical sexual abuse.
The U.S. nun, leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” campaign that toured America during recent election cycles, spoke frankly in an interview ahead of a conference being held at the Vatican on Wednesday to celebrate women’s contributions to peace.
“The institution and the structure is frightened of change,” Campbell told Religion News Service. “These men worry more about the form and the institution than about real people.”
Referring to Marie Collins, who last week resigned from the panel appointed by Pope Francis to look into allegations of past Vatican obstruction of child sex abuse investigations, Campbell said: “Blocked by men. Isn’t this the real problem within the church?”
“The effort to keep the church from stopping this sort of thing is shocking,” she added. “It is about male power and male image, not people’s stories. The real trouble is they have defined their power as spiritual leadership and they don’t have a clue about spiritual life.”
Campbell said she was shocked, and also moved, to have been included on the guest list for the Vatican conference.
She was among the American nuns targeted in the controversial investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that was authorized in 2012 under then-Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican investigators charged the American sisters were straying too far from traditional doctrines, but Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, put an end to the investigation in 2015.
Campbell noted that senior members of the Curia, or Vatican administration, were at a spiritual retreat outside Rome all this week and so unable to attend the women’s conference.
“I don’t know if it’s a slap in the face or evidence of how much power they think we have,” she said.
Campbell heads Network, a social justice organization currently lobbying U.S. legislators in both houses of Congress to protect and maintain affordable health care.
She acknowledged the church was changing but said it was “outrageous” that it was failing to respond to the sex abuse crisis more effectively. While noting that Francis was seeking to create a more inclusive church, Campbell expressed concern about the church hierarchy and the response to clerical abuse.
“Most of the guys who run this place haven’t dealt with an ordinary human being who’s been abused, an ordinary woman or a boy who has been abused,” she said.
“If you don’t deal with the people you don’t have your heart broken open. The bureaucracy is so afraid of having their heart broken that they hide.”
No Vatican officials are scheduled to speak at the conference, which has drawn leaders and activists from around the world.
At a media conference on Monday, Kerry Robinson, an American who is global ambassador of the Leadership Roundtable, said her foundation, which promotes best practices and accountability in Catholic Church management and finances, was working to help churchmen solve challenges and ensure women advance in the church.
“I think the conversations we are having with cardinals are having an impact,” Robinson said.
This is the fourth consecutive year that the Vatican has held the women’s event to coincide with the U.N.-sponsored International Women’s Day.