VATICAN CITY - The Vatican went out of its way Tuesday to mend fences with American nuns, thanking them for their selfless work caring for the poor and promising to value their "feminine genius" more, while gently suggesting ways to survive amid a decline in their numbers.
The long-awaited report of the Vatican's sweeping three-year investigation into U.S. women's religious orders, was most remarkable for what it didn't say. There was no criticism of American nuns, no demands that they shift their focus from social justice issues to emphasize Catholic teaching on abortion, no condemnation that a feminist, secular mentality had taken hold in their ranks.
Rather, while offering a sobering assessment of the difficult state of American congregations, the report gave a positive view of the sisters' contributions to the church and reflected a pastoral and encouraging message that is characteristic of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope.
The report, as a result, offered a radically different message, in both tone and content, to the 50,000 sisters living and working in the U.S. compared with that of another Vatican office investigating an umbrella group of their leaders.
That investigation, conducted by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, resulted in a Vatican takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2012. The doctrine office determined that the LCWR, which represents the leaders of 80 percent of U.S. sisters, took positions that undermined church teaching and promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
The Vatican's congregation for religious orders has long sought to distinguish its broad investigation into the quality of life of American sisters from the more narrow doctrinal assessment carried out by the orthodoxy office, and its report Tuesday made clear that two very different messages are coming from the Holy See.
Both investigations were initiated under Pope Benedict XVI within months of one another in 2008 and resulted in tremendous feelings of betrayal and insult from the sisters, some of whom refused to cooperate fully.
The probes also prompted an outpouring of support from rank and file Catholics who viewed the investigations as a crackdown by a misogynistic, heavy-handed, all-male Vatican hierarchy against the underpaid, underappreciated women who do the lion's share of the church's work running Catholic hospitals, schools and services for the poor.
Theological conservatives have long complained that in the years after the revolutionizing reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, women's congregations in the U.S. became secular and political while abandoning traditional prayer life and faith. The nuns insisted that prayer and Christ were central to their work.
Tuesday's overwhelmingly positive report was cheered by the sisters themselves, dozens of whom swarmed the Vatican news conference announcing the results in a rare moment of women outnumbering men at the Vatican.
Sister Sharon Holland, who currently heads the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, made clear that the investigation was initially met with apprehension and distrust, particularly among elderly sisters who "felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting."
But she said the results showed that the Vatican had listened and heard what the sisters had to say.
"There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this report," she told the news conference. "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 report outlined the bleak reality facing American women's congregations today: The current number of 50,000 U.S. sisters represents a fraction of the 125,000 in the mid-1960s, though the report noted that that high was an atypical spike in the history of the U.S. church.
The average age of U.S. nuns today is mid-to-late 70s. They are facing dwindling finances to care for their sisters as they age and haven't had much success in finding new vocations. The report asked the sisters - gently - to make sure their training programs reflect church teaching and ensure their members pray and focus on Christ.
It stressed appreciation for their work and expressed hope that they take "this present moment as an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust" with the church hierarchy.
It noted that many sisters 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 that affect them or in areas where they have experience.
The report noted that Francis, who has pledged to bring more women into decision-making positions in the church, has recently asked the Vatican to update a key document outlining the relationship between bishops and religious orders - male and female - amid tensions that sometimes exist.