But in general, the tone of Tuesday's press conference was optimistic. The report mostly focuses on the challenges facing American sisters and their contributions to Church life, rather than condemning them. Mother Mary Clare Millea, the American nun who led the investigation on behalf of the Holy See, thanked Vatican leaders for listening to the concerns of American sisters. "Your message to us today shows that you do understand our ongoing struggle to faithfully serve the Church in challenging times, despite our shortcomings and limitations," she said, crying.
"It is the realism of the text which appealed to me," added Holland. The report outlines the many challenges facing American sisters, who are referred to as "women religious." Today, there are roughly 50,000 sisters in the United States—a figure that represents a decline of about 125,000 women religious since the mid-1960s, when the number of American women who had taken vows to the Church reached its peak. Many sisters' religious institutions are struggling financially, despite what the report calls "careful stewardship." Women religious often make money by holding jobs in their local areas, or by running businesses like bookstores or schools. But decreased membership means fewer women can work, and those who do work often have low-paying jobs. Like other Americans, many sisters have lost their positions when the places where they work have closed or downsized.
Plus, U.S. sisters are getting old—their median age is mid- to late-70s. More and more women religious are no longer able to work and rely fully on Catholic institutions to support them. Although they can get some support through programs like Medicare, "changes in the healthcare system in the United States, resulting in uncertainty regarding the availability of government funding for the future needs of the elderly, is a particular cause for concern," the report says.
And yet, on Tuesday morning, the nuns and priests who presented the findings of the report seemed hopeful—for the future of American nuns, but also for the relationship between U.S. sisters and the Vatican, which has been strained. The report recognizes some women's "perception of not having enough input into pastoral decisions which affect them or about which they have considerable experience and expertise." And the Vatican let Millea fully design and execute the report, which other women religious appreciated: When representatives visited her congregation, Holland said, "it was evident that these were sisters like us, to whom we could speak openly and honestly."
Holland's reaction is particularly revealing, because she speaks for an organization of American sisters that has long been criticized by the Vatican. Women religious in the United States are represented by two organizations: The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, an association of congregation leaders that represents about 80 percent of American sisters; and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, or CMSWR, which represents the other 20 percent. The Council is typically characterized as more "conservative," or traditional: Most of the women it represents wear habits, and some live in cloisters. The LCWR, on the other hand, represents many congregations whose members wear street clothes and work in their local communities.