American nuns could be said to have their habits in a twist in the face of two investigations by the Vatican into whether they have come to espouse lifestyles and views on the Church that may just be a tad too modern. Except that many don't wear habits any more. They wear regular clothes, even jeans.
Many nuns have stretched beyond the cloistered life to enter professions like teaching, the law and social work, and often eschew convents in favour of living alone. But, for the Vatican, it seems that American nuns may have strayed a bit too far from the traditional path.
There was a warning shot in March when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a decree telling Catholics that they should desist from practising Reiki, an ancient Japanese healing technique increasingly favoured by nuns involving the laying-on of hands, and very far from the traditional approach that Rome seems to prefer.
Pressure on the nuns, whose numbers in the US have dwindled in the last four decades from 180,000 to just 60,000, has grown however since the launch of a so-called Apostolic Visitation ordered by the Vatican. With interviews and questionnaires, this is a formal inquiry into the activities of women's religious institutions being conducted by Mother Mary Clare Millea, an American nun who lives in Rome.
In addition, a so-called doctrinal assessment has been ordered by the Vatican into the course being followed by an umbrella group of women's religious orders in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which may not have been toeing the line on issues such as the primacy of the Vatican.
Some nuns may have angered the Vatican with their views on the ordination of women and letting priests marry. Cardinal Franc Rode, who is in charge of religious orders in Rome and who ordered the visitation, complained last year about nuns who "have opted for ways that take them outside" the Church.
Probably more famous than any American nun (aside from Whoopi Goldberg on screen) is Sister Helen Prejean, whose campaign against the death penalty was celebrated in the film Dead Man Walking.
Sister Prejean is writing a new book called River of Fire. In her latest blog entry – she does Twitter and Facebook too – she says it will give an "account of how I evolved from being a nun sealed off from the (wicked) world, only leaving the convent to teach, then hurrying back to the safety of the cloister."
Other nuns are also expressing disquiet about the new scrutiny from Rome. Sister Mary Traupman of Pittsburgh long ago left the convent but remains loyal to her faith as a lawyer. She still remembers the years of struggling with the long restrictive habits. "All this for the church," she said this week. "And now we're being investigated."
Some nuns are refusing to cooperate. Sister Sandra Schneiders, who teaches theology at Berkeley, told The New York Times that the Vatican authorities are out of touch. "Our vision of our lives and their vision of us as a workforce are just not on the same planet," she said. And in a leaked email to colleagues she said investigators should be treated as "uninvited guests".
Sister Millea says these fears are overstated. "It's an opportunity for us to re-evaluate ourselves," she said. But Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, disagreed. "A visitation suggests an inspection, as if the nuns cannot keep their own houses in order," she said. That's why I understand the nuns' fear that a chill wind is blowing their way from Rome."