Today's Vatican report on the investigation of U.S. women's religious orders was largely positive in tone, in contrast to statements issued when the investigation began in 2009.
At that time, Cardinal Franc Rodé, who headed the Vatican congregation for religious orders, said the study was aimed at identifying "secular" and "feminist" attitudes that had infiltrated the nuns' orders and helped cause a drastic decline in membership.
Today's report didn't go there. Instead, it delineated real challenges facing religious orders while thanking the sisters repeatedly for their service to the Gospel.
This balanced approach reflects a changing of the guard at the Vatican -- but it's a change that began under Pope Benedict. In 2011, Benedict named Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz to replace Cardinal Rodé. The Brazilian cardinal took over the investigation of women religious, but adopted a much more conciliatory approach.
I think today's balanced report was pretty much a foregone conclusion, given Cardinal Braz de Aviz's continued leadership at the Vatican's congregation for religious orders, and given that Pope Francis clearly wants peace with U.S. sisters.
Yet there seems to be a "good cop, bad cop" dynamic that still lingers on at the Vatican. A separate Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest association of U.S. sisters, was carried out by the doctrinal congregation, and it has been far more critical. In 2012, the doctrinal congregation issued a "doctrinal assessment" and insisted on major changes in the LCWR to ensure that the organization aligns with Catholic teaching in areas like women's ordination, homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia.
The tug of war over implementing those changes continues. Last year, in a rare display of divergent views at the Vatican's highest levels, Cardinal Braz de Aviz criticized the way the LCWR review was conducted. That prompted a quick statement from the Vatican that tried to downplay any disagreement between Braz de Aviz and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the doctrinal congregation.
Cardinal Muller has not let up, however. Several months ago, he rebuked the LCWR for adopting ideas that he said lead to "fundamental errors" about "the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of original sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ."
The LCWR is working with Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was appointed in 2012 to implement the doctrinal assessment. After meeting with the archbishop last August, the LCWR issued a statement that said in part: "We will continue in the conversation with Archbishop Sartain as an expression of hope that new ways may be created within the church for healthy discussion of differences."
At America magazine, Sister Mary Ann Walsh has a good take on today's report.