During the past few months, newspaper and magazine articles, as well as radio and television reports, have been filled with wild speculation about why the Vatican is conducting an apostolic visitation of US women religious and a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, a retired theology professor, declared in an article in National Catholic Reporter, “Perhaps the most commonly voiced hypothesis of both lay and religious is that the purpose of the investigation is to ascertain the size and status of the financial assets of religious orders of women in order to enable the US bishops to take possession of those assets to pay their legal debts.”
Francine Cardman, associate professor of historical theology and Church history at Boston College, told the Associated Press that the Vatican’s actions were “part of a much older tradition of misogyny in the Church and especially distrust of women who are not directly and submissively under male, ecclesiastical control.”
In an interview on National Public Radio’s On Point program, Sister Mary Traupman, CDP, a civil attorney, suggested that the Vatican is used to a European model of religious life and simply doesn’t understand Americans.
Sister Nancy Schreck, president of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa and a former LCWR president, said on NPR’s Morning Edition: “I can’t help but have some suspicion about where this is coming from and who’s really behind it and what they’re trying to do,” adding that American sisters must voice their views when they feel the Vatican is wrong.
On that same program, Sister Camille D’Arienzo, RSM, also a former LCWR president, conjectured: “What I would guess is some of the more conservative bishops in the US might see the sisters moving with [the] spirit of Vatican II in a way they’re not comfortable with. So it may be some effort to kind of rein us in.”
The October 9 issue of Commonweal carried a lengthy article by an anonymous “Sister X,” who said that “American women religious are being bullied” by the Vatican.
FutureChurch, an organization that wants ordination to be open to all baptized Catholics, has launched a campaign asking Catholics to write letters to Church officials expressing “confusion” about why the Vatican is doing this “investigation.” The director of FutureChurch is a woman religious, Sister Christine Schenk, CSJ.
And so it went, on and on, and still continues. With the Vatican and the visitation office refraining from public comment on the matter, critics of the Vatican studies have thus far grabbed the headlines in a media environment that thrives on controversy, particularly one involving the Catholic Church.
Voices of many sisters who welcome the visitation aren’t being given the same public platform, because sisters who support and love the Church are the norm, and they don’t make the news. Adding to the shortage of voices supporting the visitation is the fact that some sisters have been told by their leaders not to discuss the visitation. Even in community meetings, sisters who might not agree with positions of their leadership often believe it is not in their best interests to speak up.
Still, anyone attentive to changes in women’s religious orders knows that all is not well with many orders. This writer has folders of confidential correspondence from sisters who have written about their distress over decisions by their leaders, decisions that distanced their orders from the Church and deconstructed the very basics of religious life. As the keynote speaker at the LCWR 2007 assembly, Sister Laurie Brink, OP, noted, some orders of women religious even have moved beyond the Church, beyond Jesus, to become “post-Christian.”
Many sisters have made their concerns about religious life known to the Vatican, so it is not at all surprising that the Vatican is undertaking the apostolic visitation and the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR. In fact, the specific concerns of the Vatican are laid out quite clearly in a questionnaire that all superiors of women’s religious orders are required to complete and return to the visitation office by Nov. 20. That questionnaire is available for anyone to see on the visitation website: www.apostolicvisitation.org.
Not surprisingly, the questionnaire addresses the same key issues that many sisters have privately discussed with this writer.
The first section of the questionnaire asks: “Is your institute moving toward a new form of religious life? If so, how is this new form specifically related to the Church’s and your institute’s understanding of religious life?” Leaders of the LCWR speak frequently and boldly about creating new forms of religious life, even though religious life is a specific form of consecrated life in the Church, with distinct characteristics of life and prayer in common, a corporate apostolate exercised in the name of the Church.
Furthermore, any consecrated person, whether that person is a religious, a consecrated virgin, a consecrated hermit, or a member of a secular institute, is to be “totally dedicated to God” and to the “upbuilding of the Church” (Canon 573). Members of religious orders who reject Church authority and doctrine do not meet that standard, and they delude themselves and defraud others by claiming they are simply creating another form of religious life.
The questionnaire also asks how members of the orders are formed in the foundations of the faith through study of Church teachings and documents. Sisters report that LCWR papers and talks are made available to them on a regular basis, but official Church documents are not as freely circulated, even though superiors are obligated to pass along to members all pertinent Church documents (Canon 592, §2). Recently, this writer has learned that even though superiors were instructed to give the working paper for the apostolic visitation to all their sisters, some superiors merely made the visitation website address available, which makes the document truly “unavailable” to sisters who do not use the Internet, particularly the elderly.
SPIRITUAL AND COMMON LIFE
One section of the visitation questionnaire deals with the spiritual and common life of the religious orders. Canon law requires that a “religious community must live in a house legitimately constituted under the authority of the superior designated according to the norm of law; each house is to have at least an oratory in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved so that it truly is the center of the community” (Canon 608).
Superiors therefore are asked in the visitation questionnaire to report on how often the Eucharist is celebrated in the order’s facilities, if sisters are encouraged to attend daily Mass, whether liturgical norms are followed, if rituals replace the Church’s liturgical practices, whether sisters give “reflections” in place of the priest’s homily, whether priests at community gatherings are encouraged to concelebrate, whether sisters pray the official Liturgy of the Hours, and if the sacraments are made available to the sick and elderly.
These are not idle questions dreamed up by some Vatican bureaucrat. Each is based on real-life experiences of sisters known to this writer. For example, a sister whose motherhouse is in New York reports that the elderly in her order are dispersed in secular nursing homes where access to the sacraments is limited. Many sisters say that it is common in their religious orders for sisters chosen by leadership to give a“reflection” in place of the homily. And they say that strange rituals often replace observances of the Church’s liturgical practices.
Sister Elizabeth McDonough, OP wrote in Review for Religious in 1992 what sisters in dozens of communities have told her: “They are repulsed by rituals that center on shells and stones, streams and twigs, windmills and waterfalls, and at which so fundamental a Christian symbol as the cross of Jesus Christ is often noticeable only by its absence.” And it is obvious this trend continues today, as anyone can see by looking at photos on the web pages of a variety of women’s orders, as well as photos from LCWR assemblies that are posted on www.lcwr.org.
Even the doxology prayed in many of the women’s orders has been debased and neutered, with “Father” being replaced with “Source of all being,” and “Son” replaced with “Eternal word.” Liturgical books also have been corrupted, with many women’s orders replacing the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours with an inclusive-language, feminist version of the daily office. And routinely it is made quite clear to priests that they are not welcome to concelebrate at convent liturgies because the sight of multiple priests is upsetting or offensive to sisters who support the ordination of women.
Common life is also examined under this category, with the questionnaire asking how common life is expressed “in practical living circumstances” by members of the order. Virtually every Catholic knows sisters who live apart from their communities singly or in pairs, in spite of the canonical requirement that religious are to live a common life in their own religious house unless there is a specific reason as indicated in Church law for not doing so (Canon 665). Even then, life apart from the community is to be a temporary situation.
Another section of the questionnaire deals with the role of leadership and the rights of members. Again, one can readily understand why Church officials would be concerned about issues of governance in religious orders, for Church law directs that all sisters have the right to make their opinions known on significant matters. Sisters report that, while the LCWR constantly talks about wanting to continue to dialogue with the Vatican about differences, the sister leaders are much less likely to engage in dialogue with members of their own orders on issues that directly affect the sisters’ lives, preferring instead to impose decisions that leaders have determined are for “the common good.”
Likewise, it is commonly reported that outside facilitators are hired to bring members of a religious order to a supposed “consensus” on significant matters by employing group psychology methods. Many of these facilitators are religious sisters or former religious who specialize in achieving a pre-determined outcome that is desired by the leadership. Sisters who refuse to go along with these methods and results are painted as reactionary or behind the times or as “trouble-makers.”
Then, there is the matter of sisters who dissent publicly from Church teaching and discipline, even though all vowed religious “are bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience” (Canon 590). Examples of open dissent by sisters abound, the latest being the case of Sister Louise Akers, SC. In September, she was barred by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati from teaching religious education on behalf of the archdiocese because of her open support of women’s ordination.
Many sisters have rushed to her defense, including Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, who advised in her September 9 National Catholic Reporter column: “The truth is that suppression of thought is more dangerous to the church than any sin the church has ever committed. It has not only driven people away, it has stunted its own development, diminished its credibility.
“From where I stand, it may be time to forget power and theology, magisteriums and inquisitions for a while.”
Sister Donna Quinn, OP is a leader of an abortion-rights group with the shocking title “Nuns for Choice.” However, her “pro-choice” work apparently has not affected her status in her Sinsinawa Dominican order, for she is listed with other sisters on the order’s website. Likewise, Sisters Mary Ann Coyle, Mary Ann Cunningham, and Anna Koop are still active sisters in the Loretto Community, even though they openly support “the right of women to make reproductive decisions and receive medical treatment according to the rights of privacy and conscience.” And numerous women religious felt comfortable enough to sign their names to a 2006 online petition encouraging the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts.
In the questionnaire’s section on finances, the sale or transfer of properties is covered, but not because the US bishops want to seize that property, as Sister Sandra Schneiders and others charge. In fact, that colorful but hysterical argument is groundless, because canon law is quite explicit in protecting the property of religious orders in all transactions, including theorized seizure by bishops.
However, Church officials are rightly concerned that the property acquired through the dedication and hard work of past generations of sisters and the generosity of the faithful be preserved for the religious use for which that property was intended and for which funds were donated. Church law safeguards ecclesial property by requiring Church approval of the sale of valuable property, but this requirement has been effectively side-stepped by religious orders themselves in a variety of ways.
Sometimes, the civil title of a Catholic institution is transferred to a selfperpetuating board of trustees that is neither dependent upon, nor controlled by, the religious order, thus effectively handing over the property to another owner. These institutions often remain Catholic, but not always. Webster University in St. Louis is an example of this phenomenon. In 1967, Sister Jacqueline Grennan of the Sisters of Lorett o turned over that college to a lay board, left her order the same year, and continued as the lay president of the nondenominational school.
Another variation on this maneuver occurred when Sister Anita Caspary of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Los Angeles transferred the title of her order’s hospital, college, high school, and retreat center to a civil corporation before leaving the order in 1970 to form—along with 300 like-minded sisters—the ecumenical, lay Immaculate Heart Community. The sisters who stayed in the religious order received only a modest financial settlement.
In a similar, more recent scenario, the only two active Sisters of St. Benedict of Madison (Wisconsin) remaining formed a civil corporation known as Benedictine Women of Madison and, under the new corporation, quietly transferred the order’s property in parcels to themselves. The two women then got dispensed from their vows in 2006, established an ecumenical community, tore down their former monastery and built a new, $8 million “green” building on their 130 acres, where Sunday “Eucharist” is celebrated and retreats are off ered. (See their website at: www.BenedictineWomen.org.) The two women and a third member of their community—a Presbyterian minister— continue to use the title “sister” and “OSB” after their names, and they are listed with sisters from canonical Catholic orders on the website www.CatholicNunsToday.org.
Some sisters fear that a similar fate could befall their orders’ properties if leaders who are at odds with the Vatican decide to sever canonical ties. Indeed, this seems like a well-founded fear, given that the Benedictine Women and their canon lawyer, Father Daniel Ward, OSB, were scheduled to offer a workshop on “Going Non-Canonical” at last month’s national conference of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes. Father Ward is the director of that center, and the executive directors of the LCWR and Conference of Major Superiors of Men are ex officio members of the board of the Resource Center.
PRESERVING RELIGOUS LIFE
When one looks carefully at all of these issues, there should be no confusion whatsoever about why the Vatican is conducting the visitation of women religious and the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR. It is clear these actions are not motivated by power or greed or chauvinism.
The Vatican is not blind to cultural differences, but rather seeks to maintain the integrity of religious life as it is lived in every culture. The US bishops are not trying to grab the sisters’ property, but rather want that property to be used for the religious purposes for which it was acquired and supported financially by the laity.
The hierarchy are not a bunch of misogynists who want to “rein in” women; rather they want to guarantee the rights of sisters who entered their orders fully expecting them to operate according to Church guidelines and in fidelity to the Church.
The Church is not oppressing sisters, but rather is asking religious orders to be what they are called to be within the Catholic Church: a “treasure” at the “heart of the Church.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!