Vatican and American Sisters in Conversation: A Creative Summary

This is an imaginary yet likely conversation between Vatican officials and the leader of one of the several religious orders who recently have been summoned to Rome to discuss “areas of concern” coming out of the Apostolic Visitation of United States Women Religious conducted by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life CICLSAL).

The Sisters of Justice and Peace (JP) are an imaginary religious order, but all the positions voiced by its leadership in this conversation are approximations of actual statements or writings by U.S. women religious in recent years.

Vatican: Welcome, Sister Mary. We appreciate you coming for this serene conversation.

Sister Mary, JP: We always are happy to cooperate with requests from CICLSAL and to be in dialogue with our brother bishops. And we welcome the opportunity to tell you about the mission and commitment of our order. 

Vatican: Oh yes, we have heard many wonderful things about your order and all the good works your sisters are doing. That is why it is difficult for us to believe reports that some of your members have publicly dissented from church teachings by supporting “gay marriage,” promoting access to abortion, and directly countering the U.S. Bishops’ efforts to protect conscience rights. Surely, this is not true, is it?

Sister Mary, JP: Well, the hierarchy often interprets things as dissent that really aren’t dissent, you see. What these sisters are doing is standing in solidarity with oppressed and marginalized people, a Gospel value that we embrace. When the church does not understand the necessity for women to be able to control their own bodies, some sisters feel called to support these women. And when the church calls illicit the genuine love between two sincere people, some sisters feel they must work for the rights of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. As for so-called conscience rights, some sisters feel that the right of poor people to receive the full range of reproductive services outweighs the right of others to object to such services.

Vatican: Well, your empathy with marginalized people is certainly laudable, and we share your concern for them, but how can your sisters support behavior that clearly is immoral? 

Sister Mary, JP: Since women are marginalized and face injustice within the church and are not given positions of power and authority in the church, we feel especially empowered to raise our voices against injustice and to continue to fight for systemic change on behalf of all oppressed peoples.

Vatican: My apologies for our confusion, but have you told these sisters that under their vow of obedience, they must cease this activity?

Sister Mary, JP: Oh, goodness, no. As a Gospel-based faith community, we believe we must not stifle our members’ freedom of conscience, for they are adult women who claim and embrace the right to make their own moral decisions. Besides, we Americans have a different view of the vow of obedience than do those of you sequestered in the Vatican. For us, obedience is discerning well and then responding to the Spirit. 

Vatican: How then, do you perceive a sister’s obligation to her vows of poverty and chastity?

Sister Mary, JP: Poverty can mean many things to us, including making oneself available to other people, engaging in dialogue, working for redistribution of wealth, caring for the earth, and divesting our order’s institutes, buildings and properties. Chastity means for us to be in right relationships with people. 

Vatican (growing less serene): We see. These are certainly very creative and innovative interpretations of the vows. Could you help us understand how your order implements the spiritual and community life of your congregation, for we are having trouble comprehending how your way of life resonates with the Church’s definition of apostolic religious life. 

Sister Mary, JP: Well, we believe there are different understandings of religious life: The European understanding, the hierarchal understanding and the understanding that U.S. sisters have evolved. In fact, we U.S. sisters are constantly birthing new forms of religious life, and our order is on the cutting edge of this prophetic vision. After all, your congregation approved our constitutions.

Vatican: Oh, yes, we were very happy to approve the language of your constitutions. But we are confused by reports from some sisters in your order that your actual manner of living religious life does not conform to what your constitutions say. 

Sister Mary, JP: You see, the problem is language and culture. The definition we U.S. sisters give to words in our constitution may not be the same definition that members of the all-male hierarchy of a different culture may have. We knew what we meant when we wrote our constitution, and we are not responsible for the Vatican misinterpreting our words.

Vatican: Oh, I see, Sister.  You are suggesting that we are out of touch with the American culture.  I understand: You want us to change and see the situation from your perspective. We would very much like to do that, but regretfully, the church’s definition of religious life has developed over hundreds of years and cannot be changed by individual sisters or religious orders. Even this office cannot change that definition, and we bear the responsibility of ensuring that religious orders act in a manner that deserves canonical approval by the Holy See.

Sister Mary, JP: I’m so glad that you brought up that topic, for you must understand that we Americans strongly embrace democratic principles, and sisters are growing weary of this increasing canonical interference in our lives. In fact the recent actions of the Vatican have motivated us to give strong consideration to becoming noncanonical.

Vatican (growing increasingly less serene): Sister, we did not mean to offend or upset you by our inquiries, as we want this dialogue to be nonthreatening. Since this is an uncomfortable topic for you, let us turn to the matter of liturgy. We have reports that priests are not allowed to concelebrate Mass at your convent liturgies. Is this a misunderstanding?

Sister Mary, JP: No, you do not misunderstand. Since women are barred from the priesthood, we find it upsetting to have multiple priests celebrating Mass.  In fact, some of our members no longer attend Mass at all because it is such a painful reminder of women’s unfair exclusion from the priesthood.

Vatican: Is that why you also allow sisters to proclaim the Gospel at Mass?

Sister Mary, JP: Well, we have many educated, eloquent sisters, and it seems only fair that they be allowed to proclaim the Gospel; after all, many of them are better theologians and preachers than the priests who celebrate Mass at our convents.

Vatican: We also have learned that your order has removed the Nicene Creed from your Masses and replaced it with an “updated” creed composed by sisters that has a strange doxology of “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” replacing the official doxology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Is this indeed happening?

Sister Mary, JP: Yes, because our new creed with inclusive language better articulates our faith; we must be true to ourselves when we profess who we are, and we simply cannot relate to the sexist language in the Nicene Creed.

Vatican: And what about the official breviary for Liturgy of the Hours? We learned you have removed it from your chapels and replaced it with a feminist breviary. Could this be true ?

Sister Mary, JP: Yes, we have written our own breviary for Liturgy of the Hours that we now require all our sisters to use. The old breviary did not speak to our modern sensibilities because of the sexist language and the inclusion of so many long-dead saints. We very much prefer our new, inclusive language breviary that includes some original prayers we wrote ourselves, as well as reflections by theologians like the late Father Richard McBrien and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza. And, it pays homage to modern-day peace and justice seekers like Helen Keller, Sojourner Truth and Dorothy Day, which we find so much more meaningful to our lives. 

Vatican: We feel a migraine coming on. Will you sisters accept our sincere apology for ending this meeting early so that we may continue another day?

Sister Mary, JP: Of course: This will give us time to attend the important solstice celebration our sisters have planned for this afternoon in St. Peter’s Square. We were so happy to have had this dialogue with you; we are always willing to enlighten members of the hierarchy about the new paradigms of religious life we U.S. sisters are creating. As always, we are available to continue dialoguing until you grow weary of the process and decide to leave us alone so that we may continue to respond to the spirit that is moving among us.

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About Ann Carey 17 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).