Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Nun’s Story (2009)



Thanks, Michael P., for directing our attention to the lengthy essay authored by Sister X which appears in the October 9 issue of Commonweal. Since I have discussed a lot of what Sister X has to say in my last posting [HERE] in the context of communio and concilium, I won’t go into any of her contentions that Sr. Ilia Delio has raised and to which I have already responded.

At the outset of today’s posting, I acknowledge that Sister X, Sr. Delio, O.F.S., Sr. Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M, and Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B. have registered their concerns about the two apostolic visitations of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious [LCWR] (one by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and the another investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). What is not in question is the good work that the religious orders (both women’s and men’s) have provided in the Church in the United States for several centuries. What is in question, though, is the quality of the response to religious life (hence the visitation by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life) and questions stemming from a 2001 meeting of officials from both the LCWR and the CDF regarding a variety of issues (including women’s ordination; the Declaration Dominus Jesu; human sexuality; and abortion).

Let me begin with a narrative: last September there was convened at Stonehill College a symposium entitled “Apostolic Religious Life since Vatican II...Reclaiming the Treasure: Bishops, Theologians, and Religious in Conversation.” I attended this important day-long event. During that time, I spoke with a good number of religious, both men and women, but more women than men. We were all from apostolic orders. I have an answer for Sister X who eloquently poses the question: “Is the Vatican visitation truly being done out of concern for American nuns?”

The answer is unequivocally: yes. And not only yes, but yes because it is American women religious who have asked for, petitioned for, and begged for this visitation. The women with whom I spoke saw no need to conceal their identity to me in raising their concerns about two important issues: the first, the quality of life in their respective communities; the second, the fidelity of some of their community to the Church and her teachings. They did, however, respect anonymity not from Rome, not from the Vatican, but from their own sisters who have decided, it seems unilaterally, to take the congregations into new and questionable directions. This symposium was an eye-opener. These were women who entered their congregations with zeal for the apostolates of teaching, of nursing, and of other works so vital to the Church. What they have seen and experienced is that their orders have undergone dangerous radical transformation—or, as some said, an abandonment—of their raison d’être and the charism of their founder or foundress.

After hearing their narratives, I, like Sr. X, also want to believe in the good will of the “institutional church” better known as the Church. But I would also like to believe in the good will of the women religious who have been making it increasingly difficult for these good women religious who publicly appeared at this symposium to live out their vocation to Christ and the Church. This is something that Sr. X does not address. Looking at many of the statements contained on the LCWR website of past annual conferences of this organization, I can see why these good and holy women whom I met at Stonehill are worried. They are not worried about Rome or the “Vatican.” They are worried about their own community members who have chartered a course that dramatically departs from the Church and her teachings.

Sr. X asserts that the visitations, especially from the CDF, constitute an “implicit accusation” that the leaders of the LCWR “are not Catholic.” Well, that concern comes not from Rome and the “institutional church.” It comes from members of the women’s congregations themselves—from members who have gone to receive advanced degrees, who have great love for the Church, who have labored valiantly in the vineyard of the Lord. Sr. X states further that the allegation that the LCWR leadership is “not Catholic” is “both insulting and absurd.” From what I gathered at the Stonehill conference, she should talk with some of her fellow congregation members who have a different take. When Sr. X claims that “since the 1980s the Vatican has not seemed interested in hearing what women religious themselves think about the quality of life in their own communities” it has. And her expressed disappointment should not be with “the Vatican” but with the women’s religious orders themselves who have neglected the concerns of their own members who have asked for the investigations.

I find it curious that Sr. X, and those sisters who have identified themselves publicly and criticized the visitation, have not focused on the fact that it is a fellow woman religious who is in charge of the visitation. It is not a bishop or cardinal. It is not a priest. It is not a man. It is one of their own who happens to be the superior general of her order, and, yes, she is an American.

I am confused by Sr. X attributing to Sr. Sandra Schneiders a dichotomy between “two theological visions of church and religious life.” Sr. X asserts that Schneiders poses two lenses of the renewal of religious life: one from the dogmatic constitution and one from the pastoral constitution of the Second Vatican Council. I was intrigued by Sr. X’s claim about Sr. Schneiders. But, I am sorry to say, one or both are mistaken. While it is true that Lumen Gentium does speak of the church “as institution,” it also speaks of the Church as “the people of God” and “as a pilgrim Church.” The pastoral constitution also speaks of the “people of God” but it does not address the pilgrim church as Sr. X attributes to Sr. Schneiders. It is, however, the dogamtic constitution that talks about a great length the “pilgrim church.” Moreover, the dogmatic constitution does not speak of the “fortress” or the “witness to a godless world” as Sr. X implies to Sr. Schneiders. So the implication that Sr. X makes that “Rome seems partial to the worldview of Lumen Gentium” simply is not supported by the texts upon which reliance is made. Frankly, from my humble experience, the Roman curia is vitally concerned about both simultaneously.

There are other problematic assertions made by Sr. X that are indefensible. But one other that I must comment on today is her suggestion that the priest shortage is not subject to an investigation. Well, maybe on its surface, that is true. But to think that the Vatican only investigates the LCWR is unwise. The seminaries, and therefore aspects of the priesthood and male religious life and the deficit of priestly vocations, were the subject of a recent investigation. Sr. X does not take account of this. And as I speak, the Legionnaires of Christ are also undergoing an investigation by Roman curial authorities. Sr. X fails to mention this as well. So any implication that only women are “targets of Vatican investigations” is simply not true.

As I said the other day in the context of a thread that Michael initiated regarding Sr. Theresa Kane, prayers are in order for the Church, the people of God, and the Body of Christ. I shall also pray for Sr. X, her gifts, and her zeal to serve the Church that she and I were called to assist as vowed religious. And so I conclude with another prayer: Maria, Speculum Justitiae, ora pro nobis.


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