How do you ascertain the religious motivation, practice and well-being of 60,000 women religious and their congregations across the United States? It is a daunting challenge, but we are about to find out.
By now most readers of America are aware that the Vatican has initiated an apostolic visitation of American women religious. Between April and July, Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., the designated visitator, interviewed either in person, over the phone or through correspondence, 244 superiors general of the various congregations. This fall, each congregation received a lengthy questionnaire to be completed by the end of the year. And beginning in January 2010, a cross-section of congregations will be visited by teams of visitors. The final confidential report will be prepared and delivered to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life by mid-2011.
After some initial dismay over what seemed like an investigation prompted by unknown sources for unknown motives, most superiors have resolved to meet the challenge with equanimity and to use the occasion as a growth opportunity for their congregations. No one denies the right of the Vatican congregation to institute a study. Religious congregations are chartered by the church, either by Rome or by diocesan bishops; their rules and constitutions are formally approved; and they are bound by canon law.
To be done well, the investigation will require an enormous commitment of time and attention from hundreds of sisters, perhaps even thousands, as well as from those involved in processing information and from the visiting teams. The following are some reflections motivated by a desire to see this expenditure of resources pay off. It is my belief that the effort will be rewarded if the following four conditions are met.
Sincerity and Candor
First, sisters need to enter into the exercise with sincerity and candor. To draw an analogy from the area of ministry in which I am involved (a large Catholic health care system), a commitment to internal auditing practices and procedures is vital to mission fidelity. Dozens of people—who report directly to the boards of trustees rather than to management—are employed full time in auditing our clinical, financial, organizational and ethical performance. This is in addition to our required external audits, as well as reports to state and federal agencies and regulators and to our bondholders. We do not just say we offer the best quality care, treat our employees justly, pay our bills on time, adhere to the church’s ethical and religious directives and so on; we try to prove it daily. It is an imperfect analogy, but it points to the benefit of rigorous self-examination to maintain fidelity to organizational purpose.
In the 40 years since the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council, religious congregations have performed countless self-studies. But these have not necessarily gone to the depth envisioned here. In particular, I am not convinced that we have asked ourselves the following kinds of questions: Have the changes we made borne the intended fruit? Are we holier or more zealous as a result of greater freedom and personal choice? Is our witness evident to the people of God? Or do we simply assume that people understand why we have made the changes we have made? As of this writing, I have not seen the official questionnaire, but my instinct is that the researchers will have found these types of deep questions as difficult to craft as we have.
The second condition of a fruitful visitation will be that the investigators and researchers review the information with a sympathetic understanding that the subjects of this visitation are real women, committed to leading lives of uncommon generosity and fidelity in an often hostile or uncomprehending culture. They deserve the respect and gratitude of the church and its leaders, as well as, perhaps, occasional advice and counsel. Further, it will be important for the investigators to avoid unwarranted generalizations. The burden on a major superior of replying to questions on behalf of 3,000 or 4,000 members, located from coast to coast and missioned to a variety of ministries—to say nothing of involving them in meaningful discussions prior to the studies—will be quite different from the burden on a superior with only 30 members who are all geographically close to one another. Also, individual sisters will be invited and encouraged to submit their own responses. Opinions at variance with the answers on the questionnaires may contain valuable insights, but they will have to be understood as individual opinions, not as consensus views.
Third, some way should be found to incorporate the views of people other than religious. In his post-synodal exhortation, Vita Consecrata (1996), Pope John Paul II described our life as a gift to the whole church: “The consecrated life is not something isolated and marginal, but a reality which affects the whole Church” (italics in the original). Thus religious life has an essential public dimension, and the views of the rest of the church are indispensable to a correct understanding of its effectiveness.
This dimension does not seem to be envisioned in the plan that has been laid before us, but it is not too late to incorporate Pope John Paul II’s wise insights into the site visits that will ensue in 2010. Could representative focus groups be gathered to respond to carefully crafted questions? What do pastors and parishioners think? What about the students in our schools and colleges, the patients in our hospitals, the residents in our long-term care facilities and the visitors to our social service centers? What about our employees and collaborators in all these ministry sites? If our visibility has so declined that these potential informants have no opinions, or if their opinions are negative, then this is valuable information for all parties. But whether positive or negative or indifferent, there can be no assessment of the vitality of women’s religious life without consulting those affected by our ministries. If the study design is not modified to include such input, we can only hope that individuals from all walks of life will spontaneously choose to submit letters to the visitation staff.
Finally, a large part of the potential value of the visitation will be lost without transparency. The information provided so far indicates that at the end of the process Mother Mary Clare Millea will submit a confidential report to the Vatican. To return to the analogy of the health system audit above, it would be unthinkable—in fact, a total waste of resources—to audit a department or service line and then withhold the information from those most responsible for that part of the organization. How can the organization improve if it is not informed about what has been learned? Not to disclose the findings is to suggest that there is another agenda—some sort of sanction, for example, against a congregation or group of congregations expected to be found deficient—that underlies the study. For any new Roman instruction to be received respectfully by women religious, we deserve to see the information on which it is based. Our own investment of time and money into this visitation deserves no less.
In Vita Consecrata Pope John Paul II wrote: “During these years of renewal, the consecrated life, like other ways of life in the church, has gone through a difficult and trying period. It has been a period full of hopes, new experiments and proposals aimed at giving fresh vigor to the profession of the evangelical counsels. But it has also been a time of tension and struggle, in which well-meaning endeavors have not always met with positive results” (No. 13). I have always been struck by the simple wisdom in those words, which apply not only to religious but to the whole people of God. Let us hope that a careful look at the endeavors of the past and their consequences will prompt fresh and wise new initiatives in the future.