America and Commonweal on the Apostolic Visitation

In a bit of (believe me, entirely unplanned) serendipity, both America and Commonweal this week have superb articles by American nuns on the apostolic visitation of women religious in the United States.  I urge you to read both.  Ours, by Sister Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister and professor and chair of the department of spirituality studies at Washington Theological Union, focuses on the divide in women's religious communities, in an article entitled "Confessions of a Modern Nun."

Those who have taken off the habit and those who are putting on the habit mark two distinct paths in religious life today. What is happening? Did most women religious misinterpret the documents of the Second Vatican Council? Is what some see as a rebellious streak taking its toll? Have women defied the church? Some interpret empty novitiates and an aging membership as evidence that women religious have made the wrong choice—for secularization. Others maintain that their intent was to live more authentically as women religious in a world of change.


The chasm between traditional and progressive religious life was made evident in 1992 with the publication of The Transformation of the American Catholic Sisterhood by Lora Ann Quiñonez, C.D.P., and Mary Daniel Turner, S.N.D.deN. The book impelled Cardinal James Hickey, bishop of Washington, D.C., at the time, to travel to Rome to fight for the establishment of a congregation of women religious that would be more faithful to the church. Hence the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious was formed with membership based on wearing the habit, communal prayer, eucharistic adoration and fidelity to the church. Meanwhile, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious continued in the spirit of Vatican II to be open to the world, exploring avenues of liberation theology, feminist theology and the plight of the poor, among others. Although dialogue was sought between L.C.W.R. (to which the majority of women religious communities still belong) and C.M.S.W.R., that desire for dialogue was not mutual. Rome has thrown its weight on the side of C.M.S.W.R., giving its members top ecclesiastical positions.

While the two groups of women religious seem to oppose each other, they form what Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominicans, calls in What Is the Point of Christian Life? two different theologies based on different interpretations of Vatican II. Members of the Leadership Conference embrace modernity and the work of the council as the Holy Spirit breathing new life in the church. They fall under what Father Radcliffe identifies as the Concilium group, who focus on the Incarnation as the central point of renewal. Members of the Conference of Major Superiors, by contrast, are Communio Catholics, who emphasize communion through proclamation of the faith, a clear Catholic identity and the centrality of the cross. Members of the Conference of Major Superiors, by contrast, are Communio Catholics, who emphasize communion through proclamation of the faith, a clear Catholic identity and the centrality of the cross. (Concilium and Communio are the names of two periodicals founded in the postconciliar era. The first stressed conciliar reforms; the second stressed the continuity of the council documents with the community of the faithful through past centuries.) Thus, one group focuses on doxology and adoration (Communio), the other on practice and experience (Concilium). One sees Christ as gathering people into community (Communio); the other sees Christ as traversing boundaries (Concilium). The C.M.S.W.R. recently held its eucharistic congress under the title “Sacrifice of Enduring Love,” while the L.C.W.R. continues to work on systemic change. The former sees religious life as divine espousal with Christ; the latter sees Christ in solidarity with the poor and justice for the oppressed.

Commonweal's sister, in her article Cross Examination, prefers to remain anonymous ("Sister X" she calls herself), not surprising given her blunt talk and her fear of reprisals:

Yet my reaction to the visitation, and especially to the prospect of “doctrinal assessment,” contains more than a little skepticism. While I’m glad for a chance to “let Rome know the truth” about our lives and our devotion to Christ, I can’t help suspecting that those behind these initiatives are not primarily interested in the quality of my spiritual life. To put it bluntly, I feel that American women religious are being bullied. The fact that the visitation is apparently being paid for by anonymous donors, and that the leaders of our communities will not be permitted to see the investigative reports that issue from it, does not engender trust. And indeed, the dynamics of the visitation and investigation so far have been experienced by women religious as secretive, unfriendly, and one-sided.

The implicit accusation underlying the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR is that its leaders are not Catholic enough in the church’s eyes. Having lived, worked, and prayed with these women for decades, I find this suggestion both insulting and absurd-so absurd, in fact, that one wonders whether the investigation is actually meant to undermine confidence in women’s leadership of their own congregations. Canon law, as well as the constitutions of our congregations, ensures that vowed members can freely elect our own leaders, rather than have them imposed on the community by a bishop. Like those in other vowed religious congregations, I have acted on the belief that democratic governance of my community is ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit. In helping me choose our leadership, I have relied on my knowledge of my sisters’ gifts and my history of prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit. Yet Cardinal Levada now informs me that the doctrinal integrity of those leaders is questionable.

The threat of disciplinary action makes it difficult for women religious to speak out on this topic. That is why I am writing anonymously. I happen to trust my local bishop and thank my lucky stars for him. But what if a bishop from some other diocese, or an American cleric at the Vatican-or a bishop on a USCCB committee who wanted to make a show of doctrinal orthodoxy-decided to target me for what I have written? This has happened to other sisters. In the current climate, would my bishop be willing to violate the tacit norm that bishops “don’t criticize one another in public” by intervening to defend me? I don’t want to put him in such a position.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 3 months ago
Some words come to mind:  Pride, defensive, anger, fear, and suspicious.
I will continue to pray for humility, acceptance, joy, calm and trust for our women religious.
9 years 3 months ago
While I honor the service of both of these religious, it is sad to read their thoughts on the visitation.  They are full of fear, suspicion and close-mindedness, the very traits they purport to reject.  Sadly, these "modern" orders have been dying out for decades.  Their ranks are very aged and their novitiates are empty.  Young women want to be more than celibate social workers centered around an amorphous "spirituality."  The orders that are thriving are those that are faithful to the Church's teachings. 
The simplest way to analyze the current state of the religious sisterhood is to turn back to the words of Christ: "You shall know a tree by its fruit."
9 years 3 months ago
If one reads any history(ies) of the sisterhood in the US, one finds out quite quickly that the relationships between the various communities and the local as well as international hierarchy have been a history of conflict, misunderstanding, ebbing and flowing, and a macrocosm of that ongoing tensions within the church even (nay, especially) today.  There is constant tension between individual freedom and investigation, and magisterial hierarchy.  Hierarchy wants to ensure orthodoxy and control, and various religious subsets within the church want to follow the charisms of their founders as they are adapted to fit changing times.
Women’s (and men’s) religious communities are founded, grow, proper and eventually wane even to the point of disappearing.  This seems to be a reasonably natural lifespan for particular groups, based on the scope of their charism, the depth of their ability to live it out and the willingness of the membership to continue to live within the natural tension between authority and freedom.
The current situation, as with so many that have arisen in the history of church sturm und drang, simply bears out the wisdom of soon-to-be St. John Henry Newman:
“Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination. Parties engaged in them would then perceive either that in substance they agreed together, or that their difference was one of first principles. We need not dispute, we need not prove, we need but define. At all events, let us, if we can, do this first of all and then see who are left for us to dispute; what is left for us to prove.”    
Unfortunately, the way in which so many “investigations” by the Vatican are implemented seems to bear out this:
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation,"   Herbert Spencer.
9 years 3 months ago
Submission is a part of humility.  It would appear that submission to lawful authority is exactly what those who have "moved beyond Christ" do not want.  That is the main problem with the "modernized" orders around the world. 
These "sisters" have been teaching strange things to our children for a long time now, things that run counter to the true faith.  It seems that modernized sisters have a knee-jerk reaction to anything inhibiting those things that the Church has always called sins (female priests, homosexual acts, heresy, etc).  Calling "good" "evil" and "evil" "good" is NOT teaching properly.  Therefore, such actions of the Church are more than appropriate, they are long overdue.
I would advise these women to simply accept the scrutiny with good grace and accept the pronouncements afterward, but that would require the aforementioned humility.  This is a real conundrum for them.  I shall pray for their conversion.  I shall pray for the success of this action the Church has taken.  There will probably be a mass exodus of those religious who do not wish to be obedient to the Church and that would be very sad, but it would also be necessary to uphold charity in truth.
Fiat Voluntas Tua
9 years 3 months ago
The comments reveal one of the root problems with the less-integrated "communio Catholics," namely a sense that by observation from afar, problems can be diagnosed and fiats issued. This visitation and its conduct is just so wingnut conservative as to be wondered at. The hat in hand routine adds to the incredibility of it all-another pr fiasco for Rome.
I feel sorry for Rode, his congregation, and his visitation team. This is an embarrassment for them.
9 years 3 months ago
Just shows how Vatican two, its ambiguity and lack of clarity, have allowed two different and opposing views of religious life for women.
I think it is about time for the Vatican prelates to re-evaluate the focus on V2 and perhaps take a tip of Archbishop Lefebvre, abandon it, before the Church dissolves into obscurity.
9 years 3 months ago
Wow, Sister Anonymous has some issues, it seems to me.  Angry, defensive.  If you're arguing from a strong and secure foundation, you don't need to argue like that.  One believes it less, rather than more.
9 years 3 months ago
I see my comments on the original thread were censored, so I will try again more briefly and less acerbically.
Future historians (let's say the year 2100) will care very little about the in-house debates that have plagued the Catholic Church in the US since the mid-60s until the present.  All of the pet theologies and controversies of our times will be footnotes to the overriding historical fact of our time (as regard's Church history)- that this time was one of unprecedented sociological collapse.  In every measureable category save the raw numbers of nominal Catholics, the Church in this country has entered into a severe decline.  People at that time will not be able to imagine a United States where Catholics formed a quarter of the population, since Catholicism is destined for a Mormon-sized existence in this country.
That Sr. Delio thinks that future Catholics will look at the tumultuous aftermath of Vatican II in this country as anything but a disaster to the Faith is risible. 
9 years 3 months ago
As Joe states it's the sin of pride that does it all. This dear nun lacks the self respect to call herself by name fearing reprisal yet states her trust in the church.... Clearly, her trust is somewhere else. Wouldn't that be her attitude towards one of her students?
One of the many inviolable vows nuns make is the vow of "holy obedience". Can anyone tell me what this dear nun and so many other dear nuns -many of my aquaintance - where thinking back then that they have forgotten now?
Why not lets hear from Sister Joan Chitchester.
9 years 3 months ago
I appreciate boh articles, but I find an even better analysis in the very serious reflection by Sr Sandra Schneiders that appeared in The National Catholic Reporter. She gives a thorough historical analysis of the role of women religious and gives a thoughful and sound biblical and theological basis for the role of women in the Chuch.  In so much of the ongoing dialogue, whether religious or secular, there seems to be so much anger as well as lack of respect for other points of view.  We all need to prayerfully talk and reflect and truly be open to the Spirit.  When Pope John XXIII called for a new Pentecost a mighty wind was unleashed.  The Spirit made itself known and began a transformation that still needs to continue.  But I think it might be important to realize that the same Spirit is present in the gentle breeze. May God continue to bless these dedicated women.
Rev. Charles Wester 
9 years 3 months ago
To me, the study seems to be a moot point. The reasons for the collapse of many, if not all congregations associated with the LCWR are well understood. Likewise, the congregations will undoubtably resist or ignore any Vatican ordered changes.
9 years 3 months ago
 In every measureable category save the raw numbers of nominal Catholics, the Church in this country has entered into a severe decline.  People at that time will not be able to imagine a United States where Catholics formed a quarter of the population, since Catholicism is destined for a Mormon-sized existence in this country.
I disagree, that might have been the prognosis in the early 1990s, but there has been alot of progress during the last 10-15 years. The sociological factors leading to the collapse of many congregations and the near collapse of some dioceses have been identified.
Many new religious orders or congregations have implemented "reforms of the reform" and are now completely viable in regards to members, finances and continuing vocations. Likewise, an increasing number of dioceses have also implemented simialr reforms and are now viable in the long term.
The next generation is going to a good one for the church 
9 years 3 months ago
Yes, Scott, Lefebvre was a GREAT example of how the church should be run.  Maciel, too.  And we can’t forget Tomas "The hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the savior of his country, the honor of his order" Torquemeda!   
Wow, bring back that old timey religion
9 years 3 months ago
Sr. Delio has written a beautiful reflection on her journey.
However, I can't help but wonder if some reflection on the place of active and contemplative life in these various orders might help clarify her thoughts on where the sisters are going and where they have been. 
And, while I agree with her that the sisters working with the poor and marginalized are setting down roots for a vibrant future that will have to be taken up by our church, that doesn't really negate the question of why exactly so many of the active life orders are dying out. 
Frankly, I think they are dying out because women today have so many opportunities for fulfilling work and family.  The social situation has changed so much.  So, despite Sr. Delio's claims that the liberal orders have changed with the times, these sisters haven't been able to create a form of religious life that actually suits the times we live in.
9 years 3 months ago
Once again in Sister Delio's article we see the claim that there are 59,000 nuns in American convents. ___
This figure, often published but never substantiated, is apparently derived from the statistics supplied each year to The Official Catholic Directory by bishops, but an examination of the statistics for individual dioceses makes it obvious that most nuns are counted (at least) twice, once by the bishops in whose dioceses their motherhouses are, and again by the bishops in whose dioceses they live and work. ___  
Maybe the visitation/investigation of American nuns will finally give us the true number.  Catholics are asked to contribute to the support of aging religious, but are not told the number. ___
How many nuns are really in American convents?  The Directory prints a disclaimer on its title page about the reliability of the statistics within.  If there were really 59,000 women still in religious life, that would mean congregations retain one-third of their 1965 populations.  Can anyone name any orders with 33% of their 1965 members?  The orders I follow most closely have 15% or less.  I think the total number of nuns in American convents today is less than 25,000. ___


The latest from america

In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Screengrab from a viral video showcasing a confrontation between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18, 2019. Screenshot via YouTube.
Several clips of the encounter circulating on social media show a small group of Native American drummers, who were in Washington for the Indigenous People’s March, being surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers.
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019