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.