New York Times on Vatican

Sandra Schneiders of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley

Don't miss the extensive, front-page story in The New York Times, by lead religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, on the Apostolic Visitation of women's religious orders in this country, and of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  The Times has comments not only from Mother Mary Millea, the Vatican's Apostolic Visitor, but also from Sister Sandra Schneiders, of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., Sister Janice Farnham, of Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry, as well as Kenneth Briggs, author of a book on American sisters.  Goodstein also obtained reactions directly from the LCWR.  The Times piece is the first in-depth look that the general public will have of this important action by the Vatican.   As of 2:30 today (Wednesday) the piece had gotten over 400 comments.  Here's an excerpt:


--"Nuns were the often-unsung workers who helped build the Roman Catholic Church in this country, [writes Goodstein] planting schools and hospitals and keeping parishes humming. But for the last three decades, their numbers have been declining — to 60,000 today from 180,000 in 1965.

While some nuns say they are grateful that the Vatican is finally paying attention to their dwindling communities, many fear that the real motivation is to reel in American nuns who have reinterpreted their calling for the modern world.

 In the last four decades since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many American nuns stopped wearing religious habits, left convents to live independently and went into new lines of work: academia and other professions, social and political advocacy and grass-roots organizations that serve the poor or promote spirituality. A few nuns have also been active in organizations that advocate changes in the church like ordaining women and married men as priests.

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force,” said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, [pictured above] professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet.”

Read the rest here.

James Martin, SJ

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9 years 8 months ago
 It is encouraging to see the Vatican taking this action.  Who can deny that some orders of Catholic sisters have gone seriously off the rails?  Sister Schneiders admits that  she and like minded sisters are  not on the same planet as the Vatican. That comment alone undersores the need for the visitation.
9 years 8 months ago
I can't tell which I find more upsetting: the notion of Sister Schners that the Church is somehow trying to  turn Sisters into slaves (or the like), or the 300+ hateful, biggoted (I am having trouble coming up with another word to describe the viciousness behind them) comments on this article by NYTimes online readers.
9 years 8 months ago
I was disappointed by the article.  The history, lives, current-day work and perspectives of nuns and sisters in the United States are not as black and white as Laurie Goodstein would make things seem. I, for one, don't think all sisters should have to wear the very traditional habits or abandon their advocacy work.  But, I do think it's appropriate for the Church to ask questions about the quality of prayer, sacramental life and community life in the different orders. Just because the Church wants to take a serious look at the U.S. nuns and sisters doesn't necessarily mean that a one-size-fits-all remedy will be dictated for the challenges facing them.       
9 years 8 months ago
Wish that Sandra were right; ecclesiastical work force sounds comparatively good. In fact, I don't think that appellation would apply to the sisters that taught school all year and then spent their summers scrubbing stairs at, for instance, Sacred Heart Hospital. Or, the sisters who cooked the meals and did the laundry for the Benedictine Abbey schools.  What's ecclesiastical about that? Well, maybe the Catechism class might qualify. Of course these sisters were two generations before Sandra; they are the ones that made it possible for her generation to go off and get their phd's. Funny thing is, these " worker" sisters joined to do these things; later, much later, some became ecclesiasial health care workers and such but that was quite often after retirement! What would be the appeal that would attract a woman to religious life in this era in the USA?  Dedication to serving G_d, no doubt, and hopefully in a way that would used each woman's gifts. 
9 years 8 months ago
The article was nothing special, and exactly what you would expect from the NY Times' reporting on Catholicism - paint the liberal side as the victim and get quotes from Jesuit sources to support said position.   Remember, this was the paper whose favorite prelate was Rembert Weakland.  I can remember two puff pieces they wrote on him before his extracurricular activities (and peculiar accounting methods) were revealed.   I'm also not surprised America magazine finds it worth noting.    The truth, which is sad for many reasons, is that this is a problem that will eventually take care of itself.   Young women are not joining religious orders in order to fight the Magisterium.   Those Orders that support traditional Church teaching will continue to grow.    Perhaps we should see the influence of the Holy Spirit in such developments.
9 years 8 months ago
One of the most popular themes in movies and T.V. shows is the conspiracy theory. Evidently also in religious bodies. Catholics  who are not old enough to remember the bursting convents of the 40's and 50's believe the current demise of large congregations of women religious is the result of a conspiracy of Vatican II feminists, who unleashed modern psychology on those poor hapless sisters and convinced them their communities were oppressive, patriarchal prisons. Many who have the perspective of years under that system (such as Sandra Schneiders) applaud the changes, and see in the Vatican investigations a nefarious plot to force them back into the old habit,  under the old rule, and out of the secular world in which many of them have made their home. Conspiracy theories are popular but they should come with a warning: Overuse of this theory causes blindness. People who are not old enough to remember the 40's and 50's are certainly old enough by now to crack open a history book and read about religious communities in the 1740's and 50's. Female religious life was a small percentage of the Catholic population and was contemplative. The explosive growth in women's communities was a response to the changes in the world of the 19th and early 20th centuries. However by the 1960's the freedoms that religious life offered to women were now possible in the larger world. One did not have to become a nun to teach, to nurse, to get an education or to serve God.  One did not have to be married and under the protection of a man to have a life. And increasingly couples did not feel obligated to have as many children as God gave them. Society changed again and the Church followed suit, albeit kicking and screaming. The belief that if the religious communities had not changed in the 60s they would be filled to capacity is a fantasy. The world and the culture that produced that bubble has burst and women's religious life is changing again. It is too early to know what that new form will be. But it will be smaller, as it was before. However, whereas nowadays such change is viewed as a nefarious conspiracy, in cooler times it used to be understood as the work of the Spirit. Leaders in women's religious communities such as Sandra Schneiders also run the risk of overdose in conspiracy theories.  Of course the hierarchy sees women religious as the Church's workforce; for the last 200 years that is what it has been. The men in control now are  often people with wistful memories about "back then". Most of them were raised in that world and would love to see a return to it. That is not patriarchy - it is just human nature. However they are not stupid. They know such a return to the past is impossible. So then what could be the reason for this visitation? Conspiracies notwithstanding, could it not be that the Vatican simply does not understand American religious life and is investigating it to understand it better? And even if that is too idealistic; would it not be better, pace Sandra Schneiders, to treat it that way? To open up the doors of the orders to these investigators and show them all the things that are so good about this new way of living religious life? Such generous, open transparency would be good for many reasons. To give these investigators a healthy dose of reality about the actual work of American religious communities might help heal the blindness of those who think that American religious life is a hot bed of heresy and revolution. To share ideas with these investigators as sisters and brothers  might open eyes to possibilities, previously  precluded by women religious. Undoubtedly this dialogue will result in questions: are there ways  of creating communities of religious life that are attractive to a broader spectrum of 21st century women? Are there ways to preserve the charisms of the founders of these orders,  many of which are as relevant today as when they first appeared? Are there ways of re-founding communities in which increasing numbers of elderly sisters live alone? The answers to these questions may all be no. Some believe they have found positive answers to them. This investigation does not have to be a one-way conversation. But approaching it as such from either side gives rise to fearful theories; on one hand, that the Vatican is about to force religious life back into the 1950s; and on the other, that the resistance to the visitation is a sign that secretly, these religious communities believe that their reforms have been a failure, their communities are dying, and that they are clinging to them only to serve themselves. The author of 1 Peter could hardly be called  modern. His epistle, with its lists of duties for husbands and wives is a reflection of the growing desire of some in the  early Church for respect and toleration in the larger Greco-roman society. Some nowadays see in these duties the salvation of western civilization. Others see them as dangerously misogynist. Perhaps they are both. Perhaps neither. Therein lies the difficulty of using 2000 year old documents in modern discussions.  And yet towards the end of the epistle he instructs his readers how to react to the criticism of those who do not accept their way of life "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. " (1 Peter 15b-16). Wise words from a 2000 year old document. It is this writer's hope that the women religious of the US will confidently give witness to their hope. It is my hope that the visitors will listen. It is my hope that the Vatican will challenge and not judge, discern and not condemn. I know: a tall order. But that is why they call it HOPE. For anything less will continue the web of conspiracy theories, confirm the slander and only weaken the role of these communities in the life of the Church.
9 years 8 months ago
I have come to know some nuns since my youth experience.  (Post Vatican II)  These women are more devout, more caring, and more theologically based than anyone I have known - and that includes my pastor of my church.  What makes them special:  They have gone into the world and are living Vatican II.  They still consider themselves 'Brides of Christ'.  I do not know what the Vatican's motivation is own impression is leave our nuns the way they are habited or unhabited they are doing Gods will on earth.
9 years 8 months ago
I don't detect an anti-Rome bias in the Times article, but I also don't think the article tells much of anything new to those of us who follow Church-related news. Rather, the Times article is valuable because of the audience it reaches: it brings those who don't follow the Catholic Church up to speed on an issue that is front-and-center to most nuns. It's telling that this article ranks #1 in the listing of most e-mailed articles on the New York Times website. I'm hopeful the the vistations, their subsequent processing and whatever directives follow from that processing reflect both the concerns of Rome and the concerns of the communities of sisters. Nuns do great work out in the community and that work is much admired by lay people. So many nuns are running Catholic hospitals and doing darn fine jobs as principals of Catholic schools. I look at them and think, "Wow, these women would have gone far in the business world." But there are problems gnawing at America's communities of women religious, and the biggest one seems to be vocations. I went to a Catholic youth conference a couple of years ago where I manned the table for vocations to the diocesan priesthood. There were two tables for communities of women religious in the same wide hallway that swung around the auditorium. So, I wandered over to the nuns' tables to ask how they were doing with vocations. They told me they weren't doing well. Though they were well-established orders in the diocese, they had only one or two women in formation and were getting precious little traffic at their tables. They weren't wearing habits or anything to identify themselves as nuns other than a small crucifix as a necklace or a pin. And they seemed down about the lack of traffic. Even the trays of  homemade cookies on their tables didn't do much good. So, I mentioned that the communities of sisters that wear habits and pray the office together-such as the Dominicans of Nashville and the Franciscans at Steubenville-are doing very well when it comes to vocations. One sister responded, "well if they want to wear habits, we don't want them in our community." I felt very comfortable with her... so I engaged. I said, "Well, think about it, we're asking young women to give up men, to give up their dreams of secular careers and to give up part of the power to make decisions for themselves; that's a lot for them to give up. When someone does that-male or female-they like to feel part of the group they're joining. They like to look down at their arm and see that habit-to see something on their body that reminds them of their committment. And, coming in, they year for that sense of praying together in community." "Well, if they want that we don't want them," the sister responded again, shaking her head. OK, so I stayed and said, "Think about it. When you entered, you wore the habit and prayed in choir-you had the benefit of that sense of belonging. And from there you made a decision as a community to shed that habit and pray individually. By not providing those same opportunities to young women, you are denying them that visceral sense of belonging that's so important when someone makes the sort of committment we're asking of these women. I think that's why the orders that wear habits and pray the office together are drawing vocations. It's sort of like when a guy joins the service. He gives up a lot, but the uniform he puts on makes him feel part of that group of guys. It's just human nature. The sister responded, "We have very few vocations-that's true-and a lot of aging nuns." We shared some coffee. "Aren't you afraid the community will die out?," I said. "It won't," she said. "Lay people will take it over and run it. It won't matter that we don't have religious sisters." "Lay people are great," I said. "But I've been a layman for 45 years before entering the seminary and I can tell you that lay people look to nuns for guidance and spiritual grounding. You're a sort of anchor that lay people hold on to when the world gets choppy. You're important to them for that reason. Sure, we're all called to holiness; but that doesn't change the fact that lay people see something special in your committment as a vowed religious." I don't know. I look at many great orders of women with real histories in many American dioceses and I think that they are presiding over their own demise. I hope I'm wrong. I hope the visitations are successful from the Vatican's standpoint. I hope the contributions, intelligence and engagement of religious women are valued and respected. And I hope that their lives are not disrupted.


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