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James Martin, S.J.August 21, 2009

Sandra Schneiders, a member of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Mich., is a professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Calif.  She is also the author of several books on religious life after Vatican II.  Sister Schneiders has been outspoken about the Vatican's Apostolic Visitation of U.S. religious orders.  This may be her hardest-hitting, and most comprehensive, article yet on the topic.  Even for those who may not support her positions, it is well worth reading on NCR's website here because it is an articulate expression of the thinking of many women religious in this country.  Also, see update below.

An excerpt:

The current "Apostolic Visitation" is not a normal dialogue between religious and church authorities. It is the ecclesiastical analogue of a grand jury indictment, set in motion when there is reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a prima facie case of serious abuse or wrong-doing of some kind. There are currently several situations in the U.S. church that would justify such an investigation (widespread child sexual abuse by clerics, episcopal cover-ups of such abuse, long term sexual liaisons by people vowed to celibacy, embezzlement of church funds, cult-like practices in some church groups) but women religious are not significantly implicated in any of these. Religious are disturbed by the implied accusation of wrong-doing that the very fact of being subjected to an apostolic visitation involves, especially because the "charges" are vague or non-existent. We will return to this point in regard to the second question about motivation.

and later...

The motivation for the visitation remains very vague. Perhaps the most commonly voiced hypothesis of both lay and religious, is that the purpose of the investigation is to ascertain the size and status of the financial assets of religious orders of women in order to enable the U.S. bishops to take possession of those assets to pay their legal debts. Even if there is no validity to this hypothesis (and I dearly hope there is not) it is distressing that Catholics' confidence in their hierarchy has been so eroded that they suspect their bishops of wishing to further impoverish religious orders struggling to support their elderly and infirm members. Another frequently voiced hypothesis, with perhaps more credibility, is that Cardinal Franc Rodé, the head of Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, wants to mandate for all women religious a return to pre-conciliar lifestyles akin to those in his eastern European homeland under Communism. Again, the suspicion is not without some basis in remarks the cardinal has made publicly, but there is no proof of such an intention and, in any case, such a move would surely occasion far more trouble than the Vatican probably wants to deal with.

But for her the question is not the one that has been bandied about--Why did sisters leave after Vatican II?--but another one: Why did they stay?  Her answer, which deserves quoting in full:

These women are the contemporaries of those who left in the exodus of the '70s and '80s. Like those who left, they were young (20s to 40s), perhaps the best educated group of women in America at the time, professionally precocious, theologically well-grounded, and becoming increasingly interdependently autonomous as women in the church and world. These religious were eminently well-positioned to leave and had every reason (but one) to do so. They watched in anguish as increasing numbers of their friends made that choice. Religious life had little to offer them, humanly or materially speaking. Orders were losing their big institutions; financial insecurity was becoming a major concern; few were entering. The institutional church was repudiating feminism in all its forms; the papacy was engaged in vigorous restorationism; many in and outside the church including some in religious life had resigned themselves to (or rejoiced in) what they saw as "the death of the Council" or the "end of renewal." The exciting theologies of liberation and lay ministerial empowerment in the church were being repressed in favor of a renewed clericalism and centralization of power. From a strictly human standpoint it was a bleak time for those who had come of age in the joyous, Spirit-filled enthusiasm of the Council when community, equality of discipleship in the church, commitment to the building of a better world, deepening spirituality, inter-religious dialogue, feminist empowerment were the very air they breathed. From every angle hope was being crushed and old world narrowness, neo-orthodoxy, and Vatican re-centralization were replacing the Spirit-filled, world-affirming, humane spirit of John XXIII and the Council.

In this crucible the ones who stayed were tested by fire. Elsewhere I have referred to and described in more detail this period as a corporate "dark night of sense and spirit" for women religious. They were experiencing a deep purification of any sense of spiritual superiority (to say nothing of arrogant certainty), of elitism, of corporate power and influence, of "most favored status" or mysterious specialness in the church. Their faith was being battered by profound theological tensions raised by the clash between what they most deeply, if obscurely, knew was true and what was happening in the church and world. They had to find the taproot of their vocation, not in peer group euphoria, social status, or preferential treatment by the hierarchy, but in the core of their spirituality, face to face with the One to whom they had given their lives in celibate love, in the emptiness of a poverty that was spiritual as well as material, and in an obedience unto the death of everything they cherished, except the God in whom they believed. They found out experientially why Jesus withdrew to the mountains or the desert in the middle of the night and before dawn to pray, not to "set a good example" for the less spiritual but because he desperately needed God to make it through one more day.

As this cohort of women religious made its way through the 1990s toward the new millennium, and even as financial and ecclesiastical problems multiplied, a serenity began to surface from the darkness. Even secular sociologists, but especially the laity who associate with these religious and those they serve, have recognized that the joy and counter-intuitive confidence, the capacity for work and suffering, the whole-hearted commitment to their own spiritual lives and to the people to whom they minister, the unity and solidarity in community that is evident in most women's religious Congregations -- given the enormity of the challenges they confront -- must be rooted in something, Someone, much deeper and more central to their lives than anything temporal or material.

Some congregations have had to face their imminent demise and have begun to prepare, not to be passively wiped out by circumstances beyond their control, but, like Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, to die into Christ's resurrection leaving a legacy that will somehow rise in those they have loved and served. Many congregations have reconfigured their corporate lives by consolidation or merging or refounding and are launched into new adventures in a still strange land. Others, though diminished in size and resources, have decided that they can and will make it together into the future and have undertaken vigorous, faith-based strategic planning, including vocation work, to make that happen. But the important thing for our purposes here is that these women are still "staying" because, in the very core of their being, they do not just "belong to a religious order"; they are religious. Hopefully, the present investigation will make evident to those whose concerns gave rise to it the meaning of religious life as it is being envisioned, lived, and handed on today in Congregations renewed in and by that Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit called the Second Vatican Council.

Update: Here's a report on NPR about the Visitation, which interviews American nuns.

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13 years 9 months ago
Sister Schneiders and other women religious need to find a way to see beyond the reactionary spirit of fear and suspicion they are experiencing in the face of this invitation to dialogue. Could it be that the Spirit is calling them to go further in the renewal they began 40-odd years ago, to risk changing the status quo in which they have become comfortable?
Sister's article throbs with nostalgia for a beautiful time in the Church when she and many other women religious were young and excited about the future unfolding before them. And it's an understandable phenomenon that as people age they perhaps get trapped, psychologically, spiritually and intellectually in the era in which they felt most alive, excited and vital. But if you are forever looking backwards you can't move forward. The Church can not pause or turn around in her ongoing pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God, she has to move on to the next stage in her journey. We are told in Scripture, be not afraid! Don't be afraid to open yourselves to the Spirit, to change  what seems unchangeable, to risk something new. It's hard but it's worth it.
13 years 9 months ago
Magdalena's challenge sounds sincere and most sisters she refers to would agree that they this moment must be a call to renewal. Yet they haven't yet surrendered their minds. It is premature to judge the validity of their lives on the basis of diminishing numbers. These sisters aren't clinging to the past, and they aren't a homogenous mass. They value the gifts that were given to them in the years after Vatican II:  formation in scripture and a deeper knowledge of the tradition, a more mature exercise of Christian freedom, opportunities to minister according to their gifts, greater awareness if the poor and the signs of the times.  The ones I know understand see themselves as sinners who have made mistakes.  Yet they were honestly surprised by the Vatican's procedures.  As a conservative web site claimed with satisfaction,  ''At this rate the dissident orders may be finished before the Vatican investigation is.''  If that is so, and it does look that way, then one has to ask if the Vatican cares at all about the sisters being visited. Investigations tarnish reputations and elicit defensiveness, but so what? It is quite natural that the sisters question the timing of these probes and the bill they will receive for it. Critics may conclude too quickly that these moves are an attempt to tarnish these sisters for the history books, and push forward a papal agenda that has not won over many of the faithful. Let's avoid conspiracy theories by all means but admit that the timing and nature of these procedures gives pause.  If the sociology of young people favors the more conservative orders, Godspeed!  Again, what is all the fuss about? Yet the venom of the cyber attacks suggests that this conflict involves more than the sisters. The Spirit may be at work, it will not be easy to know where the Spirit blows..
13 years 9 months ago
It is not the sisters who are living in the past, but some members of the Curia - however their time is limited by God and demographics.
13 years 9 months ago
It is not easy to know where the spirit ''blows'' but we do have a guide.  We must trust the Magisterium to help us understand Scripture, Tradition, and Prayer.  We must be humble.
In reading about the reaction to this visitation I detect (maybe incorrectly) a certain lack of humility.  I think this is the reason we have such a high divorce rate and I think this is the reason for a lack of vocations to the preisthood and religious orders.
From the Catechism:
688 The Church, a communion living in the faith of the apostles which she transmits, is the place where we know the Holy Spirit:
- in the Scriptures he inspired;
- in the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses;
- in the Church's Magisterium, which he assists;
- in the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, in which the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ;
- in prayer, wherein he intercedes for us;
- in the charisms and ministries by which the Church is built up;
- in the signs of apostolic and missionary life;
- in the witness of saints through whom he manifests his holiness and continues the work of salvation.
13 years 9 months ago
Vatican II is part of the Church's Magisterium, Joe.
The Church, as a human institution, sometimes acts in ways which are obviously at odds with the prompting of the Spirit.  Sometimes our Lord uses such error to purify his chosen.
13 years 9 months ago
The Magisterium wrote the documents of Vatican II, so I think we can trust them to help us interpret those documents.

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