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.
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.
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.