Religious life among women is undergoing a massive evolutionary change that can only be described as cataclysmic. The Vatican’s apostolic visitation of congregations of women religious in the United States and the recent investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious indicate that Rome is unhappy with so-called post-Vatican II nuns who have donned secular clothes and abandoned traditional community life. The current statistics show a trend. The number of religious sisters and cloistered nuns in the United States was almost 180,000 in 1965. In 2009 there are just over 59,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. A steady decline in the number of women religious, together with the fact that their median age is 75, is a sign that religious life in the United States is a dying institution. Yet new communities have sprouted up in which women religious don a traditional habit and follow a daily schedule of prayer and service. These communities are attracting youthful, vibrant vocations. On the surface, the future of religious life seems to be on their side.
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.
As Father Radcliffe states, this is not a conflict between those who are faithful to the council and those who would return to a preconciliar church. Nor is it between those who are faithful to the tradition and those who have succumbed to the modern world. Rather, the conflict is about two different understandings of the council and how to carry its work forward. While I appreciate Father Radcliffe’s thoughtful distinctions, my own experience of women religious tells me that the root of the differences between the two associations is fear of change. I say this not by way of judgment but from personal experience.
My Journey to a New Theology
When I entered religious life in 1984, I had a newly minted Ph.D. in pharmacology and an opportunity for a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Yet I had discovered Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and could not let go my desire to renounce the world and live for Christ. My understanding of theology, church and religious life then was rudimentary. I flourished in the 1970s as a budding scientist, writing manifestos of liberation. Though I attended Mass weekly, I did not appreciate the liturgical changes of Vatican II. Instead I longed for the mystical ritual of the Latin Mass I knew as a child, even though I had never understood a word the priest said. When I made the decision to enter religious life, I sought an austere community where I could make a lifetime sacrifice to live for God alone. Wearing a habit was important to me because it represented holiness and religious identity. I entered a Carmelite cloister of nuns who wore a long, traditional habit and followed a set schedule of daily prayer, silence, adoration and the rosary.
My idealized view of religious life began to collapse in the cloister. Day in and day out I recognized how far I was from any noble aspiration of sanctity. I lived with women who suffered manic-depression, came from alcoholic families or were widowed early in life. There was little personal sharing and little contact with the world. The God to whom I had once felt so drawn began to melt into the darkness. I wondered whether I had chosen solitary confinement. I asked for a leave to discern my path and was sent to a Franciscan community near a university where I could resume my research. This community also wore a habit and followed a similar daily schedule, but the sisters’ openness to the world was liberating. I studied theology at Fordham University, wearing a full habit and feeling separate from my classmates. On weekdays, I lived in the Bronx with Ursuline sisters.
My first conversion in religious life centered around the final examination in a New Testament course. I had no computer or place to work until an Ursuline sister offered me her office and computer—and a cooked dinner. Sister Jeanne’s attentiveness to my needs, which included waiting up with me until after midnight, opened my eyes to the meaning of Incarnation. For the first time I saw God humbly present in jeans and a sweatshirt. Next I saw God in frail Sister Catherine, who carried out an extensive outreach to the local poor, and in Sister Lucy, whose 40 years as a missionary in Alaska gave me more than just the entertainment of her fascinating dinnertime stories. In the simple common life of the Ursuline sisters, I saw God fully alive. I saw the same God among the Allegany Franciscans who provided me a home where I could write my doctoral dissertation. They drew me out of my study cell, took me to the park and out to eat and listened to my woes. By graduation, I had resided at three different motherhouses among sisters whose congregations were all members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Through the study of theology I began to reflect on the Incarnation and the two different ways of religious life I had experienced. I realized that Jesus practiced Jewish customs and rituals, lived the humble life of a carpenter and felt called to public ministry around age 30, but he did not separate himself from others by dress or occupation. Engaging in the sociopolitical and economic struggles of his day, he reached out to the poor and showed compassion for the sick and dying. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God and gave his life as witness to the fidelity of God’s love. For that he died the public death of a criminal, without honor or glory. The early Christians who experienced the risen Lord were empowered to proclaim it. They had to be: until the conversion of Constantine, living as a Christian was a recipe for martyrdom. Today, too, Gospel life means giving witness to God’s goodness in Christ. In 2005 Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, gave her life as a martyr for the impoverished people of the Amazon.
Both contemporary groups of women religious—the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—witness to the Gospel revealed in Jesus Christ, but their trajectories differ. The former primarily seeks to be espoused to Christ; their focus is a heavenly nuptial union. The latter group primarily follows Christ the liberator, witnessing to Christ amid the struggles of history. In both groups one can find idols, secrets and dysfunction as well as saints, prophets and mystics. Both groups are sinful and redeemed. Both follow canon law; both maintain health insurance, car insurance, retirement funds and plots for burial.
Teilhard’s Evolutionary Vision
What difference does religious life make to the world? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., brought light to this question by understanding Christianity in an evolutionary universe. What we do and the decisions we make in history, Teilhard said, influence the genesis of Christ. Christ is the goal of the universe, the new creation, the future of what we are coming to be. We who are baptized into Christ must let go in love and descend into solidarity with the earth. Teilhard noted that there is nothing profane on earth for those who know how to see. Adoration means seeing the depths of divine love in ordinary reality and loving what we see. This universe is holy because it is grounded in the Word of God. It is Christ, the living one, who is coming to be.
For many years I wondered whether women religious had misread the signs of the time. Yet as I have pondered the mystery of God, I have come to believe that the evolutionary universe is moving forward in part because women religious are working in the trenches of humanity among those who are poor, oppressed and forgotten. Today world religions are playing a greater role in the synthesis of a new religious consciousness. The women of L.C.W.R. have risked their lives in the pursuit of authentic Incarnation and have proclaimed prophetically that the love of God cannot be exterminated or suppressed. They continue to fight for systemic change on behalf of oppressed people. Congregations may die out, but the paths inscribed in history by the women religious of Vatican II are nothing less than the evolutionary shoots of a new future.
As Teilhard noted, suffering and sacrifice are part of the evolutionary process. Isolated structures must give way to more complex unions. To live with an evolutionary spirit is to let go of old structures and to engage new structures when the right time comes. The new heaven and earth promised by God will not come about by cutting ourselves off from the world or forming Catholic ghettos. It will not unfold through the triumph of ecclesiastical power. It will come about as we follow the footprints of the crucified one, descending into the darkness of humanity and rising in the power of love. This is the path to a new creation symbolized by Christ.
We believe that what happened between God and the world in Christ points to the future of the cosmos. That future involves a radical transformation of created reality through the unitive power of God’s love. To be a Christbearer is to focus on the inner depth of love. It is love that puts flesh on the face of God, love that makes Christ alive; love is the power of the future and the unfolding of Christ. History will not remember what we wore, where we lived or how we prayed, whether as Concilium or Communio Catholics. In the evening of life we all shall be judged on love alone.