In case you have not heard, the Vatican is currently investigating apostolic women’s religious communities in the United States. This investigation has generated a lot of emotional response from people of all sorts of points of view. From those already distrustful of Vatican authority, it has generated talk of resistance, while from those nostalgic for the past is has brought back all sorts of wistful recollections of wimples. I had not thought it helpful to engage in the controversy until I read an interesting series of articles beginning with this one last fall by Sr. Sandra Schneiders in National Catholic Reporter. She highlighted for me some points that I think may be interesting to people who are not so attuned to church practices and customs, and might be wondering what all the fuss is about. I want to take a moment to highlight this week the helpful points that I took from her articles. I’ll return next week with what I think might be helpful to add to her analysis.
1. Acknowledgement that women religious worldwide and in the USA have suffered tremendously at the hands of men, and especially at the hands of men in authority in the church. Obviously, to any student of the history of western culture this should not be news. But it comes up again and again in Sr. Scheiders’ analysis, and it should not be passed over lightly. It is a fact that has to be acknowledged. The story of the Australian Bd. Mary MacKillop (soon to be declared a Saint) is the example with which I am most familiar. The short version is that she was excommunicated for a time because the local bishop did not think her sisters’ charism was genuine.
2. Recognition of apostolic religious life as a perennially challenging form of ministry in the church. The agonizing and at times church-rending debates among the early Franciscans are perhaps the most important instance of this that no one has ever heard of. The wild bands of “little brothers” who wandered the countryside in imitation of Francis were shocking and even debilitating to the Church. They were on the one hand what saved the Church from collapsing under the weight of wealth and power, while on the other hand, they nearly brought the church to its knees because of the chaos that they inspired through their obsession with Joachim of Fiore, denunciation of Church authority, quickness to take offense, and implication that anyone who tried to change them was by that very fact doing evil. The history of the Jesuits is likewise illuminating. Sr. Schneiders notes that we Jesuits were one of the first religious orders to have as part of our constitution the explicit freedom from horarium (common recitation of prayers, in our case, the divine office). This freedom was withdrawn early in our history by Pope Paul IV. We fought this Pope’s decision tooth and nail, but we also accepted and obeyed it, until it was granted once more by his successor.
What is there to say about these historical points? Simply that apostolic religious life is often dangerous and unstable. It places religious much more at the whims of the influence of the world, if they are not careful to retain a serious and vital life of prayer. Part of the question in the Vatican investigation is precisely whether orders that once practiced the horarium have a spirituality that can support leaving it behind.
3. The sense that apostolic sisters might be punished for not having many vocations. I think this is a crucial point: gobs of vocations are not always an indication of fidelity to a charism. This is especially notable in cloistered communities. If they rejected their charism and made things easier, it might increase vocations for a while, but it also would be a betrayal of who God has called them to be. Likewise, if (and this is a key “if”) apostolic womens’ communities are finally living the charism their founders were called to, and if they are living the renewal to which Vatican II called them, they might find that in fact (as is true for many of these communities) their numbers of new vocations decline dramatically.
Now, in weighing the different characteristics of an order, there is always the question of the “fruits” (“by their fruits you shall know them”). But it is often too easy to measure the fruits in terms of things you can number – including seeing people as numbers… What Sr. Schneiders brings up powerfully in the article is a justification for apostolic women’s religious life that is free of habit, enclosure and regular common prayer. It strikes me that religious orders that lack all three are a genuine, and a much needed, charism in the Church. It also strikes me that this is a type of religious life that might appeal to, and be suited for, very few people. And that might be just fine – it might be God’s will.
It is worth noting that Cardinal Rodé, who ordered the current investigation, himself noted on Feb. 2 that an abundance of vocations is “not indispensable.” On the one hand, this seems to be true, and an acknowledgement that vocation numbers are not the only measurement of an order’s health. On the other it does make it seem that vocations will still be a significant measurement of the order when the Apostolic Visitation comes calling.
I mention here these points as truly important ones to consider as we look at all Catholic religious orders today, not only women’s orders. Can we acknowledge that women’s religious orders have suffered much in the Church? Can we recognize the importance of, and dangers of apostolic religious life? Can we avoid the pitfalls of judging orders merely by numbers of vocations? These are all crucial points that Sr. Schneiders raises. Yet all this being said, I also have a few reservations about Sr. Schneiders’ examination of Apostolic religious life. This is mostly focused on what she leaves out, rather than what she includes. I will report back next week with what I hope are some constructive thoughts.
In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your comments about the points raised here. Please note that in light of the very strong emotions that this topic generates, we will be very carefully following our policy on comments. We demand genuine respect for all points of view. Charity must be the guide. Please refer to our “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) page for more info.