The Vatican and American Catholic Sisters



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We're pleased to present today Kathleen Cummings' analysis of recent moves by the Vatican to investigate Catholic women's orders in the United States. Kathleen's post had been featured at the home page of Notre Dame University, where it drew the attention of the Cardinal Newman Society, which described it as a "radical feminist commentary" which showed "disdain for Catholic male leaders." Oh my! My fellow former Lilly fellow and current director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of Amercan Catholicism (a well-known haven for terribly dangerous radicals who sponsor conferences such as "The Word of God and Latino Catholics") is tearing it up there in northern Indiana! Better keep her out of Texas!

The Vatican and American Catholic Sisters
by Kathleen Sprows Cummings


As Laurie Goodstein recently reported in the
New York Times, the Vatican has ordered an “apostolic visitation” of American congregations of active religious women. Mother Mary Clare Millea, Superior-General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who was appointed to head the investigation, will prepare a confidential report to the Vatican on the state of each of about 340 qualified congregations of nuns in the United States.

As Goodstein and others have pointed out, the visitation has provoked anxiety among many nuns who fear they are the” target of a doctrinal inquisition.” Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that there is much more behind the Vatican’s apostolic visitation than a spirit of friendly and open-minded inquiry. Cardinal Franc Rodé, the prefect in Rome who ordered the investigation, observed last year that “all is not well with religious life in America” and more recently criticized nuns who “have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church.” Rodé’s statements, coupled with the Vatican’s warning to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that sisters are not doing enough to promote church teaching on controversial issues, signal that punitive measures may indeed be on the way for women religious who are not living a “traditional” religious life—i.e., those who do not wear habits, do not live in convents, and do not engage in established ministries such as teaching or nursing. Though it is too soon to tell exactly what the outcome of the visitation will be, it is highly probable that part of it will include an affirmation of congregations who have retained the traditional hallmarks of religious life and a rebuke to those who have left them behind.

Should this happen, it will hardly surprise anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of women in Catholic history. The institutional church has never quite known what to do with women who step out of traditionally female roles, and there is no question that by becoming collectively more professional, more educated, and more likely to challenge those in positions of power in both church and state, the majority of sisters in this country have grown progressively less “feminine” over the past four decades. Though they are often accused of moving away from the Church, sisters who have chosen this version of religious life actually believe that it represents a more authentic one: In choosing to stand with those on the margins of society, and in witnessing to Christianity at its most radical, they understand themselves to be returning to the founding charisms of their congregations as mandated by the Second Vatican Council.

We can expect that the eventual report will make much of statistics that show that congregations whose members wear habits, live in convents, and engage in conventional ministries are presently attracting more members than their non-traditional counterparts. Many commentators have already recommended that American congregations revert to traditional practices as a remedy for their rapidly declining membership. Time, however, may well prove this presumption wrong. It is far too soon to tell if this trend will be sustained, or whether those who have entered over the past decade will stay permanently.

Historical perspective also demonstrates the flaws in this line of reasoning. Even the fastest-growing congregations today receive far fewer new members annually than most women’s religious communities did a century ago. There are two often-overlooked reasons why religious life proved so attractive to American Catholic women for most of this country’s history, and, conversely, why it represents a far less appealing option today. The first involves the perspective of sisters themselves. From the early 19th century until the late 1960s, religious life offered thousands of Catholic women—most of whom hailed from immigrant, working-class communities-- opportunities for education, leadership, and meaningful lives far beyond what they were offered in American society at large. But if U.S. Catholic women once saw more possibilities within church structures than outside of them, since the late 1960s quite the opposite has been true. Because transformations for women in American society have far outpaced those for women in the church, religious life no longer represents the only option for gifted and faithful Catholic women called to live their vocations in the modern world.

The second reason concerns the nature of the services American sisters provided. Throughout the golden age of vocations, church leaders very consciously advertised religious life to young Catholic women through sermons, pamphlets, and personal invitations. Let’s assume that in doing so they were primarily inspired by genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of their flock; until Vatican II, Catholics understood religious life as a higher and holier calling than life “in the world,” and entering a convent would therefore give a young girl a head start on the path to sanctification. But intermingled with more altruistic motives were other considerations. In encouraging more girls to become nuns, church leaders were also intentionally creating a vast underpaid work force to sustain and expand Catholic institutions, most especially parochial schools. American clergy and hierarchy are less successful in selling religious life today because most Catholic women today are less willing to dedicate their entire lives to subsidizing the church’s infrastructure. It is true that the precipitous decline of women religious—not to mention their median age--suggests that the numbers will never rebound to what they once were. But a smaller population of American sisters is hardly too high a price to pay for two very positive developments: the acknowledgement that religious women are far more valuable to the Church as witnesses than they are as workhorses, and the recognition that all Catholics are called to place their talents and energy in the service of a vibrant Catholic life in this country.

4 comments:

Anonymous at: July 19, 2009 at 1:59 AM said...

Interesting. Thank you.

The "Apostolic Visitator" was one Mother Clare, and some comments from the "visited" are here.

http://www.apostolicvisitation.org/en/testimonials/index.html

3 of the writers asked for greater "transparency" or "clarity" as to the purpose of the Visitations.

If "the Vatican’s warning to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that sisters are not doing enough to promote church teaching on controversial issues" is to be taken as a sign, it would be that the Vatican isn't prepared to subsidize American nuns attempting to repeat the success of the Episcopal Church.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings [is she "Sister Kathleen," or is that too old-fashioned?] writes:

"We can expect that the eventual report will make much of statistics that show that congregations whose members wear habits, live in convents, and engage in conventional ministries are presently attracting more members than their non-traditional counterparts.

Many commentators have already recommended that American congregations revert to traditional practices as a remedy for their rapidly declining membership. Time, however, may well prove this presumption wrong."

Perhaps, but the evidence certainly doesn't point that way. Should the Vatican ignore it? More importantly, even if the proposition turns out to be wrong, should it make a difference to the Vatican?


Kathleen Sprows Cummings is unquestionably correct that nuns historically have been used by the church's infrastructure as underpaid work force.

And it's also unquestionable that

"Because transformations for women in American society have far outpaced those for women in the church, religious life no longer represents the only option for gifted and faithful Catholic women called to live their vocations in the modern world."

However, when she writes

"But a smaller population of American sisters is hardly too high a price to pay for two very positive developments: the acknowledgement that religious women are far more valuable to the Church as witnesses than they are as workhorses, and the recognition that all Catholics are called to place their talents and energy in the service of a vibrant Catholic life in this country."

...perhaps a smaller population of American sisters is hardly too high a price to pay for fidelity to the Church's true purpose and teachings, and that the other "gifted and faithful Catholic women called to live their vocations in the modern world" can and should indeed live their vocations elsewhere, for their good and the good of the Church.

Anonymous at: July 19, 2009 at 10:06 PM said...

Crickets chirping in response so far to this. No surprise, really.

It would be illogical for the Catholic Church to support [and subsidize] "women in religious life" whose own purposes are not in harmony with Catholic teaching.

Perhaps women who feel a vocation can better serve the Catholic faith and the glory of God as laypersons.

Perhaps the time for nuns has passed.

Anonymous at: February 16, 2011 at 3:10 PM said...

Just a few scattered thoughts in response to the first Anonymous commenter:

1. It wouldn't be so much old-fashioned to call Dr. Cummings "Sister Kathleen" as it would be inaccurate. Why? Because she is not a religious sister.

2. Your last suggestion that perhaps these faithful women could serve God better as laypersons than as religious sisters presents a false dichotomy. Religious sisters - along with religious brothers - are laypersons. The real question, then, regards the ways in which laypersons contribute to the life of the Church. If some men and women - even just a small number - want to and are called to serve the Church and live out their discipleship in religious congregations and according to religious vows, then this is certainly for the good.

3. The real problem with this inquiry seems to be that the Vatican is proceeding (or appearing to proceed) according to a predisposition shaped by suspicion. It is ALWAYS pastorally prudent to first see, then judge, then act. In this case, it seems like the judgment has begun before the seeing. That is troubling.

4. There is all manner of unclarity regarding the status of religious sisters. First, what do we, as the Church, mean by "vocation?" It has drifted indeterminately in modern ecclesial parlance. Second, what is the relationship between lay religious and ordained religious, lay religious and diocesan (secular) priests, and how are these relationships similar to or different from the relationships of non-religious laypersons to priests? Finally, what is the reasoning today for having separate religious congregations for male and female lay religious? The reason does not sit upon theological grounds.

David Philippart at: April 20, 2012 at 1:45 PM said...

"It would be illogical for the Catholic Church to support [and subsidize] 'women in religious life' whose own purposes are not in harmony with Catholic teaching."

Point of fact: Religious communities are self-supporting. Some mendicant orders beg for what they need, some rely on donations that are freely given by the faithful. But all of them raise the funds they need. Religious communities are part and parcel of the Church, too. They are NOT subsidized by the male hierarchy. And I'm still waiting for any little sliver of proof that the LCWR or any religious order of women religious are heretical. Just one little sliver of proof.

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