Vatican Report on U.S. Sisters

December 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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For days now, friends and colleagues have been awaiting with excitement the report on U.S. Catholic sisters that the Vatican Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) issued this morning. Based on an Apostolic Visitation of active (non-cloistered) congregations of sisters that began in 2008, this report has been anticipated since at least 2012. Hopes were high that it would be positive and appreciative (unlike the separate doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of 2012) because it was issued under the current pope, not Benedict XVI, who authorized the Visitation.

Most would agree that the outcome is much better than was initially feared. A headline in Crux, in the Boston Globe, reads “Vatican probe ends with an olive branch for American nuns.” The National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report acknowledges the report’s “roundly positive, even laudatory, tone towards (the sisters’) life and work,” while also mentioning several “couched but barbed criticisms” of them. (But the British Guardian calls the report a “mild rebuke.”) A sister of Notre Dame de Namur whom I admire enormously for her decades of relentless social justice advocacy said she would be grateful for a positive report so that sisters could stop worrying and get back to the work they were called to do.

I, too, am grateful that the report is as positive as it is. I am especially moved by the section on finances,  reminding readers of the difficult financial situation of many women’s congregations and that many sisters worked for nothing. God willing, at the end of the report, readers will express their gratitude by getting out their checkbooks. I also appreciate the report’s acknowledgment that the decline in the number of Catholic sisters in recent years was not the result of their secular life-styles, but in part at least, because the huge increase in the number of sisters in the middle of the twentieth century was an historical anomaly.

Nonetheless, I feel the need to make a few points.

First of all, the report describes the visitations as “sister to sister” undertakings. And it is true that a nun, Mother Mary Clare Millea, supervised the entire (massive) effort, and a “core team” of other sisters did the actual work of visiting and interviewing other sisters in their four hundred-some groups across the U.S. It is worth remembering, however, that Mother Mary Clare  reported to the entirely male CICLSAL leadership, and that she herself was part of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the more conservative organization of U.S. sisters that  split off from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)in 1992. It would be interesting to know the percentage of “core team” sister/interviewers who also came from congregations in the CMSWR.

I also have real problems with the final  paragraphs of the report, beginning with the  expression of hope that the “feminine genius” of more women, including competent women religious, will be “actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding the ‘possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.'” I will spare you my thoughts about the “feminine genius” and note only that the phrase “actively involved in…dialogue…about the possible role…” is  scandalously indirect and ambivalent. Possible roles?

This paragraph is followed by the statement that the Apostolic Visitation modeled its approach on the Gospel encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, “one a virgin and the other married but barren,” who overcame fear and uncertainty to embrace their roles in God’s plan. Myself, I would have preferred a description of these extremely significant women in light of something besides, or at least along with, their reproductive status. I would have also been grateful if the final paragraph described women, especially women religious, as actually doing something, instead of (or along with) the church celebrating “the great things that God does for them” and Mary herself “constantly contemplating the work of God.”

Some U.S. sisters may object to my focusing on these details; the book about the process, Power of Sisterhoodand the report itself stress the unity that resulted from the Apostolic Visitation; some sisters also express hope for better relations between the LCWR and the CMSWR.

But it’s crucial to recognize that the report actually does nothing to change the governance structure of the Roman Catholic Church. The church is an absolute monarchy, and unlike other monarchies, only men get crowned. If a pope dies, there’s no telling what his successor will do, as some of us learned to our dismay after the deaths of Pope John XXII, and, to some extent, Pope Paul VI. (This is particularly amusing in a religious organization given to saying “As the church has always taught.”) Pope Francis is a big improvement over his two predecessors, particularly because of  his stress on the poor, though the possibility that the church’s teaching on women might actually contribute to their poverty seems to elude him.

All this notwithstanding, Pope Francis is an old man. And if he dies, God knows what position his successor will hold, on women and a lot of other things. The current heads of the  Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are much more appreciative of  U.S. Catholic sisters than Cardinal Franc Rodé was. Will their successors be? Until the Catholic church ordains women priests and bishops, appoints them cardinals, and elects them pope, its treatment of Catholic women, including and especially nuns, is at the least unpredictable. As things are, the only role allotted to women by the institutional church is to pray that the pope lives a long time and that the bishops and cardinals he names will be more enlightened on questions of gender and sexuality than he is.

 

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4 Comments »

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  1. Marian, you raise much needed questions and see the very important points that many readers will miss in this “report of a report”. (That’s another whole matter!)
    Thanks, as always, for your frank and astute observations.

    Mary Jeremy Daigler

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  2. I totally agree with the points you raise. Until women–and to the same degree the laity–are on the same level as the “clergy” there will never be a true community in the Catholic Church. Francis does acknowledge that the real problem in Catholicism is clericalism.

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  3. So glad that you wrote this post, Marian. The official Catholic “separate spheres” thing is a trip. Especially since there are a lot of Catholic resources for thinking differently. Thank you!

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  4. Thank you for keeping me informed on this issue. So much craziness in the world the desire to cover my ears is almost impossible to resist. So sad that men are so afraid of women the world over. We’re grateful to Francis for his humble humanity towards the poor & the desperate but sorely disappointed that in spite of his awareness he is still asking the most active of the church to step aside & let a man handle the job. Thanks for your kind & twisted words father, but no thanks. We’ll take our grievances to a higher power.

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