26 November 2009

US religious women closing the door on the visitation

NCR is reporting that US religious women are "almost universally resisting" the Vatican inquiry into the condition of their lives.

I was struck by several elements of this story.

First, participation in the Vatican inquiry is voluntary.  How does one resist voluntary participation?  You either take part or you don't.  "Resistance" is something you do when you are being coerced into some action you believe to be contrary to your will. Congregations were invited to participate not coerced.  The NCR article consistently uses the word "comply" and the phrase "not complying" to note the lack of participation.  One complies or fails to comply with an order.  One accepts or refuses an invitation. 

Second, the inquiry is an opportunity for women religious to tell the Vatican about their lives in their own words.  The LCWR frequently complains that the hierarchy doesn't listen to women religious.  What is accomplished by "resisting" this chance to tell the hierarchy how US women religious live?  Future complaints about the Vatican "not listening" will be met with the question:  "Did your congregation participate in the visitation?"

Third, by participating in the development of the visitation report, congregations reserve a place for themselves at the table when the report is issued.  Will those congregations that refuse the invitation to participate refrain from criticizing the report when and if it fails to represent their views on religious life?  Does it make sense here to say, "If you didn't vote, don't complain about the election outcome"?

Fourth, in an era when lack of transparency in secular governments and the scientific community is causing one scandal after another, LCWR criticized the Vatican for lack of transparency in the inquiry.  Yet, many congregations complained about questions in the visitation document asking for the average age of the sisters and information about their assets and current financial situation. The Vatican dropped these questions. Why would congregations want too hide these bits of information?  Isn't transparency a good thing?

Several quoted statements from sisters in the NCR article go a long way toward indicating some of the root problems in the LCWR.

"Vatican II took us out of the ghettos and into ecology, feminism and justice in the world," she said. "The Vatican still has a difficult time accepting that."  This ignores the fact that the Church has always called Catholics to faithful stewardship of our natural resources; that the Church has been at the forefront of elevating and defending women against secular culture; and that the Church produced the notion of "human rights" and has always called for social justice.  The real complaint here is that the Church has successfully resisted efforts by a radical minority to fundamentally mold the Church into a product of the '70's-'80's zeitgeist.

One said that it is "unlikely the Vatican wanted us to come out of this being more confident of our identity as self-defining religious agents, but that is exactly what has happened."  But we aren't "self-defining religious agents."  We are members of one Body who use our gifts for one another.  What happens to me if, as a self-defined religious agent, I define myself as something other than Catholic?  If I have any integrity at all, I leave the Church and join a like-minded group.  Catholics are defined by a tradition of teachings and practices that distinguish us as a group from other groups.  To be "self-defined" is to be "not defined by the group I voluntarily belong to."   If we are to be of one heart and one mind, we cannot be self-defining.

"At first, many women were asking, 'How do we respond? Then we were asking, 'How do we respond faithfully in keeping with our identity?' And soon we were asking, 'What is that identity?'" This is exactly the point of the visitation!  When a Dominican provincial or Master of the Order conducts a visitation of the friars, he is out to access the lived-identity of the brothers.  Do they know who they are as Dominicans?  Are they living out their vowed-identities faithfully?

All along, said one woman religious, the challenge has been to respond to the Vatican in a way that breaks a cycle of violence.  What "cycle of violence"?  This is hysterical rhetoric and cannot be taken seriously.  How exactly does a set of questions perpetrate violence?  I guess the visitator could have rolled the papers up and smacked someone, but I doubt this is what happened.  Calling the visitation "violent" is a fanciful way for congregations to paint themselves as victims of intimidation.  Again, how does one violently request voluntary participation?  I suppose the Vatican could have sent its cadre of albino Opus Dei ninja monks to kick in some convent doors. . .

One congregation, she said, cited a U.S. bishops' statement concerning domestic abuse in its response letter to Millea. "The point is, there have to be more than two choices: Take the abuse and offer it up, or kill the abuser."  We are supposed to believe that an invitation from the Vatican to voluntarily participate in a visitation is the moral equivalent of wife-beating?  Really?  Truly, some of these sisters are living in a highly rarefied and privileged world of the imagination.  To say, "I feel that these questions are violent" is not the same as saying, "These questions are violent."  I feel like Bill Gates owes me a billion dollars.  This does not mean that he does.  I worked at a battered women's shelter.  Labeling the visitation "violent" is an insult to women who suffer from real beatings at the hands of their out of control husbands and boyfriends. The women who came to the shelter with bruises, broken bones, bloody cuts, and real emotional damage would no doubt call B.S. on this statement.

It goes without saying that congregations are free to think and feel any way they choose about the visitation.  This goes for individual sisters as well.  But these statements--likely not representative--portray the sisters as privileged, disconnected, rhetorically irresponsible, and, frankly, a little desperate to hide their lives from review.  Do they see themselves as being above questioning?  Above reproach?  Isn't this the charge LCWR consistently makes against the hierarchy?  Secrecy, lack of transparency?  I doubt many of the "rank and file" sisters view the visitation as violent and intrusive.  How many sisters sent in private evaluations of their lives that contradict the official statements of their congregational leadership?  It is not uncommon in institutional structures for the leadership cadre to fear the frank evaluation of the "rank and file."  We see this in unions, political organizations, men's religious communities, the Church herself, and just about any sort of group where the leadership can become disconnected from those they lead. 

The visitation report should make very interesting reading.  And when I read a critique of the report from a sisters' congregation, my first question is going to be, "Did this congregation fully participate in the visitation?"  If not, the critique is going to ring hollow.


  1. I am not sure where these women get this attitude from, obviously not history book. No other institution in the world has done more for women than the Catholic church. Just look at all the marvelous things the women saints accomplished, and how esteemed Holy Mary is by the church. I am glad some of these radical orders will be reigned in. They seem to have forgotton that as women we have different charisms than men. They also seem to be looking for power and I thought any vocation is about sublimating the ego not feeding it.

  2. Aha!!! So you admit that the Vatican has a cadre of albino Opus Dei ninja monks!!!

  3. This reminds me of a comment I just saw on another blog:

    There's a term in psychology for this phenomenon... "projection" for all that they've done to some of their more faithful sisters that remained in their congregations?

  4. Dan, I admit nothing.

    And I am NOT the spiritual director for these non-existent ninja monks...

  5. Makes me think of another "visitation." Do these sister not know that, as with all of us, our middle name should "Fiat?"

  6. Anonymous1:46 PM

    I agree that the most liberal communities are dying out aand that discerners almost universally prefer more traditional communities (that wear the habit as well). My opinion is that these sisters are acting just like people who do have something to hide.

  7. We are supposed to believe that an invitation from the Vatican to voluntarily participate in a visitation is the moral equivalent of wife-beating? Really?

    I'd say we must try to believe that an invitation from the Vatican to voluntarily participate in a visitation is perceived as the moral equivalent of wife-beating.

    If we don't understand that, and how it can be true, then how can we speak about anything at all with these Sisters?

  8. Tom, I understand all too well the notion that my perceptions shape my understanding of the world. But I refuse to believe that my perceptions shape world I am trying to understand.

    The reality is that no one from the Vatican is beating these sisters. No one is breaking their bones, or bloodying their noses. They can choose to perceive/feel anyway they like. But for the rest of the world to treat these perceptions as accurate descriptions of and objective reality is to enter into a fantasy land. That can't be helpful to anyone.

  9. Tom-

    As a woman who was in an abusive relationship (as a teenager) and was struck across the back by my boyfriend with a two by four while his friend held my arms, I can say that there is absolutely no reality in their assertion that the voluntary visitation amounts to domestic abuse. IT IS OFFENSIVE! And it just shows what kind of a fantasy world they've created for themselves!

  10. I suppose my point is that, if we don't deal first with the fact that a large number of religious sisters in the U.S. speak as though they live in a fantasy land, then any other dealings we have with these sisters will lack a foundation.

    We can't even achieve disagreement with them, because we are arguing from different worlds.

  11. Austringer10:34 PM

    This would be laughable if it weren't so pathetic. "Self-defining religious agents" -- compare that with the image Jesus gives us of the faitful and wise virgins who keep their lamps lit, waiting for the return of the Bridegroom. These sad excuses for religious don't have time for any Bridegroom (just too male, you know) and are too busy navel-gazing to wait for anyone (which after all smacks of a slavish adherence to patriarchy).

  12. Tom, on that we certainly agree. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to get behind the emotive rhetoric and achieve anything positive. "I feel" is invincible. And all they are willing to do is feel, then. . .I dunno.

  13. Anonymous3:10 AM

    This article is the best analysis I've seen of the sad situation of the religiously-bankrupt American Sisters. They can't understand that no one approves of their secularized, post-Catholic status and no one wants them around as nuns any more. I am sure that a few disaffected Catholics want them, like the priest who still insists on being "relevant" with guitar music at Mass while wearing sandals, speaking casually at Mass and wearing jeans in public, and a few women of the ilk that are inclined to joint the Associates programs of some of these modern convents, as well as whoever else subscribes to the NCR, but that's it. They are not wanted any more. No one wants to control them in any way. Do whatever you wish ladies, subvert anyone you want, desecrate whatever is sacred to Catholics that you wish, usher people into abortion clinics at your heart's content, just don't do it as Catholics or by all means, as Catholic Sisters!

  14. Anonymous8:46 AM

    Information alert: Just as I suspected would happen, the Sinsinawa Dominicans have ALREADY removed their website's front-page notification about Sister Donna Quinn's wrist-slapping for her pro-abortion activities. Many of the other "moon-logic" things that appear on this site remain unchanged for months, but this little entry has come and gone quickly and quietly, befitting the lack of commitment to that message that one suspects is their true position, after having ignored Quinn's pro-abortion activities for six years and then publishing that quasi-defense of her when it first hit the news, until it became clear the Church following this case carefully.

  15. Anonymous1:46 PM

    After the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady, no aspect of Catholicism was more loved before Vat. II than the Sisters. The now dead advanced guard of today's LCWR types wrecked religious life in America. Show them no respect, no contributions, no dialogue. Treat them like the enemies of religion that they are. They are a cancer to be excised from the Body of Christ.

  16. CarpeNoctem8:28 PM

    I, too, find the attempt to parallel the investigation to domestic abuse quite offensive.

    I think that it would be more apt to parallel the upcoming visitation with an intervention on an addict. The addict denies that there are any problems although her hair and teeth have fallen out, she's lost a lot of weight, she sleeps all day and can't keep a job except, perhaps, to sell herself deeper into the addiction.

    There are two choices for the addict: remain in the bubble and continue the death spiral, or respond positively to the loving invitation to look at the world objectively and commit to the hard work of healing.

    It's so scriptural... out of an all-consuming love, the bridegroom seeks his bride who has given herself to harlotry. Maybe I'm overstating the case, but, hey, if the shoe fits...