Last week, I promised to write more about the Vatican’s statement on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but the week got away from me. I do, however, want to share an article from Commonweal by a nun who identifies herself only as “Sister X,” explaining that “the threat of disciplinary action makes it difficult for women religious to speak out on this topic.” The piece was originally published in 2009, but it reads as freshly as if it had been published after the Vatican’s critique.
Here is an excerpt:
Let me begin by saying that I want to believe in the good will of the institutional church. An essential part of my commitment to Christ is a belief in the holiness of the church; that is what I professed when I took my vows. For me, religious life outside the structure of the institutional church is hardly imaginable. I love the church. I love its vision of God, its Scriptures and sacraments, its heritage, its tradition of faithful change, its saints and thinkers. I believe in its mission and future.
Yet my reaction to the visitation, and especially to the prospect of “doctrinal assessment,” contains more than a little skepticism. While I’m glad for a chance to “let Rome know the truth” about our lives and our devotion to Christ, I can’t help suspecting that those behind these initiatives are not primarily interested in the quality of my spiritual life. To put it bluntly, I feel that American women religious are being bullied. The fact that the visitation is apparently being paid for by anonymous donors, and that the leaders of our communities will not be permitted to see the investigative reports that issue from it, does not engender trust. And indeed, the dynamics of the visitation and investigation so far have been experienced by women religious as secretive, unfriendly, and one-sided.
The implicit accusation underlying the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR is that its leaders are not Catholic enough in the church’s eyes. Having lived, worked, and prayed with these women for decades, I find this suggestion both insulting and absurd — so absurd, in fact, that one wonders whether the investigation is actually meant to undermine confidence in women’s leadership of their own congregations. . . .
The plain fact is: Since the early 1980s the Vatican has not seemed interested in hearing what women religious themselves think about the quality of life in their own communities. This lack of interest puzzles and disappoints. These women are members of congregations that have taught in Catholic grade schools and high schools, academies and colleges. They are the sisters who staffed hospitals and still sponsor health-care systems throughout the United States; who have pooled millions of dollars in sisterly commitment to relieve homelessness; who have formed national coalitions, partnering with local and national government, to provide and manage low-cost housing projects. . . .
Perhaps there exists a basic problem of communication. Perhaps the personal and interpretive language women religious speak to each other is not sufficiently “Vaticanese.” The theological worldview of women has evolved in ways that bishops may not understand, let alone accept. . . . Our directors introduced us to the basics of religious life: union with God in prayer, identity with the church, Scripture, the vows, mission and apostolate, community life. But we also read sociology, psychology, and literature. Along with our Vatican II documents and the Jerusalem Bible, we read Jung, historical novels, and poetry. Our retreats included the Psalms, but also meditative films about nature. There was a great effort to integrate our spiritual life with “real life.” We came to identify ourselves with Mary, whom Jesus himself called “woman” in John’s Gospel, and with Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the Resurrection; or with one of the healed women in the Gospel who goes out and tells others about her life-changing experience, and attracts others to come to Jesus too.
It is a powerful piece of writing that I commend to everyone.
Another fine commentary came from Tom Roberts at the National Catholic Reporter. I will quote only a few lines: “This should not be a contest between men and women. It shouldn't be a test of who is more important to the church. It shouldn't be a win-lose matter. But the men have forced it to this point.” I am afraid he is right.