A Vatican document bearing on the relationship between bishops and religious orders of nuns was discussed and analyzed recently by about 200 sisters of the Washington archdiocese and one bishop.
The document, released last July, was sharply criticized by Sister Barbara Thomas, the superior general of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (Ky.) who presented the viewpoint of the nuns.
She faulted the Vatican document for what she saw as the "stress on the administrative function of bishops rather than their pastoral role. . . The bishop as pastor doesn't seem to come through," she said.
The turmoil of the Roman Catholic Church in the years since the reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council has nowhere been more acute than within the religious orders of women.As the religious orders, in response to directives from Rome, undertook fundamental reevaluations of their work and role in the contemporary church, problems of authority inevitably arose.
While some religious orders are chartered within a single diocese and are subject to the direction of the presiding bishop, many others are organized on a national or even international basis and are "not under the authority of the local bishop as far as internal affairs are concerned," Sister Thomas explained.
It is particularly with such religious orders that questions have risen regarding relationship to the bishops' authority.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Eugene Marino praised the Vatican document for its emphasis on the need for dialogue between bishops and religious orders and its vision of the church as embracing both bishops and sisters.
"The document aids us in moving beyond the view that we are merely small cogs in the bulky machinery of church organization," he said at the session last Saturday. "Rather, the mission of the church to announce the Gospel draws each of us together."
He acknowledged that a concept of the "ruling" bishops, as outlined in the document, "conjures up visions of an ayatollah more readily than a bishop."
But he added, "Its true meaning is found in the rule of service that always marks effective leadership; the bishop places at the disposal of all members of the church his full energies, prayer and love to strengthen the organizational networks within the fabric of the church."
He advocated that bishops take "a cue from the increasingly popular sport of tennis: those who have learned to serve well seldom lose."
Sister Thomas, who is a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the official organization of heads of religious orders, stressed in an interview that the church is in a time of transition from old ways to new. "A lot of what we could have looked to in the past has disappeared and we are fumbling for new forms," she said.
Recalling her four-year term as head of the Leadership Conference, which she began in 1972, she said, "In four years I saw it move from the kind of relationship in which we went to the bishop and told them the problems to one in which we sit down and mutually share our vision [of the church] together."
She added: "I think our bishops will respond to us as persons when we treat them as persons and not deal with them in their (authority) role."