This is part one of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter. In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, sets the context for “Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form.” (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
The Pernicious Appeal for Blind Obedience (Part 1 of 5)
When the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious was announced some months ago without any preparation, consultation, or even the courtesy of a notification to congregational leaders that it was about to happen, many people, religious and laity alike, were stunned at what seemed like a surprise attack aimed at a most unlikely target, given the massive and unaddressed problems besetting the clergy and hierarchy at the moment. Persistent efforts to learn the charges and the accusers hit a stone wall since virtually no one believed that a decline in numbers of entrants constituted a “crime” calling for such a massive response or that a judicial proceeding of such magnitude was instituted to ascertain (much less foster!) the “quality of life” of religious.
Little by little pressure from a variety of sources seems to have uncovered the answers to those two questions. The “charges” are that LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious)-type Congregations (the vast majority of Religious in the country) have implemented in their lives and in their ministries changes called for by Vatican II to the detriment (manifested in the decline in numbers of vocations) of religious life itself. Cardinal Rodé (the highest officer in Rome on religious life) believes, in his own words, that the [Second Vatican] council precipitated the first “world-wide crisis” in the history of the church and women religious, in his view, are primary promoters of that crisis in the United States.
The “accusers” are a small group of extremely conservative women religious who, in September 2008, held a conference at Stonehill College in Massachusetts on consecrated life as they understand it, to which they invited Cardinal Rodé. At this conference, which included no presentation of positions at variance with their own, they put contemporary ministerial religious Life on trial in absentia, found it seriously wanting, and raised the cry, “Investigate them!”
Cardinal Rodé, having heard what he apparently thought was a widely held consensus that U.S. women’s apostolic religious life was in serious decline concluded, “We have no further need of witnesses.” Unfortunately, he failed to consult the many thousands of Catholic laity who have received from women religious their formation in the faith, ongoing spiritual support, pastoral care in times of need, and colleagueship in ministry and who are now expressing their solidarity with the sisters by petitions and personal letters of protest to the Cardinal, the Visitator, the Apostolic Delegate, and local ordinaries as well as by individual and collective testimonies to and about the sisters (see, e.g., U.S. Catholic, Entered into Evidence [75:1, Jan. 2010]).
He failed to consult moderate bishops, like those in California, who have publicly testified that without women religious their dioceses would not have become what they are and would not be functioning as well as they are today. He failed to consult significant groups of religious outside the United States, such as AMOR (conference of women Religious in Asia and Oceania) and UISG (International Union of Superiors General in Rome), which have expressed in public statements their appreciation of, support for, and solidarity with U.S. religious. He failed to consult the sisters themselves who could have enlightened him on the size and ideological commitments of the one small group of religious he did consult and the few rightist bishops, in this country and in Rome, to whom he listened.