New Orleans native and NPR’s senior news analyst Cokie Roberts gave the keynote address at the recent gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in New Orleans. LCWR represents 95% of U.S. Catholic religious women and is under investigation by the Vatican. (See my earlier posts LCWR Calls For Transparency and Vatican Investigation.)
Roberts gives an excellent overview of the historical role of Catholic women in America – especially in New Orleans. When she veers toward the current Vatican investigation, she frames it in a way that brings out some of the essential tensions: The true nature of the American experiment is still not understood by Rome. Here’s an excerpt:
This country remains a puzzlement to our ancestors in Europe and their modern day descendants. After all we are very young—it’s not even 300 years since the Ursulines arrived here and that was almost 50 years before independence. I understand why the Europeans continue to see this as some sort of upstart nation. They often see only the chaos without witnessing the creation. And they don’t appreciate the fact that we have traditions that are different from those of the old world, traditions that have to do with service both inside and outside of religious life. So–at the same time that the Ursulines were here creating schools and hospitals and orphanages, and Elizabeth Seton was doing that on the East Coast–women of every religion and color were creating similar institutions–whether it was Isabella Graham the Scotswoman who worked with Elizabeth Seton to create the Widows Society and many other social service agencies, or Rebecca Gratz–a Jewish woman in Philadelphia who worked with other women in the community to create orphanages and other societies for the poor and then established a parallel set up for Jewish children who were being taught Christian doctrine in those other institutions. Or Catherine Ferguson, a former slave, who started the Sunday School movement in America. Or first lady Dolley Madison who worked with the local women of Washington to set up an orphanage after the British invasion of 1814. These women of course couldn’t vote and married women could not own property. They were the property of their husbands. But with great difficulty and determination they lobbied the legislatures, solicited funds from the public, petitioned the Congress, organized rallies, performed highly political acts in order to create the safety net for the poor in a time of exciting unbridled capitalism. And that tradition of service continues.
An association of U.S. Roman Catholic sisters raised questions Monday about why they are the target of, and who is paying for, a Vatican investigation that is shaping up to be a tough review of whether sisters have strayed from church teaching.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing about 800 heads of religious orders, said there was a “lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources” for the inquiry. The group also said it objects to the Vatican plan to keep private the reports that will be submitted to the Holy See.
“There’s no transparency there,” said Sister Annmarie Sanders, a conference spokeswoman.
The investigation, announced earlier this year, will examine the practices of the roughly 59,000 Catholic sisters working in the United States. Some sisters have privately expressed anger over the assessment, which they say unfairly questions their commitment to church teaching. However, in public they have remained largely circumspect in their comments.
The assembly body also discussed the Vatican study, as well as a separate inquiry being conducted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the position of LCWR in matters pertaining to Catholic Church doctrine. Following analysis of the experience of these studies thus far, the leaders noted that while their orders have always been fully accountable to the church and plan to collaborate with the Vatican in these studies, they request that those conducting the inquiries alter some of the methods being employed. Among the expressed concerns are a lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources for the studies. The leaders also object to the fact that their orders will not be permitted to see the investigative reports about them that are being submitted directly to the Vatican.
Throughout the assembly, the leaders emphasized that their orders have remained faithful to the reform and renewal of their communities called for by the Second Vatican Council that urged women and men religious to adapt their lives, prayer and work so they may most effectively fulfill their mission. They reclaimed their commitment to what they believe is the unique and needed role of religious life which includes serving at and speaking from the margins of the Catholic Church.
LCWR represents roughly 95% of U.S. Catholic sisters. I’m intrigued that NPR’s Cokie Roberts gave the key note at the LCWR assemly. I’ll try to get hold of her talk.
Director Claudia Larson’s DVD documentary Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saintis a “must see” because Day, Catholic anarchist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is no ordinary saint.
Based on 14 years of research, Larson presents the intimate Day through private writings, interviews, and compelling images of her life and times. Day, currently under consideration for sainthood by the Vatican, was inspired by the gospels, the lives of the saints, and the teachings of her Roman Catholic faith.
SYNOPSIS: Tells the story of the New York writer and Catholic anarchist who at the height of the Depression unwittingly created what would become a worldwide peace and social justice movement. The Catholic Worker persists to this day in over 180 houses of hospitality and soup kitchens across the United States, in Europe, Australia, Canada and Mexico. Their tenet is based on doing works of mercy and living in voluntary poverty with no attachments to Church or State.
And although the Vatican is currently considering Dorothy Day for canonization, she is no ordinary saint. Caught up in the Bohemian whirl of 1917 Greenwich Village, Dorothy wrote for radical papers, associated with known Communists, attempted suicide and had an illegal abortion, a doomed common-law marriage and a child out of wedlock. The birth of her only child led to her religious conversion.
The film takes us through Dorothy’s protests of the 1950’s air-raid drills, her last arrest in 1973 with the United Farm Workers and to her death on November 29, 1980 at the home she founded for homeless women on New York’s Bowery.
Interviews with Dorothy, her daughter, and close intimates coupled with never-before-seen family photographs, personal writings and powerful archival footage paint a dramatic picture of Dorothy’s most difficult journey to create and live out a vision of a more just world.
This is a really fantastic film that gives an inside look at the grittiness of Day’s life, which makes her compassion and courage shine all that more brightly.
Take a look at the newly launched Web site promoting the film. Show it in your church and have a lively discussion. A book supplement to the film should be out soon.
(NOTE: This film is not just for Catholics. Everyone will appreciate Dorothy’s feisty engagement with faith and life.)
Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, a Sister of Mercy, is the director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She posted a commentary yesterday, A Nun Could Get Whiplash These Days, responding to the Vatican investigation of American nuns.
Her commentary isn’t all that exceptional, but I find it rather amazing that even this Catholic hierarchy “company woman,” with a very strategic position within the U.S. bishops’ Conference felt the need to push back on Vatican investigation. See an excerpt below:
This morning I read about a new documentary that tells the heroic tale of nuns in Eastern Europe sent to Siberia, prison camps, and into exile in the Stalinist days post World War II. I’m proud of them – and deeply moved by their lives. I hope everyone gets to see this program on ABC TV. It was produced by Sisters of St. Joseph and funded by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign. ABC will get it September 13 and if affiliates choose to air it, it will make gripping television.
Then I read a Catholic News Service story about the Apostolic Visitation of U.S. nuns that reported that I could confidentially contact the visitator with concerns I might have about my order. It made me wonder how we nuns are perceived. Is my happiness as a sister suspect? My lifestyle? Can’t I just e-mail my own head nun when I have concerns? I wonder what my family will think? Will the young adults who asked me to read at their weddings start to wonder about the aunt they think is special?
Several folks have asked me what’s happening with the Vatican investigation into U.S. Catholic women’s religious orders, so I thought I’d post a few things here. This is mostly a roundup and timeline of the investigation.
In January 2009, the Vatican informed American women religious that it would be instituting a “two-year study of their life,” ostensibly to determine why vocations were dropping. It was really to investigate women who may have embraced Vatican II more than the Pope likes.
Sr. Mary Clare Millea, an American and superior general of the very traditional order Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was asked by the Vatican to be the “apostolic visitator,” director of the inquiry. Phase one of the inquiry was personal interviews with selected heads of women’s orders by Sr. Millea, which concluded July 31.
On July 28, Sr. Millea sent a letter to the heads of women religious congregations in the U.S., along with a working paper that outlined the next steps of the investigation. She indicated that the heads of every women’s religious order would be receiving a questionnaire “relating to the life and operations of their orders” to be filled out and returned to her by November 1.
The working paper says that after Vatican officials have analyzed the data received in the questionnaires, there will be “on-site visits” of religious institutes in early 2010. To participate in these visiting teams, you must sign a fidelity oath to uphold the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church and submit to the teachings of the bishops, “as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith.”
According to the National Catholic Reporter article (Aug. 3, 2009),
The areas of concern identified in the questionnaire include identity; governance; vocation promotion; admission and formation policies; spiritual life and common life; mission and ministry; and finances.
A recent Associated Press story by Eric Gorski (“Catholic Sisters Queried About Doctrine, Fidelity”) puts it this way:
A Vatican-ordered investigation into Roman Catholic sisters in the U.S., shrouded in mystery when it was announced seven months ago, is shaping up to be a tough examination of whether women’s religious communities have strayed too far from church teaching.
The review “is intended as a constructive assessment and an expression of genuine concern for the quality of the life” of roughly 59,000 U.S. Catholic sisters, according to a Vatican working paper delivered in the past few days to leaders of 341 religious congregations that describes the scope in new detail.
LCWR has its national meeting next week in New Orleans from August 11-14. No doubt, the Vatican investigation will be a hot topic of conversation.
Two responses to these Vatican investigations highlight the approaches taken by Catholic women leaders. The first is by Benedictine sister Joan Chittister (“If They Really Mean It, It’s About Time”), who writes:
[Catholic sisters] of this stock had founded 469 Catholic hospitals from 1866-1917. They had nursed both armies on the Civil War battlefield despite the dismay of church leaders. They had put over 50,000 sister-teachers in parochial schools during the same period and by 1920 had almost two million pupils in 6,550 Catholic schools. These women, had, for all practical purposes, built the Catholic church in the United States. But, suddenly, sometime in the early ’60’s, things began to change. …
This time the women who had built the largest private school system in the world turned it over to the Catholics who had been trained in it and began to build again. They sold hospitals and opened nursing homes for the elderly and began free clinics instead.
With the same kind of zeal that fired their small groups of foundresses to give their lives to make life better and the faith deeper for poor Catholic immigrants in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country, this generation of the 1960’s ventured out of the Catholic ghettoes of their own time to do the same.
In my work on the renewal of Religious Life over the last eight years I have come to the conclusion that Congregations like ours [the kind represented by LCWR in this country] have, in fact, birthed a new form of Religious Life. We are really no longer “Congregations dedicated to works of the apostolate” –that is, monastic communities whose members “go out” to do institutionalized works basically assigned by the hierarchy as an extension of their agendas, e.g., in Catholic schools and hospitals, etc. We are ministerial Religious. Ministry is integral to our identity and vocation. It arises from our baptism specified by profession, discerned with our Congregational leadership and effected according to the charism of our Congregation, not by delegation from the hierarchy.
In future posts, I’ll give more of my own insight into this investigation. Suffice it to say that I’m suspicious of the Vatican’s motives. Particularly since such “visitations” are usually reserved for major scandals, like priests and pedophilia or extensive financial abuse.
My thanks to Michael Bayly over at The Wild Reed for his list of other articles on this topic.