The renewal of women religious in the United States

Ten days ago, the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life released its report of the Apostolic Visitation of non-cloistered women’s religious communities in the United States. It was written with a positive Christmas spirit, effusively praising women religious for all they’ve done for the Church’s “evangelizing mission, selflessly tending to the Spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalized” while diplomatically phrasing its concerns. 

The religious women involved, secular and Catholic media professionals, and all other interested observers noticed an enormous change between the launching of the Visitation six years ago and its concluding report. Last month in a “60 Minutes” interview Cardinal Sean O’Malley called the way that the Visitation was announced and received a “disaster” — and that might have been stating it charitably. 

There was initially no elementary communications component to the Visitation so that women religious and everyone else would see why the Vatican was commissioning it in the first place, how many Sisters themselves from communities that had lost their Catholic moorings had requested the Vatican’s help, how Visitations are routine in religious life, what its scope and tenor was envisioned to be (more a “Sister-to-Sister” dialogical self-assessment than an antagonistic examination), what specific behaviors the congregation was concerned about, and how it was intended to help revitalize women’s religious life. 

Instead the Visitation was portrayed as a general inquisition by crepuscular, authoritarian chauvinists in Rome punitively bullying Holy Sisters for minor concerns in order to take the focus off of the big scandals for which these ignorant misogynists were responsible and toward which rather they should have been devoting their attention all along.

The Catholic faithful rose up reflexively in the defense of their Spiritual heroines, incredulous that the Spiritual mothers they knew could ever be the subject of a hostile inquest even from the most anti-Catholic bureaucrats, not to mention from the hierarchy of the Church. 

If they had known what was really going in several women’s religious institutes in the United States — if they had known what the problems were that precipitated the Visitation — their reaction would surely have been different. 

Catholics would find hard to believe that there are various Sisters who, with the support of their communities, protest in favor of abortion; who no longer regularly attend Mass because they want women priests; who openly question the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Divinity of Christ and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture; who, in the words of Sister Laurie Brink, the former president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the largest association of women religious in the United States, who have moved “beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” 

The positive tone of the Visitation Report shouldn’t be interpreted to indicate that the Vatican has given an overall bill of clean health to women’s religious life in the United States. There is much that’s good and healthy, but there is also a lot that’s necrotic — and those who love women religious and who love the Church they serve must not be afraid to state and confront the obvious issues. 

The report noted that 22 percent of women’s religious institutes in the United States refused to participate in the Visitation at all, a rejection of CICLSAL’s authority that its leader, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, called a “painful disappointment.”

The report observed that the number of women religious in the United States has fallen from 181,000 in 1965 to 50,000 today and that the median age is mid-to-late 70s. 

The report declared that young candidates “often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life.” This is a tactful way of saying that many older religious don’t wear habits distinctive of their consecrated identity and don’t live in community but in apartments on their own, a worrisome trend contrary to the community life that is central to Christian, not to mention religious, life. 

The report mentioned that institutes generally have “written guidelines for the reception of the Sacraments and sound Spiritual practices” but asked “each institute to evaluate its actual practice of Liturgical and common prayer.” The translation is that many communities aren’t following their own guidelines regarding prayer and providing Sisters’ access to Mass and Confession. 

The report called upon “all religious institutes carefully to review their Spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, Creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption” and “not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith.” In other words, various communities’ practices are neither centered on Christ, nor even in alignment with Church doctrine on Christ as the Creator, Emmanuel and Savior. 

These are all issues about which many Sisters in various communities had written to the Vatican, because their communities were being divided and even destroyed by them. CICLSAL responded with the Visitation, not to punish but to reform. 

As the report noted, the Year for Consecrated Life just begun is an opportunity not only for all religious women to renew their vocations according to their founding charisms and the mind and heart of the Church. 

It’s also a summons for all the faithful to pray and express our appreciation and gratitude for those women who have heard God’s call — most of whom continue to give their lives heroically and faithfully in service of Him and others, and some of whom are in need of special prayers, help and guidance to realign themselves with the Church in order to experience the revitalization of their religious life that this Year for Consecrated Life and the Apostolic Visitation are intended to foster. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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