July 9, 2009 - The July 2 New York Times article "Nuns in U.S. Are Facing Scrutiny by the Vatican" stated that the Vatican action "surprised many because there was no obvious precipitating cause." The fact is, people who have been watching the deterioration of many of the women’s religious orders in this country were not at all surprised. Indeed, many sisters themselves have asked and prayed for Vatican attention to the condition of women’s religious communities.
Certainly there is concern that the numbers of sisters are plunging, and ecclesial properties that were originally built with the pennies of poor Catholic immigrants are being converted to secular use at an alarming rate. But even more critical problems no doubt raised Vatican concern. Men and women who take vows as members of Catholic religious orders are, according to church law, to be dedicated to God, to "the upbuilding of the Church,” and to “the salvation of the world." Church law also directs that religious live and pray in community with other members of their order. The apostolic orders—those that are not cloistered—are to do the apostolate (work) that is particular to their order. In effect, vowed religious become representatives of the Catholic Church, not individual actors who answer to no one but themselves.
In the past 30 to 40 years, however, it has become increasingly common for many sisters to choose work that is totally unrelated to the Catholic Church and to live alone, with very little contact with their orders. More serious is that fact that some sisters dissent from the church’s moral teaching and even advocate openly for causes like abortion access and gay marriage. Most serious is the fact that some sisters no longer believe in some of the basic tenets of the Catholic faith and are not even practicing Catholics.
Likewise, the Vatican’s decision to do a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is not at all surprising. The Vatican assessment is not a case of an outside organization intruding into the internal affairs of a separate group, for such conferences were formed at the request of the Vatican to help the leaders of religious orders exchange information, support each other in building up religious life, and coordinate and cooperate with bishops and the Holy See. (Only the leaders of religious orders—not the members—belong to superiors’ conferences.) So it is appropriate for the Vatican to assess an organization that takes its credibility from Vatican recognition, for without that Vatican recognition, the LCWR would be like any secular organization of professionals and probably would have far fewer members.
The assessment also is not surprising if one considers the stormy relationship the LCWR has had with the Vatican for the past 40 years, for the LCWR has been very clear about its determination to "transform" religious life and change the church itself through what LCWR leaders call "loyal dissent." An important part of the story, too, is the fact that many of the grassroots sisters in these LCWR-affiliated orders do not approve of the direction taken by their leadership, and many sisters have quietly asked the Vatican for help.
The Vatican issued a doctrinal "warning" to the LCWR in 2001, expressing concern about some of the group’s moral and doctrinal positions. Yet, that warning went unheeded, and LCWR leaders continued to speak openly about rejection of basic church tenets. In a 2004 booklet, "An Invitation to Systems Thinking: An Opportunity to Act for Systemic Change," the LCWR addressed the fact that some sisters, schooled in "a holistic, organic view of the world" and in "process, liberationist and feminist theologies … believe that the celebration of Eucharist is so bound up with a church structure caught in negative aspects of the Western mind they can no longer participate with a sense of integrity." The views of these sisters, the booklet advises, must be respected. Vatican officials surely can be expected to wonder why a person who rejects the Eucharist would even want to remain in a religious order, for the Eucharist is considered by Catholics to the "source and summit" of the Christian life.
Perhaps most startling of all was the keynote talk at the 2007 LCWR annual assembly, in which Dominican Sister Laurie Brink, OP, observed that some religious orders had "grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion." And she said that "Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this [kind of] congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian."
Thus, with some Catholic sisters openly rejecting basic tenets of the Catholic faith and others acknowledging that some Catholic religious orders are "post-Christian," where is the surprise in a move by the Vatican to take a closer look at what is going on here? For many people who have watched this situation develop over the years, the real question is: "What took the Vatican so long to do something?"
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1997) and has just published a longer article on this topic in the July 2009 issue of Catholic World Report.