The fight over health care reform?
No, the fight over the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States.
That fight has been verbal in nature, but that does not mean it hasn't been more than a little testy. An example, from a recent NPR article:
"As women religious, we wouldn't believe that we've done anything to create the need for this," says Nancy Schreck, president of Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa. "It feels like an affront to us."
Schreck says the Vatican typically only launches this kind of inquiry when a group goes seriously astray. Even after the priest sex-abuse crisis, she notes, the Vatican refrained from investigating the priesthood or men's orders in the U.S., although it did conduct a visitation at seminaries. Schreck wonders if Rome is putting the sisters' behavior in the same category.
"I can't help but have some suspicion about where this is coming from and who's really behind it and what they're trying to do," she says.
Sister Schreck's deflective technique is one my four-year-old uses on a regular basis: "Why am I in trouble for hitting my sister? She called me a 'meany-head'! Why isn't she in trouble?" (Well, son, she is, but that's not the issue at hand, now is it?)
The piece, written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, is titled, "America's Nuns Suspicious Of Vatican Probes". That title, needless to say, is misleading; it should be: "Some of America's Nuns Suspicious Of Apostolic Visitation." Or, "Some of America's Nuns Suspicious of Catholic Doctrine, Practice, and Devotion."
The piece is only partially correct in saying the focus is on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), as the apostolic visitiaton "is intended to comprehensively assess and encourage the growth of Catholic Institutes of women religious in the United States who engage in apostolic works." The LCWR has had enjoyed a nearly forty-year-long reign, representing about 90% of the women religious in the U.S. But its numbers are decreasing and, as Ann Carey explains in her recent CWR article, "Post-Christian Sisters," the Vatican has been working (slowly, but hopefully surely) to clean the LCWR house of dissent and heterodoxy:
Yet the LCWR continues to want to have its ecclesial cake and step on it too, as the NPR piece indicates:
Schreck and others believe Rome is trying to stamp out the last vestiges of Vatican II — the 1960s Vatican effort to liberalize the church, after which sisters took a new approach to ministry. Many traded their habits — the traditional nun's garment — for street clothes and left their convents for apartments closer to those they served. Others became activists for the poor and immigrants, and some advocated for gay rights and the ordination of women.
Sister Camille D'Arienzo, a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, says these actions are at odds with the more conservative views of the church headed by Pope Benedict XVI.
"I don't know what they're afraid of," she says. "What I would guess is some of the more conservative bishops in the U.S. might see the sisters moving with spirit of Vatican II in a way they're not comfortable with. So it may be some effort to kind of rein us in."
Of course, one problem with the elusive and ever-elastic "spirit of Vatican II" is that it apparently has all of the character and substance of a conspiracy theory. Evidence against it is often explained away as a failure of rigid, factually-minded people to appreciate that lack of evidence is itself a form of evidence. Only those who really understand "the spirit of Vatican II" are worthy to identify it, explain it, promote it, and otherwise demand slavish devotion to it. Since I've not been initiated into the inner sanctum of The Spirit of Vatican Club House, I'm forced to fall back on the documents of Vatican II, in particular, Perfectae Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life. Oddly enough, the document doesn't talk about the joys of Zen Catholicism, or the need for polyester Action Nun Wear, or the call to question the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Not at all:
5. Members of each institute should recall first of all that by professing the evangelical counsels they responded to a divine call so that by being not only dead to sin (cf. Rom. 6:11) but also renouncing the world they may live for God alone. They have dedicated their entire lives to His service. This constitutes a special consecration, which is deeply rooted in that of baptism and expresses it more fully.
Since the Church has accepted their surrender of self they should realize they are also dedicated to its service.
This service of God ought to inspire and foster in them the exercise of the virtues, especially humility, obedience, fortitude and chastity. In such a way they share in Christ's emptying of Himself (cf. Phil. 2:7) and His life in the spirit (cf. Rom. 8:1-13).
Faithful to their profession then, and leaving all things for the sake of Christ (cf. Mark 10:28), religious are to follow Him (cf. Matt. 19:21) as the one thing necessary (cf. Luke 10:42) listening to His words (cf. Luke 10:39) and solicitous for the things that are His (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32).
It is necessary therefore that the members of every community, seeking God solely and before everything else, should join contemplation, by which they fix their minds and hearts on Him, with apostolic love, by which they strive to be associated with the work of redemption and to spread the kingdom of God.
6. Let those who make profession of the evangelical counsels seek and love above all else God who has first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:10) and let them strive to foster in all circumstances a life hidden with Christ in God (cf. Col. 3:3). This love of God both excites and energizes that love of one's neighbor which contributes to the salvation of the world and the building up of the Church. This love, in addition, quickens and directs the actual practice of the evangelical counsels.
Drawing therefore upon the authentic sources of Christian spirituality, members of religious communities should resolutely cultivate both the spirit and practice of prayer. In the first place they should have recourse daily to the Holy Scriptures in order that, by reading and meditating on Holy Writ, they may learn "the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:8). They should celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the holy sacrifice of the Mass, with both lips and heart as the Church desires and so nourish their spiritual life from this richest of sources.
So refreshed at the table of divine law and the sacred altar of God, they will love Christ's members as brothers, honor and love their pastors as sons should do, and living and thinking ever more in union with the Church, dedicate themselves wholly to its mission.
(And, regarding religious dress: "The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed." (par. 17). I've spent some time on the LCWR site, and I cannot find one picture of a sister in a religious habit, unless you count sweaters as a "habit". In contrast, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious site is filled with pics of women religious in habits. Go figure.)
An example of the identity politics can be found in an August 18th piece on the Change.org site titled, "The Vatican is Looking to See if 59,000 Nuns Support Homosexuality". The piece calmly notes that "many women religious are saying that this amounts to an inquisition" and helpfully explains, "Of course, one question seems to have people thinking that this might be the beginning of a witchhunt. Here it is: 'What's the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church?'":
This should be filed under "Get Over Yourself and Your Lifestyle" and be immediately forgotten, but this type of misrepresentation will likely only escalate in volume and anger. After all, the piece ends by stating, "But given the overtones of the current Pope and his Papal administration, red flags are certainly prevalent that this might just be an effort to stamp out religious folk who think that Jesus was a human rights activist instead of a partisan fundamentalist." The "progressive" site, Religious Dispatches, is no better, posting a longer piece, "American Nuns Under the Vatican Microscope" (Aug. 17, 2009), by Mary E. Hunt, which employs the same sort of angry, irrational "Us vs. Them" rhetoric:
The piece is a revealing exercise in spiritually-sterile, politically-motivated rage, complete with a mocking description of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious as "the Vatican’s favored daughters, the good girls in veils whose model of religious life conforms to the dictates of Rome." Can you believe that some Catholics still think Rome has a right to say anything about what Catholics believe! What is this, the 1950s??
Put bluntly, the LCWR is has been aiding and abetting—nay, actively promoting—the steady extinction of women religious in the U.S. for forty years, usually in the name of empty clichés and politically-correct fads. The nuns of the spirit of Vatican II insist the future is theirs, but they don't even have a future, as the average age of the enlightened, progressive sisters is over 70 and young women aren't exactly pounding on the doors to be let in. "Within our own lifetime," cracked Max Lindenman, "white, liberal nuns may become as much a curiosity as white, liberal heavyweight boxers." But the LCWR and its supporters have taken the desperate "reality be damned" approach, which never ends well. "Whether there are three nuns or three million is not the issue," Hart blusters unconvincingly, "What has changed (and the Vatican wishes hadn’t) is the fact that Catholic women, including nuns, think and act on their own without relying on male authorities to tell them how."
That's a telling remark, one that flies in the face of Chirst's declaration, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). If the LCWR doubts or denies the Magisterium has been given teaching authority from Christ, it is exposed as dissenting and heretical; if it claims to have its own unique authority, it severs itself from communion with the Church. Which is why, I'm sure, the LCWR's response to the news of the apostolic visitation is shot through palpable anxiety and frustration, as well as tired references to "creative fidelity" (better described as "disingenuous dissent"). Meanwhile, the CMSWR's simple, one paragraph response states, "The Council welcomes the visitation and we ask our membership to pray for this endeavor and to cooperate in whatever way necessary in order that the visitation will be a fruitful outcome for all women religious in the United States for the sake of the Church."
Rebellion or Obedience. Those are the choices for every Catholic. And those are the choices for the LCWR.
• Fr. Powell, O.P., has a very helpful post, "The red-herrings of the LCWR" (Aug. 19, 2009)
• This April 16, 2009, post on the Te Deum laudamus blog has some helpful background info and some links.
• "Post-Christian Sisters," by Ann Carey (Catholic World Report, July 2009)