My sister Mary emailed me today with a question about the upcoming Vatican Visitation of US religious communities. Since her colleagues in the surgery department were talking about it, Mary wanted something of an inside scoop. Her subject line ("Nuns vs. Vatican?") seems to sum up what is going through many people's minds.
Just yesterday I read an essay on the matter by the brilliant Sr. Sandra Schneiders. Rather than dealing with the substance of the Visitation (which can be at least deduced by a review of the questions) Schneiders focuses on the process, likening it to a grand jury or a "sting" operation. (To dismiss the appointed Visitor as "an unknown among U.S. women religious who include in their number a virtual "hall of fame" of outstanding, highly credible women .... [and who] belongs to a small order with one small province in the United States" was just cheap.)
Early in the essay, Schneiders hints that the key issues will be clothing and convents, and maybe some demographic problems. All of these she dismisses blithely. It bothers me that even now some of the women who made such rapid, almost frenzied changes in the externals of their life can't bring themselves to consider the possibility that it may not have proven all that prophetic in the end, or that some values that they did not fully recognize at the time really were compromised. Later in the essay, Schneiders dismisses the drastic drop in vocations with an appeal to increased opportunities for women and the decreased size of Catholic families. I was a teenager in the 70's. No way was I even tempted to throw in my lot with a group of women whose behavior at the time was so grotesquely immature. I could not have been the only Catholic girl who saw things that way. Could that possibly have had something to do with the precipitous decline in entrances? But that is all past, not issues of the present day, and certainly not something that would provoke a Visitation forty years too late to make a difference.
According to the New York Times, the Visitation is prompted by the witness of "nuns 'who have opted for ways that take them outside' the church" (quoting Cardinal Rodé, head of the Vatican office that oversees religious communities). As an example, I can cite the current issue of "New Theology Review": Fr. Robin Ryan, CP, writes of "some religious [who] no longer, or only on rare occasions, participate in the celebration of the Eucharist" because the presider is male. If you're the Vatican, that's a big problem, because the Eucharist is the heart of the Church's life, and religious life belongs essentially to the life and holiness of the Church. (Among the questions that form the basis of the Visitation, several concern the celebration of the Eucharist.)
It is more than possible that there are some communities or some individual religious who believe they are carrying out a prophetic role in the Church by protesting patriarchy or redefining religious life or going "beyond Christ." They may believe they are called to be instruments of change, leading the People of God into new, daring places. If so, they must have expected to put their necks on the line at some point. Or has it all been just a game, with the prophets of change hedging their bets the whole time, assuming that the Church would never ask the questions they didn't want to (or just couldn't) answer? Some reactions sure make it look that way.
All that said, part of the pique is that the questions seem mostly directed to the "progressive" side of religious life. There are many communities that would be considered "traditional" which have unique (and serious) troubles of their own, but those issues do not seem to be on the front burner. (It probably would have been wise for the Vatican to be more inclusive!)
Since religious life belongs by its nature to the life and holiness of the Church, and is not some sort of third-level decoration or option, the Church has every right to see to it that it is being lived as a witness to the truth of the Kingdom of God, the universal redemption of Jesus, and the transformation of our minds by the Holy Spirit, and not according to the spirit of the age we happen to be in.
Interestingly, today's liturgy has something of a connection overall. Gideon, called by God to rescue Israel from its enemies, looks at himself and sees the least significant member of the least significant family of the tribe of Manasseh. Peter looks on as the rich young man turns and walks away, taking all his advantages and connections with him. Gideon, with no strength of his own, finds his peace in God's promise to be with him. Peter and the others who "have given up everything" can count on Jesus to do what is impossible for human beings, but not for God. It's no different for the religious of the over 400 women's communities in the US. So please pray for the good outcome of the Visitation. There's also a Facebook page where you can commit to pray for this; you'll also get updates about the Visitation.