As you may have heard, there was recently an investigation into some women’s religious orders in the United States. Although much as been written on this topic, I’m going to add my two cents, because there seems to be many misconceptions about what is actually going on. A recent Washington Post article, “A Catholic ‘war on women’,” is a perfect example of secular commentary on this issue.
Before going further the difference between nuns and sisters needs to be cleared up. Here’s a great description from the website “A Nun’s Life”:
A Catholic nun is a woman who lives as a contemplative life in a monastery which is usually cloistered (or enclosed) or semi-cloistered. Her ministry and prayer life is centered within and around the monastery for the good of the world. She professes the perpetualsolemn vows living a life according to the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Check out the Carmelite Nuns of Baltimore for example.
A Catholic sister is a woman who does lives, ministers, and prays within the world. A sister’s life is often called “active” or “apostolic” because she is engaged in the works of mercy and other ministries that take the Gospel to others where they are. She professes perpetual simple vows living a life according to the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Check out my community, the IHM Sisters of Monroe, Michigan.
Alright now that that’s cleared up, are you ready for another layer of confusion?
Firstly, there are two organizations for the collaboration of women’s religious orders: the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The Doctrinal Assessment was only conducted with the LCWR. The LCWR is known for being more liberal and sometimes even in conflict with the Church. The assessment was done because there was concern that they were publicly supporting things(like abortion) which directly oppose Church teachings. Since these women are supposed to be representing the Church, that would be reasonable cause for concern.
Working off of the ideas from my last post – the Church should be looked at as a family who are called to serve each other. The vatican is not arbitrarily exercising its power to keep these Sisters in line. It is genuinely concerned that some of its children, who are specially consecrated no less, are veering off the path of truth.
An article from the National Catholic Register put it perfectly:
“Appreciating the Church’s affirmation, love and reverence for the gift of consecrated life is the proper framework for understanding the very purpose of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious undertaken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It is the Church’s responsibility, assumed in love, to safeguard the beauty and gift of consecrated life at all times. This responsibility is most acute when the integrity of consecrated life begins to diminish, evidenced in this case by clear examples of dissent from the hierarchy and lack of authentic ecclesial communion.”
Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR
The document which details the findings of the assessment and lays out a five year plan for renewal of the LCWR has been twisted and blown way out of proportion. It’s not a complicated papal encyclical – it’s an eight page straightforward document which I read myself. It mentions that these orders focus mainly on serving the poor (which it praises them for) but often neglect issues like abortion and sexuality. Somehow this has been misconstrued as a scolding for doing too much for the poor and not condemning gay marriage enough. They are simply being challenged not to shy away from controversial, but important issues.
When did we start loathing obedience?
While researching what is truly an attempt at renewal of women religious, I kept coming back to the vow of obedience. A misunderstanding of this vow seems to be a large part of the problem here. One of the concerns cited in the doctrinal assessment was a lack of proper formation in some orders. This would suggest that some sisters aren’t veering off the path on purpose, but may have been led off by superiors and improper training.
I found this article about an 80 year old sister which would make me angry if it wasn’t so sad. Now it might be slightly skewed, but I think her sentiments come through: she shouldn’t have to listen to the authority of the Church. However, Vita Consecrata, an encyclical written by JPII about the consecrated life, states that religious are called to take a vow of obedience not only to God, but to the Church, their superiors and ultimately the Pope.
Especially here in America, our individualist attitude and distorted idea of freedom have certainly informed our idea of obedience. We hate being told what to do, what to think and how to live our lives. Yet those entering consecrated life are asked to adopt a radically difference idea of obedience, which can be hard to reconcile with what we have been told for our whole lives. I am certainly struggling with this and can already see that obedience will be the most difficult vow for me.
John Paul II suggests that obedience leads to liberation. Obedience means trusting yourself to another person and trusting that she/he knows what is best for you. From Vita Consecrata: “Obedience…shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust.”
All Sisters and Nuns take a vow of obedience, completely by choice and out of love for God. They have been given a tremendous responsibility to be witnesses to the truth. Somehow, many have lost sight of that, despite their best intentions. The Church is simply attempting to call these prodigal daughters back home.
It’s clear to me that our Church cannot lower itself to engage in power struggles. If that’s what is happening here, then something needs to change. We should operate differently than the world: always asking what can I do for the good of my neighbor, and How is God calling me to serve the Church?