A few short takes on yesterday's report on American nuns by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life:
1. The report itself: I've read it, so you won't have to (you're welcome). As various media statements are saying, it's generally positive, though the praise is interlarded with some critical statements that reflect the well-seeded rumors of wealthy, powerful U.S. Catholics who got the ball rolling on Vatican investigtion of American nuns, when the nuns dared to claim influence in the U.S. public square equal to that of the bishops, as the latter did everything but stand on their heads in the past several election cycles to convince Catholics that voting Democratic would be sinful.
As you assess the positive aspects of the report, keep in mind that the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women by the congregation on consecrated life is only half of a two-pronged investigation. The other is being carried out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the arch-conservative Cardinal Müller, a crony of the emeritus pope Benedict. That investigation report is expected to be far less positive than the one released yesterday was.
On the carping side, here's a statement that stood out for me as I read the report yesterday:
A review of the Constitutions and other directives of apostolic religious institutes generally revealed that institutes have written guidelines for the reception of the sacraments and sound spiritual practices. This Congregation asks the members of each institute to evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer. We ask them to discern what measures need to be taken to further foster the sisters’ intimate relationship with Christ and a healthy communal spirituality based on the Church’s sacramental life and sacred Scripture.
This statement stood out for a variety of reasons. In the first place, the report begins by acknowledging that religious women led the way after Vatican II in reflecting on the charisms of their various religious institutes, and in seeking to return to their founding charisms and live those charisms effectively in the church of the late 20th century. What the report didn't say but might well have said is that religious women set a standard in this regard that male religious communities and male clerics might have done well to emulate — but which male communities and clerics often actively refused to emulate. Because they have imagined women have nothing to teach them, and that Catholic truth resides exclusively among them as Catholic men of God. . . .
If communities of religious women have set an exemplary standard within Catholic religious life for returning to their charisms after Vatican II, and finding ways to live their charisms in the contemporary church, then it's strange, isn't it, to shake one's finger at religious women and to suggest that they aren't praying properly and finding Christ through their communal prayer? The charisms of the various communities of religious women are, after all, manifold, and the forms of religious life that have grown up to serve those charisms are complex and varied.
On what ground does a Vatican congregation (of men) choose to inform religious women who live in all kinds of religious communities with all kinds of spiritualities and ministries that they need to tighten up their prayer practices and become more Christ-centered? If religious women have led the way in the post-Vatican II church in returning Catholic institutions to their charismatic origins and adapting those originating charismatic impulses to contemporary culture, wouldn't it make far more sense for the congregation to have said that the whole church might have much to learn from religious women about prayer and serving Christ?
Instead, the report goes on to insinuate (again) that American nuns have somehow forgotten about Christ, moved away from Christ-centered (and are not sufficiently obedient to the men running the Catholic show):
However, caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith. Truly, the Word of God is the one through whom the cosmos is created and sustained in being since "all things have been created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things have their being (cf. Col. 1:16f).
These are irritating insinuations because they're false insinuations. There's no compelling evidence at all to substantiate the scurrilous rumors of right-wing American Catholics that many nuns have stopped praying and making Christ the center of their religious lives. The Vatican report has no business lending credence to the kind of baseless (and highly politicized) rumors that got the ugly investigation of American nuns going in the first place.
2. David Gibson thinks, however, that at least one effect of this report is that it demonstrates the following:
The church’s conservative echo chamber is broken.
I hope he's correct about that. But I have my doubts. Wealthy right-wing U.S. Catholics have had disproportionate influence in the Vatican for quite some time now. They're the ones driving the investigation of American nuns, since they want to silence nuns's voices as the U.S. bishops anoint the Republican party as God's chosen party for Catholics. And I'm not entirely sure their influence is waning, though it does appear that Pope Francis is willing to listen to more voices than these voices — and if that's the case, then it bodes well for the future of the church, it seems to me. If he chooses to act on some of what he hears from people outside the right-wing echo chamber, that is . . . .
3. Mollie Wilson O'Reilly reminds Commonweal readers of what "Sister X" said as the Vatican investigation got underway several years ago:
Looking at both the visitation and the LCWR investigation, then in their early stages, Sister X said:
What I sense today is that the Vatican will not budge in how it thinks theologically about what it means to be a woman; nor will it consider opening positions of real ecclesial authority to women. There is simply no getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican doesn’t want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars, and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s—and that means men’s—voice and views.
O'Reilly thinks that yesterday's report may portend, if not a sea change in how the Vatican regards women, at least the beginnings of a change. I hope she's right about that, though I have my reservations.
4. Finally, here's Sister Maureen Fiedler on what nuns would prefer to be doing rather than wasting their valuable time and energy justifying their existence to the men in Rome, when conservative watchdogs manufacture reasons to report them to the authorities:
There are more important things for nuns to continue to do with full energy: work for justice for the poor; combat racism, sexism and homophobia; save the planet from the ravages of climate change; improve interfaith relations; work to bring peace to the world. Nuns are leaders in all these areas; they don't need any more distractions from these works -- from the Vatican or elsewhere.