Will visitation of U.S. religious communities of women be objective?

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


I did not intend to comment on the Vatican’s decision late last year to conduct a visitation of religious communities of women in the United States because I expected such a study, to be done under the auspices of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, to come up more or less empty handed as did the Vatican’s earlier study of U.S. seminaries and theologates.

I may, of course, hear from some seminary quarters itemizing a few of the negative results of that previous study. I would welcome such input and would want to assure the sources in advance of complete confidentiality.

I experienced a change of mind about the study of women religious in the U.S., however, when I learned earlier this year that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has initiated a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership of Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest of its kind in North America.

In light of previous statements made about religious life by the cardinal-prefect of the Vatican congregation, Franc Rodé, one has reason to wonder how objective and dispassionate the visitation of religious communities of women in the U.S. will be.

According to a report posted by Neil W. McCabe for The Boston Pilot (2/13/09), the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, Cardinal Rodé delivered the keynote address at a symposium on religious life at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., last September.

In that address the cardinal pointed out that religious orders that stressed the continuity of Vatican II with the authentic tradition of the church did not suffer the same crisis in vocations as those that interpreted the council’s changes as a rupture from that tradition.

I know of no religious community, of women or of men, that interpreted the changes brought about by Vatican II as a "rupture" from the tradition of the church. Nor did the cardinal name any. We are dealing here with a classic case of setting up a "straw man" (or, in this instance, a "straw woman") and then easily knocking it over.

The cardinal-prefect listed four distinct approaches to religious life today: new communities that bring energy to old traditions, older communities that have revived their traditions, and older communities that have, according to The Boston Pilot, simply accepted their decline and have acquiesced. Again, no examples were given.

Cardinal Rodé described the fourth approach in even more ominous terms. He claimed that "there are those who have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to ‘stay’ in the church physically."

At least the cardinal did not say that such communities have remained in the Catholic Church only because they know that they can do more harm to the church from the inside than from the outside. This very charge was made some years ago in a classroom lecture by a professor at The Catholic University of America with reference to the English Catholic layman, Lord Acton.

Nonetheless, Cardinal Rodé’s was a serious allegation and should not have been made without evidence. Perhaps it is expected that such "evidence" will be gathered during the course of the visitation of religious communities of women in the U.S. and in the CDF’s investigation of the LCWR.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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