In her email, Sr. Schneiders, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, writes,
I am not inclined to get into too much of a panic about this investigationwhich is what it is . . . I do not put any credence at all in the claim that this is friendly, transparent, aimed to be helpful, etc. It is a hostile move and the conclusions are already in. It is meant to be intimidating. But I think if we believe in what we are doing (and I definitely do) we just have to be peacefully about our business, which is announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, fostering the Reign of God in this world. We cannot, of course, keep them from investigating. But we can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house. When people ask questions they shouldn’t ask, the questions should be answered accordingly.
Further along she adds,
I have come to the conclusion that Congregations like ours [the kind represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in this country] have, in fact, birthed a new form of Religious Life.
Sister and her associates seem to have birthed a form of Religious Life that no longer receives “everyone as Christ” but parcels out the hospitality like upper-crust dames who will nod at the social climbers (and even condescend to having them to tea, if it will dispense with an obligation) but who will have the place fumigated once the undeserving have finally been shown the door. Sounds like she’ll count the teaspoons, too.
Schneiders is passionate to a fault, protesting too much that she is not really bothered by the impending visitation, while simultaneously implying that the visitors--women religious appointed by Franc Cardinal Rodé, Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life--are mere extensions of the dreaded “hierarchy,” and therefore, lesser sorts. She does not come right out and call these sisters “traitors to their sex," but she condescendingly allows that those religious, “represented by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, or CMSWR (of whom the Vatican is much more approving)” may have “deepened their spirituality (I hope)” after absorbing the Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis. But the pride in which she declares, “we read Perfectae Caritatis through the lenses of Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium and we were called out of the monastic/apostolic mode and into the world . . .” suggests that there are the “good” religious, and then the “better” ones.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating the actions of a community one loves and serves, but Sr. Schneiders' tone is rather elitist, which is incongruous with the life of humility and obedience to which a sister--even a progressive one birthing new forms of the life--is presumably vowed. Coupled with the cynicism that dismisses out-of-hand the possibility that the visitation could be anything less than a hostile takeover (with an ever-present threat, apparently, of “violence”), Schneider’s “new form of Religious Life . . . Religious who are not cloistered and ministers who are not ordained” sounds like it promotes a selective sort of openness--one so narrow that the Holy Spirit may have to suck in His breath and slide in sideways to get access.
Sr. Schneiders should take some comfort in the knowledge that Mother Clare Millea, who is leading the visitation project, is Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a rare congregation that belongs to both the liberal-leaning Leadership Conference of Women Religious and to the more conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
“That says a lot right there,” said Sr. Eva-Maria Ackerman to NCR’s John Allen. A member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, Sr. Ackerman is handling communications for the project. She adds:
It goes along with the type of person Mother Clare is. She has a real respect for religious of all backgrounds and outlooks. I know she wants to open this initiative up to the superiors general, and to give them a chance to share from the heart what will be helpful for her to know.
Religious women are doing many generous works in a variety of fields, and these days they’re often doing those works with fewer people. Many are now older women who in the past wouldn’t have had to work for so long. Financial issues go along with that as well. With fewer sisters working, there are greater retirement needs, greater health care needs, and so on. The idea of this study is to address all of those concerns, and to come up with something that will be beneficial to religious in the long run to help them to revitalize and to renew.
Well, they may talk a good game, these other sisters, with their habits and their submission to “the hierarchy.” And surely Sr. Schneiders would never call them liars. But it is clear that Schneiders and her colleagues are not having any of it.
“This is a fake war being stirred up by the Vatican at the instigation of the frightened,” Schneiders writes. “What is the worst thing that can happen from this investigation? They are surely not going to shut down 95% of the Religious Congregatons [sic] in this country, even if they’d like to . . .”
It is doubtful that the sisters involved with the visitation would “like to” see any congregations shut down; apostolic women religious have been the sympathetic nervous system of American Catholicism for 200 years, and sisters, whether habited or not, cannot like to see their numbers dwindle. Acknowledging that many religious orders are aged and attracting few new vocations seems reasonable, pro-active, and sensible if Rome is to gauge the future needs of both the sisters and the people they serve. Despite Sr. Schneider’s dramatic conceit, there is little evidence that “they” are looking to “shut down” congregations that are already fading and will disappear in due season.
In fact, in a move toward “transparency” the apostolic visitation has established a website, which Sr. Ackerman says will be expanded as the study grows. “We’d like to get photos from these communities, because there are so many congregations out there doing so many good things. We want to show the face of religious life to people who visit the site. We also hope to have links to articles that appear as time goes on. The primary purpose of the site, however, is as an instrument for people to see what the visitation is all about.”
“The institutional Church has always resisted the new in Religious Life, especially among women,” writes Schneiders. “But the new will continue to happen. At this moment in history, we are it.”
In truth, Sr. Schneiders was “it” in 1972. Religious Life for women in the United States will be defined in the next few decades by those orders that manage to thrive in a world where the values of chastity, humility, and obedience are misunderstood. What is “new” and “it” at this moment in history--younger women taking back the habit and the breviary (even as they establish a variety of ministries in preaching, in the streets, hospitals, schools, retreat houses, and elsewhere) and expressing fealty to Rome--is as counter-cultural and even radical as Schneiders and her now-establishment sisters used to be.
Elizabeth Scalia blogs at The Anchoress.