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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > October 2009 > The Vatican's Investigation of Women Religious in America
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The Vatican’s Investigation of Women Religious in America

By Rev. Robert Barron / From Catholic New World

In recent weeks, a number of angry voices have been raised to protest the Vatican’s inititative to investigate communities of American nuns. To give just one example, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin strongly critiqued the move, arguing that it represents just another example of an out of touch, patriarchal church persecuting those who refuse to cooperate with it. “These investigations,” Marin argues, “are about dissent in the Catholic church and how to stop it.” And this particular attack, she says, is directed at the very people who, for years, did most of the grunt work of the church, laboring away for slave wages, even as priests lived high on the hog: “While diocesan priests lived in rectories with more rooms than they could use…the sisters lived in tiny cells, did their own scrubbing and potato peeling and provided the church with a dirt-cheap work force.”

Now there is usually a grain of truth in a caricature, and Marin’s is no exception. There were too many nuns in the pre-conciliar period who were treated with disrespect by priests, and there certainly was a kind of systemtic sexism that marked the church, as it marked almost every institution prior to, say, the 1970’s. However, I feel obliged to observe that the sisters in question had taken, of their own free will, vows of poverty so that they could serve Christ and his mission with utter devotion. In this regard, they were identical to thousands of men religious—Dominicans, Jesuits, Carmelites, Benedictines, etc.—who did their fair share of “grunt work” for practically no compensation. To characterize such people, therefore, as a “dirt-cheap workforce” is grossly to miscontrue the nature of their vocation.

But none of this speaks to my principal objection. As I mentioned, Marin interprets the Vatican’s move as basically a display of ecclesiastical power, “an assertion of control,” to use her own words. Well, there’s control and there’s control. I mean, there is petty interference designed simply to express the domination of the one in power; and there is legitimate tending of the fundamental identity of the institution. I would suggest strongly that the Vatican’s move fits much more neatly under the latter heading. And for evidence, I would draw your attention to a keynote address given by Dominican Sr. Laurie Brink to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in August of 2007. The LCWR has been, since the 1950’s, the most significant representative body of the leadership of sisters in this country.

In her speech, Sr. Brink laid out four models for the future of religious women in America. The first she called “death with dignity and grace.” This is the path pursued by those who see their congregations as simply moribund and are striving to find the best way to bring things to a close. The second model she called “acquiescence to others’ expectations,” by which she means the route taken by a number of newer congregations to follow the promptings of John Paul II and to embrace the habit and more traditional forms of religious life. The fourth paradigm she called “reconciliation for the sake of mission.” Those on this path attempt to bring together the many warring factions within the church—clergy and laity, men and women, liberals and conservatives, etc.—in order to foster the great mission of Jesus. So far, so good—more or less.

But the third model that Sr. Brink proposes—what she calls “sojourning”—is much more problematic. This “dynamic option,” she says, “involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” No longer ecclesiastical, sojourning sisters have “grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion,” and they search for the Holy in “all of creation” and in the many religions of the world. Sr. Brink quotes an American sister walking this path: “I was rooted in the story of Jesus, and it remains at my core, but I’ve also moved beyond Jesus.” She’s honest enough to admit that those on the sojourning way have “left the religious home of their fathers and mothers,” but she praises them as “courageous women among us” who may “very well be providing a glimpse into the new thing that God is bringing about in our midst.” Nowhere in her address does she suggest that there is anything substantially wrong with this third model; in fact, she insists that all four models are viable alternatives for religious women in America.

Well, as Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13” would say, “Houston, we have a problem.” A Christian can respect and admire other religious figures and founders, but she cannot move “beyond” the one who is the Logos of God and who described himself as the “way, the truth, and the life.” A Catholic Christian can become impatient with the institutional church, even sharply critical of it (as Catharine of Siena was); but he cannot leave the church behind, as though it were an incidental vehicle. The sort of relativization of truth that is essential to Sr. Brink’s third model is directly repugnant to the self-understanding of the Catholic Church.

Now, one could certainly argue that the speech I’ve been analyzing represents only one person’s opinion. Perhaps. But I think that’s precisely what the Vatican quite rightly wants to determine.

Posted: 10/15/2009 11:03:41 AM by Word On Fire | with 12 comments
Filed under: CarolMarin, LaurieBrink, Nuns, Vatican

Fr. Carl Zoucha
Thank you, Fr. Barron, for you insight into what is problematic in the attitude and vision of way too many religious congregations, both men and women. I would add that the second model, the 'acquiescence to others expectations', probably meaning either a blind following or a resigning to because there is no other way out. And the Sisters who recaptured what was beautiful, inspiring, and fruitful, not to mention very Gospel-like, and pledge allegiance to the Catholic Church are the Sisters who are attracting vocations. We will see which 'model' is still around in 100 years, or longer.
10/15/2009 12:31:23 PM
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I know a lot of people in the Episcopal Church who meet the definition of "sojourner" very well. Its part of New Age syncretism and a logical extension of Protestantism, I think, where everyone gets their own interpretation--gets to make it up as they go along. This is the front line for Christianity. I've been on Franciscan retreats which, unfortunately, this "sojourning" stuff was pushed, in which "follow your bliss" was a gospel that shoved out what could have been far more interesting, uplifting and nuanced presentations of how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. There's a kind of Gresham's law of bad religion driving our good here, because the New Age/therapeutic stuff appears more popular, more accessible, more hip. Fr. Barron, your article/video on this is right on target.
10/15/2009 2:13:51 PM
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Ruth Ann Pilney
Yes, I have read about these angry voices. I have listened to a few Sisters thoughts and feelings about the matter. I even read Sister Laurie Brink's keynote address that you cited, and, while impressed with her Biblical scholarship, I, too, was both surprised and upset with the sojourning model.

One thing that you didn't seem to clarify in this essay is that there are two different investigations underway. One is of the various congregations of Sisters under the auspices of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the other is of the LCWR under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Because both are happening somewhat concurrently, each seems to get confused with the other. It seems to me the latter investigation is related to or precipitated by Sr. Laurie Brink's address. The other "investigation" is actually called an Apostolic Visitation and is focusing on the "quality of life" of the Sisters, rather than on doctrinal/theological issues.

My hope is that the outcomes of both initiatives will be for the good of the Sisters and of the Church. That's my prayer.
10/15/2009 5:24:03 PM
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Kell Brigan
Totally serious question (from a feminist female-type pious Catholic person): how does the "sojourning" model differ from being a Unitarian Universalist? This is what I just don't get -- why are these non-Catholics so determined to change Catholicism when they can just convert to another religion that already exists? They could even remain a religious order (although sorting out real estate, missions and finances might get interesting.) What the "sojourner" model is saying is that the women following it have converted to a different religion. Why don't they get that?
10/16/2009 7:42:05 PM
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Florencia Clemons
If the Vatican wants to do a visitation,on U.S.nuns,let them come see suggest,after all they do have a right to see what's happening. They're are many good Sisters and Nuns doing God's work,honoring their vocation and vows.What's going on in the Church today,is about finding a common ground. People like Ms Marin and definitely Christopher
Hitchens don't get it religion and God and that's very sad. Priests and Sisters step outside the box, when they discern they have a vocation,because to the world they're not fulfilling their "promise",and wasting their talents ,by choosing God over material things. The Sisters and Nuns run tight ships
and can take criticism and make it work. They know their weaknessesand strenghts. let the Sisters take care of their business ,and Ms marin mind her own,and the soujourners keep soujourning. If you have God in your life,what more do you need ?

Florencia Clemons
12/9/2009 10:53:25 PM
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With all respect, I think that saying "let the sisters take care of their business" is like saying let´s go hiking through the Rocky mountains with just one eye open.

Sometimes when my husband is working at his garage, trying to build or fix something, and he is stuck he calls me and he asks my opinion. Now, my background as mechanic is 0, but in many occasions just the way I look at things or even the questions I ask him will give him the answer he was looking for.

What I mean is that we need male and female perspective for everything,and the Church is built by men and women together.

With this I am not saying that we need a Pope woman or priest women. I don´t see the need, but within the Body of Christ we, as women, have been given tools and insights, intuition and a different kind of wisdom that complement the one God gave to men. In the same way men have a complete different way to look at a problem and they can help us to see things more clear and to go beyond what we thought we could go. All this is possible if we work in unity, complementing each other.

Male and Female cannot be two separated worlds, nuns and priests or friars cannot work well separated.

Some of the great Founders are Saint couples, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Claire and that wonderful couple of mother and son, St. Monica and St. Agustin. The best one is Jesus and Mary 24 7 working together.

There is a Spiritual give and receive between feminine and masculine and this giving and receiving is written in our hearts.

About sojourning, if that means that we are learning from other religions but with our Hearts and minds in Christ, I don´t see the problem. So many times I´ve learned wonderful things from other religions and I´ve felt thankful for that.

Well, this is just my opinion.
Thank you again for your time.
God´s Blessings
1/2/2010 12:28:04 PM
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Sandra Mathias
Thank you Father Barron for voicing this issue. What many secular and lay people fail to recognise is that the Accountability due to the Vatican is in the form of a gentle Father who oversees and comes to share in the work of his children. Here is a time for religious women to welcome the grace that will come through this search for God's will. May there be sufficient Light and Grace to reveal truth and Light to bring clarity to areas coveed in the muck of 'dead habit'. Where things need Grace may there be a Breeze and a fresh one of the Holy Spirit. May the Truth be revealed in grace and the Mission of Christ be ever renewed!

God Bless
2/1/2010 12:27:15 AM
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Andrew Onder
Dear Fr. Barron;
I am 86 yrs. old and have witnessed many ups and downs in the church over the years. I am concerned about some liberal attitudes that have crept into church thinking. We should be more diligent in following the truth as it has been given by the Magisterium( the papacy) and stop inventing our own truth. I truly enjoyed some of the comments made by sincere people in this article on the sisterhood.
I pray that all sisters will remain faithful to their true calling in their religious vocations.
Sincerely in JMJ----Andrew Onder
3/5/2010 1:39:17 PM
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Con Carroll
the Gospels are about political social economic solidarity with people who are alienated. if the vatican doesnt accept this. then ignore their interference
3/23/2010 4:16:29 PM
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Bonnie Waletzko
Coming home from Colorado several years ago I had the opportunity to visit with a Sister on the plane. We had a lively discussion and then as we were landing in Mpls. she shocked me when she said she was working towards women becoming priests and for priests to marry!

All this 'sojourning' is just more of the Martin Luther/protestant pathway, and as the Bible says, evil is working to take down the Church from within as well as without the walls of the Church. But I have faith in Jesus Christ's promise to the Apostles [which includes all Popes] that He will be with His Church for all time and that satan will not prevail.

If the 'new idea' goes against our teaching Church which is the pillar and foundation of Truth--it is just another heresy trying to get a foothold in the Church. Satan never rests. If you cannot accept Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the light,--He gave you a freewill—you can leave, start another denomination, or choose one of the 30,000 or more since the reformation, but quit trying to tear down Jesus Christ’s Church.
Bonnie Waletzko
6/4/2010 9:47:41 AM
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I say NO to Sojourning! If you can't bring yourself to follow and promote Church teachings then you are 'outside' the Church.

The more I hear about sisters like this who are obviously confused I realize why so many laity are confused. It's time to end the confusion!
10/28/2010 1:22:05 PM
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Titus Taube, MD
Thank you Sr. Kasandra! After reading this blog I was beginning to fear all the convent lights had been turned out and the doors shuttered, with all remaining formerly holy sisters wandering in the desert seeking "Sojourning mirages"! The silence of your fellow sisters who would seem to understand their true calling is deafening. God bless you in your work.

Ti Taube, MD
4/2/2012 7:16:52 PM
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