Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Final Report: three decades too late

Religious Sisters of Mercy. (Source:
Tuesday, December 16, saw the Holy See’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) release its long-awaited final report on the apostolic visitation of American institutes of women religious. Initiated during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, many of us saw it as the beginning of a thorough house-cleaning, while many nuns and liberals saw it as the beginning of a misogynistic oppression by a patriarchal Church.

The Final Report, however, was not the severe tongue-lashing many orthodox Catholics expected. Between the initiation of the visitation in December 2008 and its conclusion in 2012, the dicastery changed prefects, from the outspoken Lazarist Cdl. Franc Rode to the more conciliatory secular bishop Cdl. João Braz de Aviz. (Secular, in this context, simply means “not attached to any specific religious order”.) Both men have had concerns about the weakening of religious orders by liberalizing trends; +de Aviz said in an interview that he was nearly driven out of the seminary and the Church by liberation theology. Nevertheless, +de Aviz chose to take a more soft-pedaled approach with the skittish, distrusting women religious the Congregation would study.

As a result, the Final Report — which is more of a generalized executive summary — has copious praise for the work women religious have done and are still doing. Specific criticisms are presumably restricted to the reports the Congregation “foresees” will be issued to “those Institutes which hosted an onsite visitation and to those Institutes whose individual reports indicated areas of concern.”

Nevertheless, there is some steel underneath the velvet glove: not every paragraph is either laudatory or exculpating. Moreover, the report points to data which indicate that, for many American institutes, the visitation has come two or three decades too late to save them.

The Devastation of the Apostolic Women Religious

The report truly begins with the words, “Today, the median age of apostolic women religious in the United States is in the mid-to-late 70s. The current number of approximately 50,000 apostolic women religious is a decline of about 125,000 since the mid-1960s, when the numbers of religious in the United States had reached their peak.”

Stop and consider those numbers: from their mid-Sixties peak, only about two out of every seven apostolic religious remain, a decline of over 70%, at a time when the US population was increasing by an average of around 11% every decade, and the Church in the US increased its membership by over 50%.[*] The authors are quick to point out that the explosive post-war growth of the institutes was an historical anomaly. However, so was the “baby boom” that coincided with it. Nor was the deflation coincidental with a devastating “death boom” in either the general population or the institutes. No, the decapitation of the religious institutes was in the main due to abandonment.

This may be the single most spectacular absence in the report — the authors express no interest in discerning or discussing the reasons for the departure of so many women from the institutes. There are three possible explanations for this silence: 1) “We don’t know why it happened;” 2) “We know why it happened, but the why is irrelevant;” or 3) “We know why, and the ‘why’ is relevant, but we’d rather not discuss it here.”

The Consecrated Life Must Be Attractive

The single most critical factor in vocational recruitment is the attractiveness of the consecrated life. If you’re going to ask me to give up my prospects for marriage, family and material reward in exchange for a life of service, you have to show me — not tell me — that the life of people who do give up these things can be happy and fulfilling.

That happiness and fulfillment can’t be fully conveyed by posters, booklets and presentations; it has to radiate from the members of the orders. If I see that you’re bitter, angry, and constantly at loggerheads with the hierarchy and the Vatican, if I see that your communal life is full of sniping, backstabbing, and jealousy, then I’m not likely to become a postulant in your order. Unhappy religious don’t make good recruiters.

Moreover, keeping people in the orders past their formation period and through their final vows requires mutual support. One of the most disturbing revelations in the Final Report comes in Section 4, “Vocation Promotion and Religious Formation”:

Vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life [emphasis mine.—ASL].

I call it “disturbing” because mutual spiritual and vocational support has been the raison d’être for communal living, from the very beginning of the cenobite movement in the fourth century. Solitary religious life isn’t an authentic part of most of these institutes’ charisms; community living shouldn’t have been foregone save by direct — and temporary — necessity. Why, one wonders, would any religious institute de-emphasize or destroy what’s not only a prime guarantor of institutional cohesiveness but also a major “selling point”: the sense that “we’re all in this together”?

“Reformed Into Irrelevance”

One answer to this conundrum lies in the experience of women religious prior to Vatican II. In a column in the December 2006 issue of This Rock, “Where Have All the Sisters Gone?”, Russell Shaw quotes from journalist Ann Carey’s Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities (Our Sunday Visitor, 1997):

… The numbers of women religious were impressive, but the lifestyle often was not. Nuns frequently were exploited and “very seldom consulted about their own needs and ideas.” Many clung to customs no longer suited to their work. The “authoritarian” structure of convent life tended to produce “overworked and over-stressed sisters” who were inadequately prepared for their jobs and “treated like children by superiors and clerics.” In such circumstances, authentic renewal and reform of religious life were badly needed. But not the version of renewal and reform that women religious often got.

The emergence of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, with its Marxist-inspired dialectic of class war between the sexes and its rejection of “patriarchal” authority, ultimately led many women to abandon the orders as centers of oppression. Others took advantage of the newly-issued Vatican II decree Perfectae Caritatis (On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life) to redefine religious life:

Set aside as unnecessary or undesirable were living and praying in community, engaging in corporate apostolates such as staffing Catholic schools and hospitals, obeying superiors, and wearing the religious habit. In their place came individual living arrangements, praying on one’s own schedule in one’s own manner, and lay garb.
In fact, thousands of sisters adopted essentially secular lifestyles and jobs. … [Carey remarks] that, in the name of renewing themselves, most women’s orders “fashioned a new definition of religious life … more descriptive of a secular institute than a religious institute.” … Freelancers who do secular jobs that happen to suit their personal tastes are not acting as members of a religious community in any recognizable sense.

In sum, many orders “reformed” themselves into irrelevance. If being a consecrated religious means essentially doing a job any laywoman can do for more money, while living alone, pursuing a do-it-yourself prayer life, and sacrificing marriage and motherhood — what could be attractive about that? Indeed, the ugly secular pant suits that were for many years associated with the “liberated” orders could stand as symbolic of the orders’ loss of their institutional vocation and sense of their own sacredness.

The Writing on the Wall

The Final Report tells us, “Some institutes reported that they have suspended vocation efforts for a variety of reasons, the most common being the declining membership and the ever-widening age gap between their current members and potential candidates.” Others are continuing their vocational promotions; but “for many … the results are not commensurate with the expectations and efforts.”

There is some hope for the orders that can recruit and retain postulants and novices. Much of that hope resides not only in their current state but also in taking the suggestions of the Final Report to heart: strengthening their communities, reinforcing their authentic spiritual and liturgical practices, revamping their formation programs, and collaborating with the larger Church’s evangelical mission as a vocational centerpoint.

However, for many orders, the writing on the wall needs no interpreter: they’re doomed to be downsized and merged out of existence, as more sisters retire and die. Meanwhile, thousands of young Catholic girls, unlike their grandmothers, will grow up without the experience of happy and fulfilled women religious in their lives. It will be a very long time before the institutes of women religious play a significant role in American parish life again.

[*] While some may argue that the Church’s growth during this period was largely a function of immigration from predominantly Catholic countries, the same argument applies to the growth of the US in general.