The Vatican recently initiated a major reform of women’s religious in America. Particularly targeted was the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which represents about 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 women religious. The reform comes in light of a hardened defiance against Catholic morality in areas of family life and human sexuality and is meant to ensure the nuns’ fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.
While we often hear about the present day priest shortage, few seem aware that all religious communities, great and small, male and female, contemplative, active or mixed, if not strictly decimated, have been reduced to a fraction of their former selves in the course of the past fifty years. In Canada, the U.S. and Western Europe, nuns are vanishing at an alarming rate. A recent study by the U. S. National Religious Vocation Conference found the number of nuns in the United States had fallen a stunning 66% over the past four decades. In Canada, there are 19,000 nuns, down 54% from 42,000 in 1975. Indeed, at the beginning of the sixties, Quebec was the region of the world with the highest number of women religious in relation to the population. Today, all sociologists agree that unless there is a reversal of the present trend, women’s religious life as we have known it will be only a memory in Canada.
Pope Benedict XVI has reduced the problem mainly to a certain “radical feminism” that has crept into women’s religious orders causing an identity crisis among active orders and congregations. Women religious, the pope says, have turned away from theology and sought liberation in psychologists and psychoanalysts who can only say at most how the forces of the mind function but not why and to what purpose.
After Vatican II, religious communities began every kind of reform imaginable: abandonment of the religious habit, degrees at secular universities, insertion into secular professions, a massive reliance on every type of “specialist.” Not surprisingly, modern secular values were often uncritically adopted and the concept of “love of neighbor” was soon replaced by that of “social welfare.” In the process Christianity gradually became reduced to an ideology of doing. Pope John Paul II later warned against this minimalist approach saying that the true leaders are those who are “profoundly rooted in contemplation and prayer. Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of ‘doing for the sake of doing.’ We must resist this temptation by trying to be, before trying to do.”
A major cause of the decay is a distorting of the evangelical councils by taking them as a psychological and sociological outlook rather than as a special state of life structured in accordance with the counsel Christ gives in the Gospels. True renewal means an adaptation of external activities with a view to a more effective pursuit of holiness. It is begotten by a disgust with weakening of discipline and by a desire for a life that is more spiritual, more prayerful and more austere. Post conciliar reform tends to move from the difficult to the easy or less difficult rather than from the easy to the difficult or more difficult. Today, a religious order questions itself, confronts experiences, demand creativity, searches for a new identity (which implies that it is becoming something other than itself), moves toward building “true communities” (as if for centuries past religious orders had consisted entirely of false communities).
Ultimately the crisis among religious is the result of an excessive conforming to the world, and a taking up of the world’s positions because one has despaired of winning the world over to one’s own. A by no means small or unimportant sign of this alienation is the change in the dress of members of religious orders, inspired by a wish that it should no longer differ from that of secular persons.
This drift in reform of religious life today is parallel to the one governing the reform of the priesthood. On the one hand there is the obfuscation of the difference between the sacramental priesthood and the priesthood of all believers; and on the other, of the difference between a state of perfection and the common state. What is specific to religious life is washed out or watered down in thought and behavior.
Take for example, the three evangelical counsels (chastity, poverty, obedience) that are essential to religious life. Today, there is a certain distaste for chastity. A certain decline in delicacy and care are obvious not only in the widespread slackness in clerical dress, but in the more frequent mixing of the sexes, even on journeys, and in the abandonment of the precautions adopted even by great and holy men. In regards to poverty there is a habitual and at times uncontrollable use of such technology as the television and internet. Of all the counsels, obedience is the one where the drift towards relaxation in religious orders shows itself most clearly. The concept of obedience has been lowered by lowering the principle of authority and mixing it up with a kind of fraternal relationship by means of a fruitful dialogue. True Catholic obedience, however, implies submission to the will of the superior – so long as the command is not manifestly illicit–and not a re-examination of the superior’s command by the one obeying. Catholic obedience does not seek a coinciding of the wills of subject and superiors. Such an agreement negates any sacrifice of one’s own will by conforming it to somebody else’s. It ultimately produces self-government, self-teaching, self-education and even self-redemption.
This weakening in obedience has lead to a weakening of the spirit of unity. Individuals are now left to do the things proper to the religious state as if the community did not exist. Mass is said at anytime, prayer is left to the spirituality of each person. With this aim in mind it is easy to see why religious institutes have virtually disappeared. It is a contradiction in terms to join a community in order to do individually, and on one’s own account, things one has joined the community to do in common.
Not surprisingly, cloistered contemplative orders are under no such Vatican scrutiny. This is because they have withstood very well due to the fact that they are more sheltered from the Zeitgeist, and because they are characterized by a clear and unalterable aim: praise of God, prayer, virginity and separation from the world as an eschatological sign. Their wonderful capacity to give love, help, solace, warmth and solidarity did not give way to the economistic, and trade-union mentality of the “profession.”
We are at a point now when religious life in the Catholic Church should be presenting an alternative to the dominant culture of death, of violence and of abuse, rather than mirroring it. Hopefully the new reform will remedy this.
One thing is clear: sisters need to refocus their communities on the founding charisms or original purpose of their orders. They also need, as a remedy against radical feminism, Mary whose mystery was inserted into the mystery of the Church at Vatican II making her a focal point for the equilibrium and completeness of the Catholic Faith.
When one recognizes the place assigned to Mary by dogma and tradition, one becomes more solidly rooted in authentic Christology. As both a Jewish girl and mother of the Messiah, Mary also binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old.
Finally, according to her destiny as Virgin and Mother, Mary continues to project a light upon that which the Creator intended for women in every age.
Mary is the one who rendered silence and seclusion fruitful. She is the one who did not fear to stand under the Cross. As a creature of courage and obedience she was and will always remain an example to which every Christian man and woman should look.
In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI issued a resounding call for reform in the Catholic Church. He lamented “How much filth there is in the church, and even among those…in the priesthood.” In May, 2010 he reiterated this plea stating: “Today we see in a really terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from the sin in the church.” These exhortations were widely interpreted as references to the sex–abuse scandal affecting the church’s standing in North America and other parts of the world. However, the Pope’s comments were also directed more widely to the phenomenon of modernism that is poisoning the church at its core–the result of decades of liberal exegetical, theological, and “pastoral” creativity in the name of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council. One of the key areas where modernism has been allowed to take root, fester and spread has been women religious.
Thankfully, there are still some very good contemplative orders who have never given up the vision of the Eternal Church and have passed this on to younger religious, who in scattered places preserve the Apostolic faith, much as the monks did on their lonely islands during the Dark Ages. It is with this hope that the church will again be revitalized and become once more a vehicle for re-Christianizing the world.