American Women Religious: Off the Barricades, Into the Boardroom?

A good part of the media played up the Vatican’s recent Apostolic Visitation of American women religious like the sisters’ gallant last stand against overwhelming force. They were the Communards of Paris, the Jews at Masada, General Wainwright’s “battling bastards” at Corregidor. No one came right out and said they were going to go down gloriously, but then, nobody offered a very detailed picture of what post-Visitation religious life would be like. There was always the dark, if irrational, insinuation that there wouldn’t be any.

According to National Catholic Reporter, our sisters may just have squeaked through — somewhat like the Welshmen at Rourke’s Drift. Sister Kathleen Popko, presisdent of the Sisters of Charity, told a conference of the government and management of the Catholic Health East System that she found the experience beneficial:

Popko said the visitation has underlined some important insights about religious life. She defined women’s orders as “a prophetic life form in the church,” insisting that they are not to be seen as a “work force for ecclesial projects.”

Women religious “strive to work collaboratively with the ordained leadership of the church,” she said, yet they “are not agents of the church enforcing its teachings and policies,” and “must not be co-opted for institutional purposes.”

Popko conceded that putting the accent on the “prophetic” role is in some ways a prescription for conflict, but insisted that’s nothing new. Perusal of the lives of founders in centuries past, she said, reveals that some were forced to leave their dioceses or were removed from leadership, while their fledging communities had their assets taken away or faced other sanctions for “insubordination to the clergy.”

Popko identified five major lessons from the visitation.

First, she said, the visitation has taught women religious to “look inward.” In responding to the
Vatican investigation, she said, women’s orders found a deeper “sense of dignity” and of their own “competence,” rooted in their history and accomplishments. That experience, she said, has fueled “a sense of cohesiveness and solidarity” that will outlast the visitation itself.

Second, Popko said, it’s important “to network and collaborate,” adapting a “flexible but common approach” when confronted with new challenges. Today, she said, the spirit among women’s orders is “the most unified it’s ever been in U.S. history,” a unity she said “happened at the grass roots.”

Third, Popko urged, “Do not stand alone.” Instead, she said, women’s orders have drawn upon canon lawyers, theologians and other experts who have helped them develop a better-informed response to the visitation — including, for instance, how to reply to requests for financial data and other internal information.

Fourth, Popko said, “Maintain engagement,” including with the clergy, the bishops, and various currents within the laity. In responding to the visitation, she said, women’s orders “did not rupture relationships. We’ve kept the conversation going.”

A lot of Church-speak is still Greek to me — even when it’s Latin or English. A dialogue, for expample, has always sounded like a game whose rules are obscure, but which, depending on the wits of the parties, can amount to either a slow grinding-down of the weaker by the stronger, or a slippery subversion of the stronger by the weaker. But if I sometimes miss the words themselves, I can usually pick out general tunes, like defiance and accomodation. Popko’s speech seems to strike a nice balance between the two.

That alone make it newsworthy. For the past 40 years, the Leadership Council for Women Religious seems to have struggled to find just the right spot on that continuum. At times it’s hove hard to the side of defiance, as when LCRW president Sister Mary Whited compared herself and her sisters to “Old Testament midwives, who refused to act on Pharaoh’s orders so that they could bring new life and hope to the people.”

That’s a rattling saber right there. You don’t normally start comparing people to Pharaoh until you’re ready to haul down their statues and melt them for cannon. To declare war without the means of prosecuting it seems, well, a little silly.

Worse, Fr. Michael H. Crosby OFM (Cap), when addressing a joint conference of the LCRW and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men: condemned, “the sinful, structural, and systemic violence that has come to be canonized in a certain understanding of holiness that is increasingly promoted by the highest clerics and their house prophets in our own church.”

As I make these value judgements, I suppose I should lay my own cards on the table. I am a swing voter in all things. I generally swing toward the party that sounds sanest. In 2004, Michael Moore and the Truthers drove me right into the ranks of the GOP. Four years later, hearing Sarah Palin quote Westbrook Pegler on the virtues of small-town life, and accuse Obama of “palling around with terrorists” made a donkey — and a proud one — out of me. A few months later, by which time Obama had become a socialist, a fascist, a Kenyan and a Muslim, I was about ready to join the Greens.

It’s not the sisters’ programme that alienates me so much as the language of revolution they occasionally see fit to employ. Revolutions, as Danton said, have a way of devouring their children. I’m afraid I could end up like Danton himself — one day sporting a cap of Liberty; the next, sporting nothing above the clavicle. One group of self-righteous ideologues looks as bad as another.

Not that the sisters haven’t got their reasons. If your side has no natural purchase, you’ve got to fire yourselves up somehow, and words come cheaper even than beer. All the great rhetorical loogies-in-the-eye were coined by people who believed the odds were against them. Think of King Leonidas’ “Μολὼν λαβέ, Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches,” Dominic Behan’s “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans.” After you’ve won you can talk about charity toward all and malice toward none, but not before.

It’s the last rule that makes me hopeful. If the sisters are now talking in terms of engagement, networking and collaboration, it might follow that something about the Visitation has left them feeling hopeful. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to hear narcotic corporate gobbledygook in my life.

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Running in Bursa
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  • Martha

    Max, although I’d be much more concerned than you seem to be about the language of “To the barricades!” from religious orders, particularly when in the context of “(we) are not agents of the church enforcing its teachings and policies” (if you’re not teaching the Gospel, what are you teaching?), I have to say:

    Anyone who links to the Wolfe Tones singing “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” is all right by me :-)

  • Max Lindenman

    It was that or “La Marseillaise,” and French stuff tends to throw heartlanders into a panic.

  • brandy101

    Prophetic life forms, huh? I can dig that!

    Not sure I ever shared this:

    When my husband had an I-phone, he had an app that would snap your pic, then compare your face to billions of images strewn across the internet and offer the most pertinent “matches.”

    Mine brought back pictures of the Virgin Mary, and a tarot card called “The Prophetess.”

    Interesting, huh?

  • elmo

    She defined women’s orders as “a prophetic life form in the church,” insisting that they are not to be seen as a “work force for ecclesial projects.” Women religious “strive to work collaboratively with the ordained leadership of the church,” she said, yet they “are not agents of the church enforcing its teachings and policies,” and “must not be co-opted for institutional purposes.”

    Max let me decode the doubletalk here: They will do only what they want when they want. They also won’t teach or preach according to the Magisterium. However, they will happily accept proceeds from Church second collections for retired religious and “co-opt” the Church when it suits them for their own “institutional” purposes.

  • Melody

    I am glad to hear that the sisters are left feeling more hopeful about the visitation. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the sisters who were my teachers, many years ago. It made me cringe when the media and the blogosphere seemed to divide them up into “good sisters” and “bad sisters”; the good ones of course being the ones who wore habits and the bad ones being the ones who were perceived as coloring outside the Traditional Catholic lines in any way. Of course I realize that there were some problems among some of the orders. What bothered me about the visitation was that the lack of transparency; in its instigation and funding, and in the lack of an intent of making public its findings. I think however that one unexpected result of the visitation is an increased appreciation of the work done by women religious in America, and an increased sense of unity among the sisters themselves.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Panic? I’m almost afraid to complain of the Greek.
    My only point is, Naked Bloggers should not live in glass houses!

    As for the women religious, here’s what I heard, “We have to tone down it down or they will shut us down.”

    I have a hard time understanding the liberal strain of women religious. When I converted 13 years ago, I visited several monasteries (all converts have a vocation, you know). Sitting in the vocation director’s office, this 75-year-old women started our talk by running her hands down her body and saying, “We don’t have to be ashamed of our bodies anymore.” She then proceeded to talk for 15 minutes, practically quoting everything I had read by Christian feminists during my conversion. All I could think of at the time was that if I could walk to the bathroom and wipe myself at 75, I would be happy. If you are still “ashamed” of your body at 75, you didn’t do something right.

    In my experience, Chrisiitan feminists (a large portion of women religious) are unhappy. The reason they have so few vocations is that nobody wants to inherit a grudge. As they die off (as all Boomers have to eventually), this will probably become a non-issue.

  • Naomi


    I think this is not Church-speak, nor yet corporate gobbledegook, but WomenStudiesish, an academic pidgin of Marxist class analysis and open-mike poetry nights. I don’t think there’s any accommodation, just camouflage. But I’ve been caught being uncharitable once today already, so I could be wrong.

  • momor

    Silly me. I always thought women became nuns to be in service to Christ and the living out of His message.

    There are 2 retreat centers in my area, one run by Benedictine nuns and the other by Franciscan nuns. The vast majority of their programs, mostly led by members of their orders, are closer to New Age and Eastern mysticism than Catholicism. Think Qi Gong as Catholic prayer and you pretty much know what they are up to. Or perhaps that’s what sells and staying alive is more important than doctrine.

  • Melody

    @Holly, “As they die off (as all Boomers have to eventually), this will probably become a non-issue.” OY. I don’t know how many sisters are feminist, don’t know how many are angry. I just know that if I had a dollar for every time I have read that comment online, I could retire in comfort. We all have to die, for heaven’s sake. Some sooner than others.
    So-called “Boomers” are anyone born between about 1946 and 1960. Takes in a lot of years and a lot of people. Like any other stereotype it has limited usefulness. The majority of those people were not a part of the Woodstock culture. I assume you’re not part of that demographic from your comment, but your parents and/or perhaps older siblings are. I don’t really think you are in a hurry for loved ones to leave this earth, please also cut the rest of us who may be older than you some slack.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I have had this response before. I never mean to suggest that I am just waiting around, HOPING they are going to die soon. I only mean that they are dying and that is a fact. Every generation gets older, moves out of power, and dies. I myself, depending on what numbers you use, am the baby of the Boomer family or part of the next. Please don’t think I can’t wait for anyone, ANYONE, to die. I was only making an observation regarding a “changing of the guard” so to speak. Like I said, I’ve had this comment before so I guess I need to change the way I phrase it. Sorry to upset you.

  • Melody

    Holly, sorry if I overreacted. You are not the only one to have made the observation; and sometimes it does hit a nerve. Every generation does have to meet its own challenges. I need to keep a sense of humor; someday we may (hopefully) be looking down from heaven, watching how well the next generations navigate the storms of life.

  • D

    I am so glad I live near the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. They wear their traditional Carmelite habits and have informative talks which never divert from orthodox teaching and they do it in a personable way. It seems they haven’t been infected with feminist poison. Thank You Lord.

  • Lindsay Stocker

    Dear “Wimpy Catholic”,

    First of all, I don’t think you are wimpy if you are stating your Catholic views online, that is bold. =)

    Second, I really like your take on things. Your articles aren’t weighing in on the theological matters so much as the relationships of the parties. That is a refreshing take. Like this article that doesn’t state necessarily “what side you’re on” but more your opinion of how things are being handled or how people are acting/reacting. It’s good to take stuff like that into account. How we behave is just as important as if our theology is right or wrong.

    Your friend,

    Lindsay Stocker

  • Roseanne

    …so you should consider joining them (Carmellites)! It’s so easy to criticize those infected with ‘feminist poison’ but it’s not easy to give up your life style to wear a ‘traditional’ Carmellite habit. God calls and love each one of us UNCONDITIONALLY – I hope you do too!