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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