Friday, October 9, 2009

We Don't Address Them As Mrs. Christ, We Address Them As Sister

Sometimes the most courageous and authoritative person resides in the body of the most humble.

The following is an edited excerpt from a longer article posted at Commonweal. It was written by a sister who has spent thirty years with an LCWR congregation. It was written anonymously for fear of reprisal for herself, her congregation, and her local bishop. The first part of the article dealt with the visitation and reasons for same. I have begun the excerpt with what I think is the meat of the article. Sister X's attempt to answer some of the unstated why's of the investigation.

Perhaps there exists a basic problem of communication. Perhaps the personal and interpretive language women religious speak to each other is not sufficiently “Vaticanese.” The theological worldview of women has evolved in ways that bishops may not understand, let alone accept.

When I entered religious life after Vatican II, it was already taken for granted in sister-formation that the traditional language and categories of theology, mysticism, and spirituality were not adequate to express and account for the development of the person within religious life. Traditionally, of course, women religious often described themselves as “brides of Christ.” Today, however, thanks to what we have learned from modern scriptural scholarship and the work of feminist Christian thinkers about the role of women in the early church, women religious have sought to reclaim their historical roles alongside “the twelve” as followers of Jesus, community leaders, and missionaries. Our directors introduced us to the basics of religious life: union with God in prayer, identity with the church, Scripture, the vows, mission and apostolate, community life. But we also read sociology, psychology, and literature. Along with our Vatican II documents and the Jerusalem Bible, we read Jung, historical novels, and poetry. Our retreats included the Psalms, but also meditative films about nature. There was a great effort to integrate our spiritual life with “real life.” We came to identify ourselves with Mary, whom Jesus himself called “woman” in John’s Gospel, and with Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the Resurrection; or with one of the healed women in the Gospel who goes out and tells others about her life-changing experience, and attracts others to come to Jesus too. It was a process that has served me and many others well, enabling women religious to create a whole body of self-explanatory narrative, reflection, and theological analysis.

Did it also accelerate a growing distrust between sisters and the episcopacy? That distrust has been present for a long time. In the late 1960s, after Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre ordered the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to get back into their habits and classrooms or get out of the diocese, the LCWR tried to address issues of women’s ministerial equality. Later, in 1976, came Inter insigniores, the CDF’s “definitive” rejection of the possibility of ordination for women. It shut down any formal discussion of women’s equality in the church. For many women religious, the emphasis shifted then to social-justice concerns.

Since then, Rome has been busy shoring up its doctrinal barricades, and in the process has seemed intent on casting feminism into the outer darkness. Under John Paul II, the Vatican became enamored with a reading of Scripture and the tradition as calling on every woman to understand herself spiritually as “spouse.” I find this at odds with the presentation of women in Scripture, and would point out that Jesus uses neither spousehood nor marriage as a model for discipleship. Quite the contrary. This reductionist anthropology, moreover, has become so arcane and removed from real life that much of what is written about how the church understands sexual symbolism has taken on a frankly gnostic character. (The idea of spousal relationships is not just part of a sexual gnosticism, it's also being used as the primary relationship definition for seemingly every relational possibility in the church.)

Do we really want to limit our notions of the essential nature and meaning of embodiment to little more than the physical function of father and mother and the social relationship of bridegroom and bride, husband and wife? Again and again in recent years, this seems to be Rome’s mantra. Particularly offensive was the 2004 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World, issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which demeaned feminist theory as inimical to the common good of the church, the family, and society, and as the logical outcome of this analysis argued against women’s ordination. In my opinion, his letter expressed a great deal of hostility to what women have attempted to say about themselves for the past forty years. It hardly encouraged dialogue.
(The idea was never dialogue. It was to stop the process of redefining the meaning of femininity because acceptance of any redefining in the feminine sphere would necessitate a redefining in the masculine sphere and relational boundaries between the genders. Most marriages in the West accommodated this rethinking of gender roles. Not so the Church.)

What I sense today is that the Vatican will not budge in how it thinks theologically about what it means to be a woman; nor will it consider opening positions of real ecclesial authority to women. There is simply no getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican doesn’t want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars, and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s—and that means men’s—voice and views. But we are not “men” or “mankind.” We are persons with minds and hearts and voices, who have lived lives of integrity and loyalty, and who remain loyal to this church, even when it treats us as second-class citizens and makes us beg for financial support in our old age.

Since Rome wants to know about the quality of my life as a religious sister, let me tell you about a common form of liturgical life in my community. At our cemetery we recently observed the gravesite rite for a deceased sister. No priest was there. One sister led the prayer, and another sprinkled holy water, while the rest of us made the responses. Few of sister’s family members—nieces and nephews living many states away—were able to attend. In the end, we sisters are in effect the family, enacting one of the rights—called “suffrages after death”—that women religious have as a result of taking vows. Taking end-of-life responsibility for one another means a Catholic funeral, burial with your community members, and the prayers and remembrances of those with whom you “persevered unto death.”

Earlier that day we had been lucky to find a kindly but frail eighty-plus priest to say the funeral Mass at the motherhouse. Priests’ numbers have dropped, even in a metropolitan area like ours, and it’s all “retired” priests can do to manage multiple Masses and pastoral services at some local parish. Consequently, women religious aren’t at all assured of having daily Eucharist—the practice that grounded their spirituality for most of their lives as religious and one that is fundamental to their congregational constitutions. (Cardinal Rodé and his consultors would do well to ponder the relationship between Vatican policy and the “quality of life” of women religious: the refusal to ordain women has created a shortage of priests, and the quality of nuns’ spiritual and sacramental life has suffered accordingly.)

Fortunately, despite the crisis in priesthood, there were men present to serve us in conducting our sister’s last rituals on earth. I’m referring to the unionized cemetery crew. Until “the job moment,” they awkwardly stood at the edge of our prayer circle. One in muddy Levis discreetly chewed gum. Another had a plastic water bottle jammed into a back pocket of his raggedy khakis. Not exactly vestments. Finally the “job moment” had come. Balancing on their grass-stained, thick-soled sneakers, the four men carefully coordinated the sets of tightly woven, three-inch-wide straps around the coffin. Two quickly pulled away the steel beams holding the coffin above the open grave. The coffin’s weight shifted to the straps, and letting out the strap length evenly, fist over wrist, they skillfully lowered the coffin till it touched bottom.

Like other nuns, our deceased sister had put in many years of six-and-a-half-day work weeks, with lots of walking in the days before we drove cars. She had been a hospital nun, which meant that after her own shift ended, she would fill in on the floor for nurses who were sick. I recalled her at our dinner table. In her retirement years she had been careful about her diet, obsessively cutting off all fat from her meat. Nuns are self-effacing, and you never know all they did until you read their obituaries; but at the motherhouse you could always tell which had been hospital nuns. They were the fastest eaters at any table—a speed developed over years of eating in hospital dining rooms. You didn’t linger when you had other nurses to supervise and patients to tend.

The cemetery crew didn’t have to strain, since in her last illness our sister’s body, always thin to begin with, had become weightless, like a ballet dancer’s. We threw flowers down into the grave. Mine slipped into the narrow space between the coffin and the wall of earth. By her side, I thought.....

The prospect of death and life in their full reach puts things in a frank perspective, and I end with the same question with which I began this essay: Is the Vatican visitation truly being done out of concern for American nuns? Here in the cemetery, I couldn’t help but think that the question Rome is really asking is, “Why don’t you have more nuns to bury? Why aren’t there more of you?”

Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions. The visitation and investigation continue; the doctrinal assessment will ferret out our patches of heterodoxy. Standing at our late sister’s grave I remembered, as if it were yesterday, a question she innocently asked me years ago in a group meeting. “Do we have rights?” she wondered. “What are they?”


It's well worth reading the first part of this article if only to have the point driven home that Congregations of Sisters receive very little financial support from the Institutional Church. They are expected to fend for themselves--as they always have been. For the Church this situation is akin to me 'hiring' a baby sitter who I didn't have to pay for, demanded excessive hours from, and left them to rot in their old age with no health care or pension, having thrown them out of the housing I once provided.

The point Sister X makes about the Vatican's use of the paradigm of spousal relationship reflects my own observations. The New Testament does not obsess on this particular form of relationship at all. In fact Jesus tells us to be prepared to leave our spouses and parents and children, as that may be the price of following His way. He Himself was not married, did not have children, did not seem to overly value that whole notion. He certainly didn't define His relationship to us as groom to our bride. He referred to us as brothers and sisters, equal in the eyes of His Father.

I don't think it's an accident that the Institutional Church rarely uses that equally valid relationship between the genders--that of 'brothers and sisters'. That relationship carries with in it far more equality, especially in the Modern world. It implies a lot more give and take and a lot less knee jerk domination by one gender over the other.

Patriarchal families may have historically favored the first born son, but amongst the siblings themselves such primacy was not always recognized or honored. In my family when my eldest brother would pronounce on one thing or another, it was usually met by silence or laughter--usually depending on whether one was his brother or sister. It was rarely met with any kind of obedience unless we agreed with him. He had to earn our respect, which he finally managed to more or less do--mostly by default. Which leads me to another thought.

The LCWR sisters that I met after they shed their habits seem to me to have taken on a larger burden of authenticity. By this I mean, when they were in habit, the habit itself often times gave them an authority and authenticity they didn't have to earn. They had the authority of symbol. Once out of the habit, they had to earn this authority by the type of life they led. The habit no longer covered for a multitude of sins or occupational incompetence. They really had to walk their talk in a much more consistent and authentic way. I think they did this well, judging from the level of support American laity are extending them.

It may be this authenticity without visible sign that is also eating at the Vatican. Take away the trappings of their office, and I wonder how many of us would recognize their authentic Christ like behavior in the lives they lead. Would we instinctively acknowledge their personal authority to lead us? For instance I wonder how many Catholics would actually take Pope Benedict seriously if he dressed exactly like the bachelor professor he tends to be. I suspect his theology wouldn't be received from other professional theologians with quite the fanfare it has if he wasn't dressed in the clothing of the Papacy.
There is an aura around holy people that transcends their gender or manner of dress. I have met and identified members of the LCWR long before their status was made evident to me precisely because of this aura which surrounded them. That's true spiritual authority and it isn't based on being the 'bride of Christ'. It's based on living the way of Christ. One doesn't need to be male to effectively live the way of Christ or to represent His spirit to the world.
This kind of lived spiritual authority can be intimidating to those whose hold authority in the name of the Christ but whose personal spiritual authority is suspect. The list of the spiritually intimidated would probably include the American bishops and secret donors who instigated the CDF investigation. That's why we'll never know who they are and the secrecy surrounding this investigation will be maintained. This is also probably the reason Cardinal Rode tried to spread the blame by asking the entire USCCB to fund these investigations--more safety and more secrecy in more numbers.
I pray the bishops in the US who truly understand the gifts the LCWR have given their dioceses and this country tell Rode to bark up some other tree because this tree won't bend to hypocritical Vatican wind.


  1. There is a lot to comment on here Colleen. I read this piece last week and thought it was a very powerful writing of the truth and nothing but the truth.

    In your first paragraph of comment here "For the Church this situation is akin to me 'hiring' a baby sitter who I didn't have to pay for, demanded excessive hours from, and left them to rot in their old age with no health care or pension, having thrown them out of the housing I once provided."

    The Church hierarchy has picked up a lot of bad habits from associating with and becoming like CEO's. This is more evidence that the Church hierarchy has lost its way and does not follow Jesus Christ's teachings.

    I will comment further if I have the time and energy.

  2. Love the picture and the headline.

  3. Butterfly this LCWR investigation makes me angry on any number of levels, but the fact the very institution which derived so much benefit from the work of these sisters, and now has the gall to kick them when they are down is nothing more or less than bullying.

  4. I so agree with you Colleen. It is awful testimony of bullying and pig-headedness for this investigation of Sisters who have worked so hard all of their lives. It is a denial of their personhood in Christ, a lack of understanding women, a pushing away of any desire to understanding them and a lack of understanding and acknowledging the Holy Spirit.

    What really got to me was the fact that there was no priest even at the burial of the simple Sister who served the Church and Christ. This while these bullies who live in mansions are riding around in expensive cars, being waited on hand and foot, wearing their frou frou and long red silk capes and priests loyally standing behind such Prince's looking like mindless draculas dressed in floor length black garbs essentially serving a fat do nothing authoritarian Pharisee.

    The stench of materialism, relativism and unhealthy narcissism from the Vatican reeks while the Sisters work, doing the work of God. The Sisters love God. I see no love of God from the Vatican towards the Sisters in their old age. It is a brazen act of ignorance and betrayal to treat the Sisters the way they are. The true God of love recognizes the Sisters acts of love and courage caring for the sick and serving the needs of people in such dire need for the signs of love and Christ in the world; does not recognize anything resembling love from the bullies.

    It is profound that these same bullies understand Obama but they cannot understand women or these holy women who have served the Church for decades with little compensation and given no joy or hope in their final days alive here. It's really disgusting when I think about how they are treating these Sisters. Just pathetic and un-Christ-like.

  5. One more thing about Sisters while we are on the subject of Sisters. I was taught by the IHM Sisters. We were blessed with one very fine Sister Regina. She taught me my first group piano lesson after school hours. She taught us how to read music and sing in harmony. We practiced singing in Church and I remember her as just a blessing and leading us in choir. She planted a seed of love for music and strengthened our understanding and appreciation for it. How blessed we all were to be in her presence.

  6. To get a good history of US religious women, I recommend Know You Know Media’s “The History of Women Religious in the United States” by Margaret Susan Thompson.

    A telling point was that it was only after the beginning of the 20th century when most US congregations were granted Apostolic (ie, papal) approval, which resulted in a rigidity of constitution, practice, formation and governance. Prior to that most communities were locally “chartered” by a bishop and much more varied in style, governance, purpose and practices. Of course, this doesn’t fit with the way the papcy likes to do things, so …..

    Jim McCrea