In 2008 I am wondering:
- What became of the dissident orders listed below?
- How has the model of the “sister who lives in an apartment alone and drinks beer on tap at the local watering hole” worked out? Have folks like that stuck with the orders as the much older members needed care in nursing homes and the motherhouses got consolidated or sold?
- What became of all the motherhouses? We are just a few years away from a massive sell off of motherhouses that are the last homes to communities that no longer need them for formation. For a number of them, they can’t today and most certainly won’t be able to use them in the next 10 years for existing members…. The combination of size, expense and unsuitability of a lot of these locations as nursing homes… And that is where the majority of today’s women religous who belong to the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” will be – if they are still in this vale of tears – in the next 10-20 years. Longevity for women who failed to have spiritual daughters will not prove to be a picnic.
- Conversely, how are the Domincians in Nashville doing? Ann Arbor? What about in New Jersey? How are the women of the Franciscans of the Eternal Word faring? Are they in need of downsizing today? Have they been forced into selling motherhouses for lack of bodies to fill them?
- “A recent study of 142 new or emerging communities of consecrated life by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University concluded that “the Catholic Church in the United States may be on the threshold of another cycle of rebirth in consecrated life — new groups of Catholics committed to a shared spirituality and the evangelical counsels [vows of poverty, chastity and obedience] that will address the changing times, concerns and needs in new and creative ways.”” – How did that play out?
- What happened to the Basilian Sisters of Saint Basil the Great in Union Town? Are they still at the motherhouse?
- What happened to the Holy Cross Sisters at Notre Dame?
Monday, April 21, 2008
From Our Sunday Visitor
Speaking to a group of superiors general, Pope Benedict said that many orders are experiencing “a difficult crisis due to the aging of members, a more or less accentuated fall in vocations and, sometimes, a spiritual and charismatic weariness.”
Three days later, the pope met with leaders of the Jesuits and reminded them of their fundamental duty of “keeping the harmony with the magisterium, which avoids creating confusion and bewilderment among the people of God.”
It may seem strange to Catholics in the pews that Pope Benedict felt compelled to remind superiors that many Religious orders are in disarray and that they should be in harmony with the magisterium. After all, canon law says that sisters, brothers and priests in Religious orders are to be “totally dedicated to God” and to “the upbuilding of the Church.”
Yet, the pope was voicing the obvious: Many Religious orders that thrived for a century or more have given up their traditional work and common life and are struggling to decide who they are and how they relate to the Church.
Furthermore, many of the most outspoken Church dissidents are members of Religious orders, a fact that naturally raises this question: “How can one remain a member of a Religious order while at the same time rejecting Church teaching?”
While Religious orders of both men and women are struggling today, the men’s orders have remained more stable, probably because about three-quarters of the approximately 19,000 men Religious are priests, an identity that grounds them.
The crisis is more pronounced among women’s orders, which have about 65,000 members. What follows is a closer look at the current concerns about Religious orders via a focus on women Religious.
These include a loss of identity, shrinking vocations, retirement worries and at-risk property. Some of the sisters interviewed for this article asked not to be named out of concern for repercussions from their orders.
Some orders have lost a sense of themselves
When Vatican II documents directed Religious orders to update obsolete practices and to examine their lives and ministry according to their founders’ vision, confusion reigned in many orders. Some orders did manage to renew their practices — perhaps 10 percent to 20 percent of women’s orders — while maintaining their identity as consecrated Religious.
Pope Benedict alluded to those renewed orders in his remarks to superiors, saying they are a positive sign, “especially when communities have chosen to return to the origins and live in a way more in keeping with the spirit of the founder.”
However, many orders of women Religious went far beyond the mandates of Vatican II, even blurring the distinction between their vowed members and lay “associate members.” These orders have been outspoken in their efforts to “transform,” bring “systemic change” and “re-image” Religious life and even the Catholic Church. Much of their motivation is driven by the attitude that unjust patriarchal structures in the Church do not value or understand women, and only women can create a new vision of Religious life.
Dominican Sister Laurie Brink(photo at left), assistant professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, explained this attitude in her keynote speech last August at the annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). LCWR is composed of leaders of about 90 percent of women’s Religious orders. The theme of that assembly was “The Next Frontier: Religious Life on the Edge of Tomorrow.”
Sister Brink explained: “We have lost sight that we are ecclesial women. We have tired of the condescension, and we have opted instead for ministry outside the Church. . . We may not avail ourselves of the sacraments, because we are angry — not about the Eucharist itself — but about the ecclesial deafness that refuses to hear the call of the Spirit summoning not only celibate males, but married men and women to serve at the table of the Lord.” Some sisters, she added, have “moved beyond Jesus.”
The new LCWR president, Sister of the Most Precious Blood Mary Whited (Photo at left), was interviewed for an article last September in the St. Louis Review that reported: “Many Religious today, she said, ‘realize that we’re in a period of transition to something new. But we’re not far enough in that transition to known what the “new” will look like.’ LCWR is helping to ask the hard questions ‘as we try to make choices that will allow us to move into the future.'”
The LCWR website ( http://www.lcwr.org/) reveals a strong focus on “systemic change” of Religious life, and its publications and workshops offer guidance for sister leaders to “transform” their orders into entities that do not resemble the Church definition of Religious life. The Winter 2008 issue of LCWR’s “Occasional Papers” titled “Exploring the Next Frontiers” includes advice to leaders on how to carry “some essential strands of Religious life forward and birth something new,” and on “reprogramming of old habits, attitudes and customs.”
Indeed, some sisters report that their leaders are heavy-handed in this “reprogramming” by making controversial decisions for their orders and then ensuring that the sisters go along by hiring expensive outside consultants — many of whom are sisters or former sisters — skilled at forging a “consensus” for a predetermined path of action.
Loss of identity leads to vocations shortage
This decline in numbers occurred for a combination of reasons: In the 1960s, more career choices became available to women, and laywomen gained more opportunities to serve the Church. Sisters became less visible as role models when they donned lay clothing and left Catholic institutions to work elsewhere. Also, Catholic families had fewer children and were less likely to encourage Religious vocations.
However, another major reason for the decline in vocations is becoming much more apparent: Many orders of women Religious have lost their identity, so it is difficult for potential members to know what those sisters do and how they relate to one another and the Church.
For example, Sister Julie Vieira (photo at left), a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, explained her lifestyle in a March 2007 interview in The Chicago Tribune headlined “The blogging nun: Religion, technology and beer.”
Sister Vieira works for Loyola Press in Chicago. She lives alone in an apartment, fills her iPod with her favorite tunes and enjoys the on-tap beer at her favorite neighborhood bar. On her blog, “A Nun’s Life,” she explains that she visits her community in Monroe, Mich., and a member of her order sometimes joins her at her apartment for prayer and a meal. Yet, this lifestyle is indistinguishable from many other thirtysomething lay single people.
“Rooted in God and our mission of unity . . . we desire to move toward greater inclusivity that reflects the interconnectedness of all creation, reverences diverse cultures and religions, and directs our choices in ministry, community living and corporate decisions.”
In his talk to superiors general, Pope Benedict noted that many young people still experience “a strong Religious and spiritual attraction, but are only willing to listen to and follow those who give coherent witness to their adherence to Christ.” He continued: “It is interesting to note that those institutes that have conserved and chosen a state of life that is often austere and faithful to the Gospel lived sine glossa (‘with clarity’) have a wealth of vocations.”
Cycle of rebirth
The 2007 “Report on Trends in Religious Life,” sponsored by Vision Vocation Guide, found that: “Those considering Religious life (discerners) identify strongly with the teachings of the Catholic Church, with 66 percent of all respondents saying they are most drawn to Religious life by a ‘desire to live a life of faithfulness to the Church and its teaching.'”
A recent study of 142 new or emerging communities of consecrated life by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University concluded that “the Catholic Church in the United States may be on the threshold of another cycle of rebirth in consecrated life — new groups of Catholics committed to a shared spirituality and the evangelical counsels [vows of poverty, chastity and obedience] that will address the changing times, concerns and needs in new and creative ways.”
In his remarks, the pope praised such new groups “for faithful love of the Church, and for generous dedication to the needy with particular attention to that spiritual poverty which so markedly characterizes the modern age.
Aging orders put strain on assets
Since Religious men and women weren’t eligible for Social Security until the law was changed in 1972, many retired Religious receive only minimal Social Security benefits.
Furthermore, Religious used to work in Church institutions for little or no compensation, so orders were not able to set aside substantial retirement savings. Rather, they relied on salaries of younger members to care for the orders’ retirees, but that system collapsed when new vocations declined and the orders continued to age.
Combining orders in mergers or unions is becoming common, as shrinking orders seek to pool assets. However, unions result in the disappearance of all the orders involved — a blow to Religious identity — and can also place solvent orders into debt. Sister Elizabeth McDonough(photo at left), a Dominican of St. Mary of the Springs, told Our Sunday Visitor that many sisters in her 249-member order continue to object to a pending union with six smaller orders in the “Dominican Cluster.” Objections are partly because of the process leading to the disappearance of their 178-year-old order, but also because her community is the largest of the seven and is the only one adequately funded for retirement.
“Two or three communities of 30 to 40 sisters, or even one larger community, merging with us — or with another large Dominican community — would provide continued adequate retirement funding,” she said. “But in the pending union of these seven ‘cluster’ communities, combined assets cannot meet retirement needs for the combined number of elderly sisters.” She added that those favoring union insist it is not about money but about mission, though mission is yet to be defined in any specific manner.
In 1988, the U.S. bishops authorized an annual collection for retired Religious, which has been the most successful national collection in the U.S. Church, according to the NRRO. Since inception, the collection has received $529 million to help Religious orders care for their elderly.
In November 2007, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious reported in its “Update” newsletter that the NRRO had “determined that an increased portion of the funds collected would be used for systemic change in congregational practices as well as for direct donations.”
Our Sunday Visitor asked the acting director of the NRRO what this meant. Sister of the Most Precious Blood Janice Bader said that the collection has been significant, but it does not begin to approach the billions in unfunded liability. Thus, the NRRO is considering some changes in distribution of funds. Presently 90 percent of the collection goes for current care of religious, she said, while the other 10 percent is for administrative expenses and special projects. Special projects include helping the financial situation of orders by assessing property utilization, method of care, staffing and fund-raising.
However, other special projects seem only remotely connected to retirement needs, like the $65,000 the NRRO gave for planning the Dominican union mentioned above. Sister Bader said that in 2009, the percentage given for special projects likely will rise, but she could not say by how much or exactly what those projects would be.
Even though the special collection was authorized by the bishops, Sister Janice said that the body of bishops does not need to approve changes in how the funds are distributed, for they delegated that responsibility to the Commission on Religious Life and Ministry that oversees the NRRO. That commission consists of the general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the officers of the three organizations that represent leaders of religious orders–Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and Conference of Major Superiors of Men.
She said that in qualifying for NRRO funds, orders with little money designated for retirement have an advantage over those who have allocated more funds. But many orders with unfunded retirement have additional assets, so, beginning in 2009, the NRRO will take into consideration an order’s unrestricted funds that could be available for retirement needs.
Indeed, leaders may decide that other matters have priority over retirement needs. For example, several orders of Catholic sisters with inadequate retirement funds donated money to sponsor last year’s “Earth Spirit Rising Conference,” where self-proclaimed witch Starhawk was a featured speaker.
Women Religious have been the backbone of the Catholic Church in this country, not only in establishing and operating Catholic institutions, but also for their witness as persons focused on God. The dramatic drop in numbers of sisters from 180,000 in 1965 to 65,000 today obviously means fewer sisters to provide that witness, and it also means a loss in terms of Church institutions and property.
Property owned by orders of women Religious is worth hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars, and that property is at great risk as many orders shrink and some of them distance themselves from the Church. Most of this property was acquired through donations by generations of hardworking Catholics who gave money for a specific purpose, such as a school, convent, hospital, retreat house or monastery.
Canon law is very specific in requiring that Church properties be used for their original purpose or according to the will of the donor. For example, if a Religious order goes out of existence, the order’s assets first must be used to support remaining members of that order. Once the members have all passed away, remaining assets must be used for a similar purpose, like supporting another order of sisters or a school operated by sisters, for example.
Circumventing canon law
For example, in 2006 the remaining two Benedictine sisters at their Madison, Wis., monastery transferred their 130-acre property to the Benedictine Women of Madison, an ecumenical group they formed and then joined after renouncing their vows. This follows the pattern of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Los Angeles, who in 1970 transferred their order’s college, hospital, retreat house and high school into civil corporations before being dispensed from their vows and becoming an ecumenical community.
Left unchecked, this scenario is likely to be repeated over and over as some Religious distance themselves from the Church and take property with them.
How some orders challenge Church teaching
The Vatican intervened in the early 1980s after it was revealed that the leaders of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas had decided to permit sterilizations in their hospitals. The Vatican became involved again in the 1990s after some Catholic hospitals sponsored by women’s religious orders set up “creative” arrangements in which they leased space within their hospitals for sterilization clinics. Yet, some Catholic hospitals sponsored by women Religious still persist in quietly providing sterilizations, a subject that will be covered by Our Sunday Visitor in a future article.
Loretto Sister Jeannine Gramick (photo at left) continues to ignore a 1999 directive from the Vatican to stop ministry with homosexuals and disassociate herself from New Ways Ministry. Yet, according to the New Ways Ministry website, last month Sister Jeannine is leading “A GLBT Friendly Pilgrimage” to Italy that will benefit New Ways Ministry.
Before the November 2006 elections, Loretto Sisters Mary Ann Coyle, Mary Ann Cunningham and Anna Koop, speaking for the National Coalition of American Nuns, wrote an open letter to Catholic voters stating their support of “the right of women to make reproductive decisions and receive medical treatment according to the rights of privacy and conscience.”
Ann Carey writes from Indiana.