By Ann Carey
Emphases and (comments) mine – BW
With vocations shrinking and financial problems looming large, some women Religious find themselves at a crossroads
When leaders of Religious orders met with Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year, he praised and encouraged them, but also expressed concern that many orders are in crisis, with shrinking numbers, confusion over their role and identity, and even disagreement with Church teaching.
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
Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Religious sisters almost always lived in convents, where they shared Eucharist and common prayer with other sisters. They worked in their orders’ institutions in jobs like teachers, nurses, retreat leaders, counselors and administrators, and carried out their work in communion with the Church. They also understood their identity as vowed, consecrated persons dedicated to Jesus Christ and his Church — a role clearly defined by the Church.
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 Read the rest of this entry »