Sisters on a different mountaintop

On Jan. 30, an apostolic visitation of religious orders of women in the United States was announced. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), whose membership includes most of the sisters whose manner of life and apostolates will be explored, subsequently released a measured statement, expressing its “surprise” at the Vatican-mandated visitation. The LCWR statement also hinted vaguely at a degree of alarm, noting that the visitation’s “purposes and implications for the lives of U.S. women religious remain unclear.”

A far more forthright comment on the visitation came from Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, who teaches New Testament at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley and is completing a multi-volume study of post-Vatican II religious life. Dr. Schneiders’ letter on the visitation was originally intended for friends and colleagues; it inevitably leaked into the blogosphere and was then published with Dr. Schneiders’ permission in the online National Catholic Reporter. There was nothing vague about Dr. Schneiders’ reaction to the impending visitation:

“I am not inclined to get into too much of a panic about this investigation -- which is what it is. We just went through a similar investigation of seminaries, equally aggressive and dishonest. I do not put any credence at all in the claim that this is friendly, transparent, aimed to be helpful, etc. It is a hostile move and the conclusions are already in. It is meant to be intimidating. But I think if we believe in what we are doing (and I definitely do), we just have to be peacefully about our business, which is announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, fostering the Reign of God in this world.

“We cannot, of course, keep them from investigating. But we can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house. When people ask questions they shouldn’t ask, the questions should be answered accordingly. I just hope we will not, as we American religious so often do, think that by total ‘openness’ and efforts to ‘dialogue’ we are going to bring about mutual understanding and acceptance. This is not mutual and it is not a dialogue. The investigators are not coming to understand -- believe me, we found that out in the seminary investigation. So let’s be honest but reserved, supply no ammunition that can be aimed at us, be non-violent even in the face of violence, but not be naive. Non-violent resistance is what finally works as we’ve found out in so many arenas.”

Between the circumspection of the LCWR and the call-to-arms of Sister Sandra Schneiders, I’ll take Dr. Schneider’s any day. Hers is perhaps the most candid summation of the cast of mind of many American religious women I’ve read in years. What it avoids, however, is the clear implication of Dr. Schneiders’ use of “them” to identity the “investigators:” “them” are not, so to speak, “us.” “We” are not of, or with, “them.” “Them” reminds me of the Master of Trinity in ‘‘Chariots of Fire,’’ speaking of a Cambridge student whose approach to athletics (and indeed life) he deplored: “A different god; a different mountaintop.”

What Sister Sandra Schneiders’ admirably frank letter suggests is that the women religious who share her views live in a form of schism. It’s not a formal, canonical schism. One might call it a kind of psychological schism, in which the outward forms of ecclesial unity are tenuously maintained, but the inner “self” (as these renewed sisters might put it) is, well, somewhere else.

The balance of Dr. Schneider’s letter argues that she and her colleagues have “birthed a new form of religious life,” and makes clear that she and those who stand with her will accept no one’s appraisal of the Catholic authenticity of their creation but their own. That’s an accurate, honest description of the current state of affairs. It’s also bespeaks a form of schism. Will the impending visitation take a cue from Dr. Schneiders and have the courage to name these things for what they are? And if so, then what?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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