Following a lengthy (3-year) study of communities of women religious in the United States, it has been decided at the Vatican level to appoint a reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, under the immediate charge of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, due to grave concerns about positions taken by the LCWR over the years.
The Leadership Conference was founded in the mid-1950's and given authority by Rome's Congregation for Religious, now known by the unwieldy title of "Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life." Its purpose was to provide a forum for superiors of women's religious Orders to meet and share mutual concerns.
The current reform is concerned with evidence that the Leadership Conference has abandoned the Catholic Faith and Church teaching regarding some key issues: radical feminism, abortion, homosexuality, etc. Response to this call for reform has been varied. Many have expressed concern that the Vatican is trying to "come down the poor nuns." Others have expressed relief that such a reform has finally been called for. I have studied in great detail, the situation of "women religious" in the United States as it has unfolded since the 1960's. My remarks below are the result of this study and ongoing concern.
First of all, the panoply of women religious in the United States impressed me from a very early age. In almost every parish there was a convent. Those living in the convent were committed to the teaching and the authority of the Church. They lived a dramatic witness of community life, expressed in the living out of the vows, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Most were engaged in the education of children. I have vivid memories of walking past a local convent and hearing the chant of the prayers. The monastic or quasi-monastic presence in virtually every parish was palpable.
These Sisters and/or nuns (there is a difference), exhibited a certain variety. In my immediate neighborhood there were Sisters of St. Joseph, Felician Sisters and Dominican Sisters - all teachers. Their habits differed remarkably - though they represented the age-old habit of tunic and veil. Their spirituality and piety were different, due to their particular origins. Common prayer, daily Mass, contemplation, common meals, and the apostolate formed the framework of their daily life. They were true sisters - and the head of their house was aptly and lovingly called "mother." (Nowadays she might be called a co-ordinator!) The Leadership Conference would have reflected this up until the '60's.
The Second Vatican Council called upon these women throughout the world to reexamine their experience of religious life, and when possible, to take steps to return to the aims and spirit of their foundresses. Regarding the religious habit the only change suggested was modification to avoid unhealthy, cumbersome and exaggerated styles of garb. Many of the communities of Sisters were founded specifically for the education of youth. The Felician Sisters, founded in 19th century Poland, were founded to care for the poor and orphaned. It was in the U.S.A. where immigration had swelled the parochial schools of Polish parishes, that the Sisters of this community became primarily associated with teaching. (Some were also engaged in nursing - true of many communities of women.)
Their habit was unmistakably Franciscan: tunic, cord, scapular, crucifix, cloak and veil. Like most communities, their headdress had become exaggerated, in the various contrivances that the veil was attached to. The Sisters of St. Joseph looked like "lady Jesuits," with the addition of assorted starched pieces and the veil. The Dominicans were simplest of all, and readily identified as Dominican.
The call for a return to the spirit of the founder was a call to deepen what they were already living.
At some point the LCWR became preoccupied with feminist issues, "liberation" theology, ordination of women to the priesthood, ecology, etc. It has been demonstrated that the LCWR - while officially "representing" most congregations of women religious - had become an elitist organization of "professional" women. Like the Vatican they eschew, they became authoritarian and succeeded in imposing their will on an unsuspecting majority of faithful Catholic nuns.
Most who are over the age of 55 will recall that many nuns stopped wearing the habit, stopped living in convents, stopped observing the spirituality and treasures of community life. Those who read up on these developments might also have been shocked to find the LCWR and certain religious communities proposing ideas that were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is what I find amazing: that women who vow to live a life as consecrated women in an OFFICIAL way, that is as nuns or religious Sisters, have balked at the requirement that they conform to the very institution that gives them their official position and approves of their way of life and gives them credibility. It also amazes me that the Church's present call for reform has been seen as threatening or oppressive, by those in the forefront of "reform."
I know that the good old days were not good in every way. Reform was needed, particularly in dress and in observance of customs. In some communities, a Sister who accidentally broke a tea cup might be required to prostrate on the floor in the doorway of the dining room while the other Sisters stepped over her, as a sign of her contrition. The care and cleaning of the garb in some instances took a full day - and in many instances that garb had become more and more elaborate with each generation. Some communities required that a Sister get permission of her superior before having a drink of water between meals. There was little or no collaboration in terms of assignment of chores and duties. Some of these customs actually made sense, but often had become external forms void of any interior understanding.
When the reforms started in the 60's and 70's there were many explanations that were given. One was that nuns' habits had been the customary dress of widows at the time of their founding, and could now be discarded. This is false. The habit of women religious goes back at least to the 4th century where it was described as a tunic, girdle, and veil. Some ladies were told that their foundresses had been dynamic, revolutionary women of their times, and that it was now incumbent upon the modern daughters to become equally dynamic and revolutionary. (Of course the venerable foundresses would not have gained approval for their foundations if they had spoken out contrary to the teaching of the Church, or advocated life-styles contrary to generally accepted norms of convent life.) Some decided to disobey the reform by abandoning religious garb and instead chose a pin which they contrived as a sign of their consecration. Some of the popular literature was calling upon Sisters to divorce themselves from the "spirit of the foundress" and come to some new understanding of life based on their "lived experience."
I looked on with sorrow at many instances of wholesale abandonment of religious life. Later in life I was to discover that many Sisters were sorrowed and bewildered by what the powers-on-high had instituted in place of their customary -and approved- way of life. Many left the convent because the life to which they had solemnly vowed themselves had not only disappeared, but been held up to ridicule.
The Church has indeed been patient. When official leaders of a formal group publicly take stands that are clearly antithetical to the Church's teaching, why have they not been removed from their Church-sanctioned offices? When public societies of vowed consecrated religious life abandon the way of life wholesale, how is it that they retain their official "status?" Incidentally, when so many women in leadership call for ordination to the priesthood - why has there been no equal clamor for ordination to the diaconate? Hmmmm.
Everyone knows what religious life is like and what a convent is. Even the popular media depict nuns in traditional garb living the traditional life. The specter of assembled women, wearing professional, business outfits complete with jewelry and makeup, presiding at bizarre ceremonies that have no relation to common Christian prayer, signing their names (and titles and the initials of their various Orders) to documents and statements and letters that challenge fundamental Christian doctrine, and boldly declare positions that have been condemned is horrible - if it is even relevant.
The LCWR is being called upon by ITS leadership: the Catholic hierarchy, to be true to its calling to promote solid Christian life in the heart of the Church and work together with women vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience. That this is controversial amazes me.