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 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.
Several sisters from various orders -- including Dominican, Josephite and Mercy, as well as smaller groups -- have told Our Sunday Visitor that their leaders speak passionately about justice for women, the earth and the poor, but the leaders fail to see the injustice they are perpetrating on their own sisters, who are not angry at the Church and who want to live as ecclesial women according to the Church definition of Religious life. These sisters wonder when bishops and the Vatican will acknowledge their predicament and require women and men Religious to accept Church teaching and respect Church authority, or else depart for another way of life that does not exploit the resources and reputations of their Religious orders and of the Church.
Loss of identity leads to vocations shortage
Vocations to Religious life have dropped sharply in the past 40 years. When Vatican II closed, sisters numbered 180,000 in the United States. Today there are about 65,000 sisters, with an average age of 69.
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.
Many women Religious no longer live or pray in community. Many orders have no specific corporate apostolate, though members often do good works on an individual basis. So, women looking for a distinctly Religious way of life often see no difference between being a faithful lay person and being a sister in one of these orders.
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.
Furthermore, vague mission statements like this one from the website of the Sisters of St. Joseph of LaGrange, Ill. (photo at left) , do little to inform potential members:
"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
Indeed, orders of sisters that still live and pray in community, work in a corporate apostolate within the Church and express strong fidelity to the magisterium are attracting most of the new vocations, and these orders have an average age in the mid-30s. (Photo at left, Nashville Dominicans)
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
With the average age of all women Religious at 69, and with more sisters retired than working, financial problems loom large for Religious orders.
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.
The National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO) reports that the annual average cost of independent living for a retired Religious is $24,927, and for skilled nursing care is $49,850. Of the 527 women's orders that gave data to the NRRO, only 56 were adequately funded for members' retirement (see related chart below). Some 190 orders of women Religious reported being less than 40 percent funded, with present unfunded retirement liability for all Religious orders, including men, being approximately $9 billion.
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.
Because Religious orders are given a great deal of autonomy over internal affairs by canon law, financial decisions by leaders have little-to-no oversight. Funds often go to lay associates to support work unrelated to the Church. Some sisters have told Our Sunday Visitor that they know some of their order's retirement funds are going into the order's operating budget.
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
Certainly, there can be many legitimate reasons for selling an order's property, like the inability to maintain aging and unneeded buildings. However, in recent years, canon law has often been circumvented in this matter. Sisters report that Religious communities have sold properties used for traditional apostolic works and put that money toward "ministries" unrelated to the Church. Other sisters believe that their orders are unwittingly selling valuable properties for less than market value, or are purposely selling below market value to avoid complying with Church law requiring ecclesial approval for sale of property worth over $5.475 million. And there are unsettling precedents of orders signing over properties to other entities that are not Catholic.
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
Women Religious are among the most public Catholics ignoring or challenging Church teaching and authority. Here are a few examples:
Some Catholic hospitals sponsored by women religious have, over the years, allowed surgical sterilizations to be performed, contrary to the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services."
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.
Among the signers of the "Roman Catholic Statement Supporting Marriage Equality for Same-sex Couples in Massachusetts" at http://www.rcfm.org/ are several Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Notre Dame and a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.
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.
Removing the Vatican from the United Nations
A "See Change" petition (http://www.seechange.org/) sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice to remove the Vatican's permanent observer status at the United Nations was signed by several groups of Religious, including the Loretto Women's Network and the Sinsinawa (Dominican) Women's Network. Another signer is Women-Church Convergence (www.women-churchconvergence.com), an umbrella organization whose members include the Institute Justice Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas; the Sisters of Charity Office of Peace, Justice & Integrity of Creation; the Sisters of Providence; the National Coalition of American Nuns; and the 8th Day Center for Justice. The 8th Day Center (www.8thdaycenter.org) has a membership of more than 30 Religious orders and is committed to, among other things, "uphold the right to dissent against oppressive structures in church and society."
Dominican Sister Donna Quinn and other self-proclaimed "Nuns for Choice" regularly participate in public abortion rallies wearing their "Nuns for Choice" shirts.
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."
Seventeen orders of women Religious were among the sponsors of the 2007 "Earth Spirit Rising" conference, which featured self-proclaimed witch Starhawk (photo at left). Susan Schaefer of the Sisters of St. Agnes Justice, Peace, Ecology Committee had this to say about Starhawk in the committee's September 2007 newsletter: "She is a pagan, which really means finding the spirit/Spirit in the rhythms of nature and a witch, which really only suggests a Wise, Intuitive, Teacher, Counselor, Healer."
Ann Carey writes from Indiana.