Character witnesses: Readers defend the sisters

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Article Vatican Women
If U.S. women religious need voices in their defense, U.S. Catholic readers are happy to testify. Not only do they sing the praises of sisters who have taught and continue to inspire them, they are asking their own questions about the Vatican investigation.

It's hard to say which reaction from U.S. Catholic readers is stronger: their admiration and gratitude for women religious, or their suspicion and anger about the investigative visitation of U.S. nuns by the Vatican.

Probably the admiration and gratitude. Though they're pretty mad, too.

An online survey of U.S. Catholic subscribers and website visitors about the Vatican visitation and doctrinal assessment of U.S. women religious elicited a record 1,700 responses and passionate, lengthy comments. Visitors came from all over the Internet-from both liberal church organizations and conservative Catholic blogs-to take the survey.

While a portion of Catholics want to see the sisters reined in, the vast majority of survey respondents, and especially U.S. Catholic subscribers (see note), sing the praises of the women who have taught, inspired, challenged, and served as role models for generations of U.S. Catholics.

"These wonderful women have influenced me in profound ways," says Amy Florian of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, who adds that her grade school teachers were "fascinating, fun, loving people who accepted me and nurtured me when I was a bit of an outcast."

In high school religious women helped ground her spiritual and prayer life, and as an adult, Florian continues to be challenged and inspired by their public witness. "They formed my thinking about what a deep relationship with God means," she says. "They modeled discipleship, tolerance, and Christian living."

Nearly all survey respondents (95 percent) say they are personally acquainted with a woman religious. For U.S. Catholics, sisters are not the habited parodies of popular culture; they are teachers, co-workers, family, and friends. They feed the hungry, serve the poor, and work for justice.

They also bring a unique feminine perspective to church matters. "They show that women have as much to offer church and society as men and that women are quite competent to be in leadership in the church in the same way and in the same roles as men," says Vincentian Father Louis Arceneaux of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Several priests, brothers, and deacons who responded to the survey credit women religious with inspiring their vocations and aiding them in their intellectual and spiritual growth. "I am a priest today because of their joy, their hopes, their dreams, and their truth that all of us can make a difference in the world today, no matter what state of life one chooses," says Father James P. Kiesel of Baltimore.

On the value of women religious, laity and clergy seem to agree. Bradley A. Leger of Estherwood, Louisiana called them "wonderful educators, gifted spiritual directors, and courageous prophets," while Kathleen Stutler of Covington, Kentucky admires their "courage, professionalism, and dedication to ministry-especially when times are difficult."

And times are difficult. Not only are orders of religious women facing the dual challenges of aging members and declining recruits, now the Vatican is conducting an investigation that has many worried that the hierarchy wants to "effectively roll back Vatican II," as J. M. Doyle of Bozeman, Montana says.

Cardinal Franc Rodé, the head of the Vatican office overseeing religious orders, told Vatican Radio in early November that the visitation's purpose is to examine a "secularist mentality" and "feminist spirit" among American women religious, although a previous statement from him had insisted that the investigation was only looking out for their quality of life.

U.S. Catholic readers aren't buying that. More than half of survey respondents say the apostolic visitation and doctrinal assessment are "insulting and unjust." Fewer than one third of respondents-and just one eighth of subscribers-see it as "reasonable and justified" or necessary.

Those who approve of the investigation believe it's necessary "to ensure that those religious who are representing the Catholic community do just that," as a Houston woman says. A Morton Grove, Illinois reader finds it reasonable, "as long as the examination is conducted with a fair, honorable outcome in mind, and our women religious are treated with the respect they deserve."

Others aren't sure the process will be fair. They say it's a "power play," "harassment," "a vendetta," a "dog-leash correction," an "unnecessary display of power," "a modern-day Inquisition," and "a big waste of time and money." And those were some of the more charitable responses.

"These investigations were started by men who are afraid of the wisdom and power of women and have lost sight of the teachings of Jesus," says Mary Anne Seymour of Tuscon, Arizona.

Some speculate that the Vatican is attempting to deflect attention from other critical issues facing the church, such as clerical sexual abuse. Others see it as sexism. "I think they resent the independence and outspokenness of American women religious," says Mary Michael Swet of Estero, Florida.

While the Vatican may find a "feminist spirit" problematic, almost two thirds of all survey respondents see sisters who take controversial stands on interreligious dialogue, homosexuality, and women's ordination as prophetic. A sizeable minority (18 percent) of all survey respondents find this group dangerous, while critical U.S. Catholic subscribers say they are "outsiders sometimes worth listening to" (14 percent) rather than a threat (3 percent).

"Women religious seem much more able than priests to speak out on the issues of the day," observes a Maryland reader. "The church needs them more than ever."

Survey respondents trust the Holy Spirit to bring the church through this ordeal, but they don't trust bishops. "The hierarchy has yet to learn that they are not the church," says Tom Kelty of Valatie, New York. "Never has so much power and decision-making been in so few hands."

Even those willing to give the hierarchy the benefit of the doubt can't understand the secrecy surrounding an investigation of women who have given so much to the church.

"I don't know the real purpose of the visitation," says Mary Patricia Olin of Derwood, Maryland, "but it doesn't seem like it's coming from the heart of Christ."

And the survey says...

1. The apostolic visitation looking into the quality of life of women religious in the United States is:

55% - Insulting and unjustified
21% - Necessary
9% - Unnecessary
8% - Reasonable and justified
7% - Other

2. I feel that U.S. women religious in general are appreciated by:

92% - The laity
59% - Non-Catholics
54% - Priests
29% - U.S. bishops
21% - The Vatican
16% - Other

3. Sisters who take controversial stands on interreligious dialogue, homosexuality, and women's ordination are:

62% - Prophetic leaders guiding the church in new directions.
18% - Dangerous radicals who have lost their roots.
7% - Outsiders, but sometimes worth listening to.
13% - Other

4. Controversial views on church teaching are common among women religious.

42% - Agree
33% - Disagree  
25% - Other

Feedback  

I think the greatest gift women religious offer the church is...

Being a model of living according to gospel values.

Their willingness to roll up their sleeves and work.

Bringing the gift of a woman's compassion and empathy to this church, which has not always valued women.

Their support of "marginal" Catholics, especially those who already have had bad experiences within the church.

Their willingness to minister to all, in spite of the often callous way they are treated by the institutional bureaucracy.

A passion for justice.

I think the question is sexist. Women religious offer what any faithful, honest, seeking human being offers the church.

The primary reason so few young women are joining religious orders today is...

Opportunities for single women outside of religious orders are many. A hard life of non-stop child-bearing if married or an unappreciated, old maid aunt if single are no longer the only options. And a yearning for a spiritually focused life centered on service isn't that common.

Why would they? They see that the sisters are not valued by the institutional church. They see women's efforts disregarded, criticized, and ignored. 

Parents are not encouraging this vocation as they did in the 1950s. The culture seems to be trumping religious life.

The orders in habits that attract women provide an easy way to achieve the identity people of that age so desperately seek. Put on "the suit," and you are set for life!

Women in the church have so little power but are expected to carry a lot of the work burden.

The same reasons young men are not joining-a reluctance to join an institutional church club that's discredited itself.

I once thought about becoming a religious. I aspired to a life of study, prayer and service-and I've found it pretty much in married life and in my profession. 

The investigation is the nail in the coffin!

My view of the future of women's religious life is...

Bleak, I fear, if there is any attempt to make it return to the medieval ideas of being seen, not heard. 

Associate membership will be very important as men and women work with sisters to carry out their mission.

Tentative. I see no grand reason for religious life. Serving God does not require religious vows of any kind-especially vows of celibacy.

It will take varied forms, including monastic communities that welcome people for a few years, interfaith communities, and small communities somewhat similar to the "typical" community we have now, but international in scope.

Full and equal justice in the roles open to them, including priesthood. I see them as presiders at Eucharist and ministers of the sacraments.

I believe that we will always have women and men dedicated to the vowed life. Our challenge is to communicate our raison d'être more convincingly by sharing the way we live our lives, not just the work we do.

Only God knows.

It will ultimately die out, as will the all-male, celibate priesthood.

General Comments

When is the investigation of the priests to begin?

I regret the lack of involvement of the religious themselves in this investigation. How much input from women is really in this process?

In many cases, sisters are more educated and theologically trained than priests, yet are denied breaking through the Catholic glass ceiling to ordination.

I think the nuns should investigate the Vatican.

To all the sisters I say a million thanks. You have been good and faithful servants.

This investigation is again making me ask myself if I want to stay in this church.

My life, our church, our world has been made better by religious women. Their lives and ministry are vacant without the support, inclusion, and participation of the institutional church. So some periodic visitation is necessary and reasonable.

It seems the church is saying contemplative orders are more valuable than service orders. What, Mother Teresa should have stayed behind the walls, off the streets, and prayed? 

We don't have enough money to keep all our schools open. We are merging parishes. We have missions all over the world that are in desperate need of funds. And we're paying to investigate our women religious?

My greatest sadness is that while both my husband and I had sisters as educators and friends, our grandchildren don't know what a sister is. A sad loss, indeed.

The women religious in my life have never led me astray from the teachings of Jesus and his church. They have been a bright light of hope in a world that is increasingly complex. Bless them all, young and aging.

This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75. No. 1, pages. 20-23).

Image: William Petersen