Friday, August 7, 2009

Sister, and all her sisters

I was in Stop n' Shop yesterday afternoon, buying bananas, and ran into Sister Julianna, a patient and wise woman who taught at Fairfield for years, and is now retired. We chatted about various developments at school. She asked about my children and I gave her the official update.

As we parted, I wanted to turn back, and ask for her prayers for one of my kids (the official update was not quite accurate), but then thought not to burden her, probably everyone faced with that grace-filled countenance blurts out some secret sorrow or worry.

So I kept going but, had I asked, she would certainly have responded.

Sister always does.

This was in mind as I read Sr. Mary Ann Walsh's gentle description of the hall of mirrors that is the life of women religious in 2009 [h/t: James Martin at the America blog via Gibson]. Whiplash is probably not all that new for women religious, recall that they have both led large organizations and been servants to male clerics for centuries.

But there is something new, a visitation that is questioning their fidelity to doctrine that seems less about celebrating their generosity and more about shutting down any hint that women religious have similar questions to most Catholics in the pews -- not convinced about the ban on ordaining women, unsure that punitive legislation is the way to address the question of abortion, and struggling to reconcile the Church's official story on homosexuality with the witness of gay and lesbian Catholics.

Walsh doesn't go there, her reference to the visitation is oblique, all she's saying is that it's a ... well ... complicated ... time to be a woman religious. Part of the complication is the never-ending treatment of women, particularly women religious, as third-class citizens in our Church. She rightly takes umbrage at the latest report (from my own diocese), that a whistle-blowing priest was threatened by his bishop with being sent "to live with nuns" for having asked real questions about a huge financial scandal. The diocese has denied this, a lawsuit, brought by another whistle-blower, is ongoing. Apparently Walsh is not convinced.

Others DO go there on the subject of the visitation. Ken Briggs, in an essay in the National Catholic Reporter ("U.S. Women Religious Leadership, at a crossroads"), sees it as a serious threat to the progressive Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which he finds to be "the last organizational remnant of Vatican II."

There are reasonable questions that can and should be asked about any organization in the Catholic Church, and women's religious orders are no exception. It's one thing to ask for a conversation about broad themes in christology, if this is done with theological competence and a sensitivity to context. [UPDATE: Beyond Jesus?]

But a witch-hunt, guys, is something different.

And finally, one little quibble with NCR. Right after I got the email alert about Briggs' essay, I got another, this time about John Allen's latest column "Hope Stirs in Religious Life." Dueling perspectives," I thought, "this will be interesting!"

But Allen's column is about a conference of male religious. So, what's the editorial deal here, NCR? That "male" is the norm for "religious"? And female religious are other than "normal?"

Just askin'.

UPDATE: For several links and an overview of the Vatican visitation of women's religious orders, see Rose Marie Berger, "Save a Nun: The Vatican's Investigation Into U.S. Catholic Sisters."