In his letter announcing a doctrinal review of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, Cardinal William J. Levada makes reference to a 2001 meeting between LCWR officials and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At that meeting, the officials were invited to report on the reception by LCWR congregations of Church teaching on the sacramental priesthood, Dominus Iesus and "the problem of homosexuality."
He then declares, “Given both the tenor and the doctrinal content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the intervening years, this Dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present.”
One address that has aroused particular concern and discussion was given at the LCWR 2007 annual assembly in Kansas City. The keynote that year was given by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink and was titled "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century"(pdf). In her address, Sr. Laurie says that religious life stands at a moment of "indecision", being pushed and pulled toward numerous directions, and thus not moving.
She suggests religious are challenged toward:
· recognizing the various directions we as individuals and we as community are moving toward,
· evaluating which of these will foster our life and charism as women religious,and, finally,
· abandoning the other possibilities, sailing headlong into the direction we choose.
Sr. Laurie identifies four directions religious are being pushed or pulled and discusses the merits of each:
1. Death with Dignity and Grace
2. Acquiescence to Others’ Expectations
3. Sojourning in a New Land not yet Known
4. Reconciliation for the Sake of the Mission
Regarding the first, Sr. Laurie details the well-known signs of decline and says:
Faced with this scenario some communities have made valiant choices to die with dignity and grace, to put their house in order, to pass on their charism and to ritualize that who they have been will not continue into the future. They do not invite or accept new candidates. They recognize that they have served the Church well, and now leave room for a new movement of the Spirit. They accept that their congregations were called into being for a specific purpose, and they endeavored enthusiastically to accomplish that purpose. Shoring up the crumbling walls of the institution would never be the desire of their founders. They acknowledge their accomplishments, engage in appropriate mourning and rejoicing, prepare for burial and recognize that others will come along after them.
"Death is the default mode for many congregations in denial", she says, who are not actively "ritualizing" the death or making an appropriate burial which would recognize "that the sisters have served long and well." Instead they place:
an exorbitant focus on retirement and its financial needs, and a wholesale depression that manifests in apathy and individualism. These are the walking dead among us. And they don’t even know it.
Regarding 2 - "Acquiescence to Others' Expectations," Sr. Laurie give a rather snide title and description to the phenomenon of new orders which are flourishing, but admits nonetheless their success:
Not every congregation is giving up the ghost sort to speak. Some have attended to their reality and are making choices that a generation ago would have been anathema to their members. These groups are recognizing the changing atmosphere in the institutional Church, the reneging on the promises of Vatican II, and the seemingly conservative young adults interested in pursing a life of holiness through the profession of the evangelical counsels. They are taking seriously Pope John Paul II’s call to pursue holiness first above all else. They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. They are renewing pious practices such as adoration and the Rosary. They are returning to the classroom.
Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying.
In context, this option is clearly not recommended given the extremely condescending description of such congregations in the address. (You can read it beginning on page 13 of the pdf.)
Option 3, "Sojourning in a New Land not yet Known", I suspect, is the one most relevant to the concerns raised by Cardinal Levada - not simply because it presents an option for the continuation of religious life, but because it purports to be descriptive of the reality in certain congregations. I'll post it here in its entirety and leave it to your own reflection. I may post on option 4 later, but gotta run:
C. Sojourners in a New Land not yet Known
i. Biblical Foundation: Hagar, the Mother of Another Great Nation (Gen
The story of Hagar, at first read, is a sad tale. An Egyptian handmaid to a powerful wife of a powerful resident alien is offered to the husband, in order to produce an heir. Misinterpreting these actions as the possibility of release and elevation in position, Hagar flaunts her new status before Sarah. Bad move. Abraham chooses wife over sexual slave, allowing Sarah to do with her property as she wishes. Sarah sorely mistreats Hagar, who eventually runs away. As the story is told from the perspective of Israel, God intervenes and commands that Hagar return to her abuser. A shred of hope is given her. God will bless her son, who will become a founder of another great nation. She returns dutifully at the word of a foreign God not her own.
Later when Sarah spies Ishmael, the son of Hagar, playing with her son, Isaac, she again intercedes to Abraham. "Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac!" (Gen 21:9). Abraham is distressed—not because of Hagar—but because of his son. Again God promises this child, too, since he is an heir of Abraham, will be a great nation. Abraham sends the two off into the wilderness of Beersheva with only a skin of water and a bit of bread. When the water is gone, she places her son under a shrub and walks a distance away, for she cannot bear to watch him die. As luck would have it, God hears the child’s cry (not the mother’s?) and provides water in the desert. The text continues, “God was with the boy as he grew up” (Gen 21:17). But the story never says that God was with Hagar.
The narrative of Hagar is also a tale of paradox. Hagar may be a member of the household, but she is a slave, an Egyptian slave at that. She is property for the woman in power, Sarah, to abuse and to dispose of. She is sexually exploited by the man of power, Abraham. The God of Israel is not her God, and sees little need to protect or care for her. But Hagar is, nonetheless, paralleled with Abraham. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation (Gen 12), a similar promise God also makes to Hagar (Gen 21:18). Abraham sends for a wife from among his kin for his son Isaac (Gen 24:4). Hagar will find a wife among her own Egyptians for her son, Ishmael (Gen 21:21). Sarah needed her man to fulfill her wishes, pleading with Abraham twice to take care of that upstart. But Hagar has no such man, and no such limitation. When last seen, Hagar is leading her son through the desert, bereft of God’s guidance for her, with neither man nor family for support or protection. A seemingly vulnerable woman sojourning in an inhospitable land.
The dynamic option for Religious Life, which I am calling, Sojourning, is much more difficult to discuss, since it involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the bounds of institutional religion. Its search for the Holy may have begun rooted in Jesus as the Christ, but deep reflection, study and prayer have opened it up to the spirit of the Holy in all of creation. Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian.
When religious communities embraced the spirit of renewal in the 1970s, they took seriously that the world was no longer the enemy, that a sense of ecumenism required encountering the holy “other,” and that the God of Jesus might well be the God of Moses and the God of Mohammed. The works of Thomas Merton encouraged an exploration of the nexus between Eastern and Western religious practices. The emergence of the women’s movement with is concomitant critique of religion invited women everywhere to use a hermeneutical lens of suspicion when reading the androcentric Scriptures and the texts of the Tradition. With a new lens, women also began to see the divine within nature, the value and importance of the cosmos, and that the emerging new cosmology encouraged their spirituality and fed their souls.
As one sister described it, “I was rooted in the story of Jesus, and it remains at my core, but I’ve also moved beyond Jesus.” The Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative for these women. They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine. With these insights come a shattering or freeing realization—depending on where you stand. Jesus is not the only son of God. Salvation is not limited to Christians. Wisdom is found in the traditions of the Church as well as beyond it.
Sojourners have left the religious home of their fathers and mothers and are traveling in a foreign land, mapping their way as they go. They are courageous women among us. And very well may provide a glimpse into the new thing that God is bringing about in our midst. Who’s to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God? A movement the ecclesiastical system would not recognize. A wholly new way of being holy that is integrative, non-dominating, and inclusive. But a whole new way that is also not Catholic Religious Life. The Benedictine Women of Madison are the most current example I can name. Their commitment to ecumenism lead them beyond the exclusivity of the Catholic Church into a new inclusivity, where all manner of seeking God is welcomed. They are certainly religious women, but they are no longer women religious as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. They choose as a congregation to step outside the Church in order to step into a greater sense of holiness. Theirs was a choice of integrity, insight and courage.
Like Hagar wandering the wilderness with neither guide nor Israel’s God, the congregations that choose the way of the sojourner may leave the land of religious familiarity, but they will also become a great nation, for women and men are hungering for their leadership, insights and inspiration.