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Radical Nuns Okayed by Pope Francis

Pope Francis has done an about-face on the reform of the radical US nuns’ group: [1]

 The Vatican has announced the unexpected conclusion of a controversial overhaul of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns — a major shift in tone and treatment of American nuns under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.

The Vatican said Thursday it had accepted a final report on its overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and declared that the “implementation of the mandate has been accomplished.”

So, the Vatican is declaring victory and going home. No one can possibly believe that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have been reformed. This means one of two things:

1) that the Pope doesn’t think they need reforming; or

2) that the Pope has made a prudential decision that there’s nothing to be gained by pushing this further, because the radical orders are dying out anyway. [2] Time and mortality shall accomplish the reform.

Either scenario is plausible.

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56 Comments To "Radical Nuns Okayed by Pope Francis"

#1 Comment By Anne On April 20, 2015 @ 3:30 am

Thanks for sharing that about your upbringing. During the late 60s, early 70s, I was a student at a Catholic women’s college on the West Coast, where it seemed every couple months another priest was leaving the priesthood to get married, often as not to a nun. For those of us who had grown up thinking of nuns and priests as uncanonized saints, the times were unsettling, to say the least.

And yet several girls I knew joined convents, one right out of high school at only 17. (Amazingly, some 50 years later, she’s still there!) Some remained; some married. Oddly enough, of the teachers I had in high school and college, all apparently stayed faithful to their vows. Several have died, but all led very active lives, many pursuing whole second careers in social work or counseling after reaching what we in the laity would consider retirement age. Undoubtedly, most members of what everyone calls these “aging” (LCWR-affiliated) communities feel the need to generate income for as long as they possibly can.

I know all the criticisms that can and have been made against the nuns of this era. I’ve engaged in many of them myself, as Rod knows. But looking at the sisters I know, and even at some of the more famous ones I’ve only seen from afar, such as the Nuns on the Bus, I realize how true most have been to the vows they took and to the human beings they’ve served. And yet after over a decade of revelations of horrific crimes committed against children and families (and not a few nuns) by the male clergy and episcopate, who does the Vatican investigate and put on disciplinary watch? A group of elderly nuns accused of caring more about fighting poverty than opposing abortion and talking too much as if they were talking back to the men in charge. Something’s just very wrong about that, and I hope the Pope at least realized that.

As for the newer orders, they may do better in the long run, but all the triumphant claims of superiority are premature for now. While many attract more young recruits than the older orders, the average age of CMSWR sisters is 60, which means they too will soon have an aging problem to face, along with many of the same problems that plagued the older communities as they thinned out getting where they are now.

At bottom, most of these revolve around just living a communal life at a time when women are free to come and go as they choose. Prayer, service and living in community are all things easier said than done. Many young women may be attracted by the idea of being a bride of Christ and wearing a uniform that announces that relationship to the world. But whether many can and will endure the specific hardships that entails for a lifetime remains to be seen. In the meantime, it would seem well to honor those who have actually made it most of the way.

#2 Comment By Mary Russell On April 20, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

“I realize how true most have been to the vows they took and to the human beings they’ve served”

I don’t deny that these are generally good hearted people who did good things. My mother taught grade school in poor areas of L.A. In the 60s, and I hope she can look back on her activities of that time with satisfaction.

And I think most of the children raised by ex-nuns and ex-priests turned out to be good people on a human level. But here’s the thing: other than myself, I can’t think of a single one who is a faithful Catholic. And it wasn’t because our parents were trying to pass on the faith and it just didn’t stick. I was never taught how to pray, was never taught that I was created to love and serve God, that Jesus is a friend and savior, and that Mary is my mother. I first heard the Gospel through a book about the saints which I checked out of the library and hid under my bed because I was so embarrassed to be interested in such things. My point: if the most au courant Catholics of that age, the ones who believed themselves to be on the cutting edge of reforms instituted by Vatican II couldn’t even pass on the simple evangelical truths of Christianity to their own children, how could they be trusted to give a robust example of it to students and strangers?

The answer is they couldn’t, and didn’t. And here is where you get a real difference in the narrative given by baby boomer Catholics, who revere their nuns, and gen X Catholics who still retain the faith. My generation is old enough to have our childhoods overlap with the nuns and priests of the Vatican II generation still going full throttle in their teaching careers. And there are too many examples of nuns going completely off the rails in their personal and teaching lives to dismiss Barbara Marx Hubbard as an anomaly. I never went to Catholic school (thank God) but talk to any 30 or 40 something Catholic who still practices her faith and you are likely to get an earful about the kookiness of the attending nuns and priests.

#3 Comment By dominic1955 On April 20, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

“That is why many of the great medieval saints became nuns, including one of my favorites, Teresa of Avila. And that continued well into the 20th century. While she was obviously dedicated to the poor, I’m sure that Katherine Drexel found life as a nun more appealing than the vapid life of a society wife in Philadelphia.”

Gee, and I always thought these sainted women joined the convent out of love for God…

#4 Comment By Mary Russell On April 21, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

“But whether many can and will endure the specific hardships that entails for a lifetime remains to be seen.”

I don’t know if Anne (or anybody else) is still reading, but this deserves comment. While the above is of course true for any individual person of any age who enters the convent, the statement cannot at this point be generally applied to the CMSWR communities as a whole. The Sisters of Life were founded in 1991, which means their founders have been walking the walk and living the life for over 20 years now. Those are stable vocations, in a thriving order without counterpart ( as far as I know) on the LCWR side. Just to pick another lesser known CMSWR example, the Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan (another community I looked into many years ago) is attracting women to lead a robust community and devotional life, and, given the fact that it is not a new community, has sisters ranging in age from young to old. Are there CMSWR communities that are going to die out? Of course. Are the numbers anything like what they were in the 50s and 60s? No. But given that there ARE communities that are thriving with excellent formation and good retention, I think it’s undeniable at this point that the future of religious life in the U.S. belongs to the CMSWR for the time being.

#5 Comment By Dennis Larkin On April 21, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

The LCWR lost, and the faithful won.

#6 Comment By Peter On April 23, 2015 @ 8:46 am

I’ve come late to this discussion, but there is another possibility, which is that such a gigantic apostolic visitation and the subsequent reporting require the cooperation of many competent and pastorally-sensitive bureaucrats, and they’re not so easy to find or keep engaged (since they usually are tapped for other projects, too). I see this as part of the larger strategy of reforming the Curia. From my regular meeting with religious superiors in the Archdiocese of Chicago, it was clear that the whole project ran into personnel problems at an early stage that were never wholly overcome, and my guess would be that the whole thing stalled.