‘Sister X,’ Vatican II & women religious



In the otherwise very fine piece by “Sister X” on the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious, an argument was attributed to me which is a very serious misinterpretation of my position (“Cross Examination,” October 9). I’m sure it was unintentional, but it could have major consequences in the context of this current assault.

I did not say that Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) congregations read Perfectae caritatis (PC) through the lens of the conciliar document on the church, Lumen gentium (would that they had!), and that Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) congregations read it through the lens of the constitution on the church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes. Rather, I said the CMSWR congregations read PC in isolation—the original name of CMSWR was “Consortium Perfectae Caritatis”—whereas LCWR congregations read PC through the lenses of Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes (see “We’ve Given Birth to a New Form of Religious Life,” NCR, February 27). In other words, CMSWR read PC as a call to spiritual deepening (that is, a return to Scripture and the vision of the founder) accompanied by some more or less minor adjustments to their internal life, which, however, would remain essentially unchanged, or preconciliar, in structure and function (which they understand as more faithful to tradition, the magisterium). The LCWR read PC in the context of conciliar renewal as a whole, which involved a profound conversion in understandings of the church, Christology, soteriology, freedom of conscience, relationships with the world, other Christian communions, and even non-Christian paths to salvation. Thus PC, in the context of comprehensive conciliar renewal, was calling religious to the same deep-rooted conversions in self-understanding, spirituality, community life, theology, mission and ministry, attitudes toward the world, and so on, that renewed religious congregations have embraced, and which are the very objects of the Vatican suspicion that precipitated this investigation.

I hope you will clarify this misinterpretation of my position as quickly as possible lest anyone get the impression that I think Lumen gentium was any less important than Gaudium et spes in the conciliar renewal and therefore in the renewal of religious life. In a sense, those two documents taken together will probably emerge (once the current restorationism abates) as the twin pillars of a community called church, living in and for the world for which Jesus died and rose, that will be much closer to what Jesus called into being than what we are currently suffering under. And renewed religious life will be a form of consecrated life that is coherent with, and vital to, that renewed church.

Sandra Schneiders, IHM
Berkeley, Calif.



I thank Sandra Schneiders for her gracious letter, and I apologize for my mischaracterization of her views. I got it wrong. The characterization of broad differences between Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes is mine, not hers. The question of how accurate that analysis is can perhaps be pursued in the future. I also affirm that one document is not more important than the other. Both have equal authority.

The point I was trying to make, somewhat ineptly, is that two competing visions of how the church should engage the world seem to be highlighted in the controversy surrounding the visitation and investigation of American sisters. I agree completely with Schneiders that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious read Perfectae caritatis, Vatican II’s statement on the renewal of religious life, “in the context of the conciliar renewal as a whole, which involved a profound conversion in understandings of the church, Christology, soteriology, freedom of conscience, relationships with the world, other Christian communions, and even non-Christian paths to salvation.”

Sister X



Sister X makes many excellent and unarguable points. To name just a few: She and her sisters have been dedicated to Christ and the church for decades; she and her sisters did not cost Catholics $2 billion settling pedophilia cases; and she and her sisters did not disgrace the episcopacy by playing cover-up games. While I don’t know much about this Vatican visitation, if it really is as one-sided and opaque as Sister X reports, then she and her sisters deserve better.

Yet, while Sister X says she wants “to believe in the good will of the institutional church,” she offers no introspection or analysis of what she reports are the Vatican’s main concerns: doctrinal compliance, women’s ordination, religious pluralism, and homosexuality. She does mention in passing that these issues “perplex most Catholics,” but nuns aren’t most Catholics. Is there really nothing to say along these lines, no ambiguity that is worth addressing?

To take one example: Sister X writes that her community integrates Jung, sociology, and nature films into their spiritual formation, alongside more traditional Catholic sources. Such openness to the world can be an appropriate Catholic posture. How we maintain such openness without becoming syncretistic, however, is interesting and not obvious. Sister X’s hint that the modern stuff is closer to “real life” than the Catholic stuff isn’t an argument or an explanation, and is more likely a provocation.

Sister X dismisses the claim that shedding habits and moving out of convents cost nuns their true charism; she says that claim is “nothing more than caricature.” Is it really so simple? I have daughters, and I teach college students, and we all know that young women today can read Jung, relish nature, and even serve the poor or work in a hospital without taking life-long vows. I live in a neighborhood with many aging nuns, some of whom tell me that their meals together and their common prayer are irregular now that most of them have jobs in the wider community. So if one of my daughters or students is called to make contemplation and prayer the center of her life, what should I suggest? There are still a few orders that maintain this focus, but they tend to be the ones with habits in the convent, and they tend to be the orders that are growing—right?

I am not an expert in these matters. I reiterate my respect and sympathy for Sister X and much of her case. It must be difficult to avoid being defensive while under examination. But I can also see that Sister X has neglected to answer the questions put to her sisters by the Vatican, and I can see that she has dismissed as caricature what are demonstrably interesting questions. We need better from her and from Commonweal.

Christopher C. Roberts
Philadelphia, Pa.



Christopher Roberts has missed my point. The analysis and introspection he asks for from women religious regarding the issues that seem to concern the Vatican and certain U.S. bishops are widely available. I tried to do something else: to explain how many women religious are reacting to the Vatican investigations, why they are reacting that way, and why so few have spoken out in public.

If the Vatican wants answers to the “demonstrably interesting” questions posed by the investigation, why has it not involved women religious who are widely recognized theologians and academics? These include: Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ; Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP; Sandra Schnei­ders, IHM; Margaret Farley, RSM; Rose McDermott, SSJ; Julia Upton, RSM; Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ; Dianne Bergant, CSA; and Jaime Phelps, OP. I could go on. It seems to me that any investigation into the doctrinal orthodoxy and “quality of life” of American women religious would want to take advantage of the knowledge and gifts of these remarkable thinkers and faithful women religious.

Roberts darkly hints at the dangers of syncretism. I think he exaggerates the threat. He does not seem to appreciate the fact that if the faith formation of novices confines itself to “traditional Catholic sources” it’s unlikely that women theologians will ever be read. In the traditional sources, it was almost exclusively men telling women what their holiness should look like. More women’s voices are needed, and one way to do that is to broaden the range of texts used in vocational formation.

Harry Hagan, OSB, of St. Meinrad’s, Indiana, has spoken of religious life as a “love is blind” impulse, a “crazy love” that impels a person to throw her life away and dedicate herself wholly to following Jesus Christ. Wearing a habit, living together in a convent, praying at the same time, and teaching in a parish grade school are external features of that crazy love. However, the essence of religious life is that blind impulse to give one’s life to God. No woman stays in religious life without it. LCWR communities have been faithful to that essence and core of religious life while adapting the externals to the needs of the times. Their concern for promoting justice while providing service to those in need reflects the church’s sense of solidarity with the whole human family. These communities are a precious, abiding charism in the church, one that reflects the mind of Christ.

Sister X



Bravo and thanks to Sister X for her fearless, incisive and compassionate article, “Cross Examination,” in the October 9 issue. I wept on the last page when she read her departed sister’s vow document, thanked her, and put her hand on her sister’s. This is how we sisters love one another. No questionnaire can ever capture this.

Joan Sauro, CSJ
Syracuse, N.Y.

Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 
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