Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A quick guide to the Vatican report on American nuns

A few years ago my community hosted two sisters doing the apostolic visitation, and I spoke to one of them privately.  They were very kind and it was an enjoyable visit. Now we have the report which has finally come out, and here is what I noticed about it:

1. It uses positive language and the authors seem to want to go out of their way to praise the sisters, probably because of all the negative publicity that had been generated earlier.

2. Under the heading “empirical findings” it notes what everybody knows, that religious life in the United States is in deep trouble. The numbers have plummeted from around 175,000 in the mid-60s to less than 50,000 sisters today, with a median age in the mid-to-late 70s. The report, however, does not try to analyze the reasons for the decline.

3. Rather than telling communities what to do, the report focuses on certain areas and asks religious communities to evaluate their own lives and practices in these areas. I think that is really all it could do, since such great variety exists among all the congregations. And that approach also respects the sisters themselves as the persons they are, called by God to an important vocation in the Church.

4. Reading between the lines, however, one can see that there is concern about certain areas in particular. The one that I most noticed comes in the section “Called to a Life Centered on Christ.” The report states:
The Church is continually challenged to a fresh understanding and experience of this mystical encounter. However, caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith. Truly, the Word of God is the one through whom the cosmos is created and sustained in being since "all things have been created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things have their being (cf. Col. 1:16f).
This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.
Those are some very basic teachings—God, Jesus Christ, Redemption—the very cornerstones of the Catholic faith. The very fact that there is concern about those areas indicates all is not well. This is reflected in certain types of practices among some religious sisters (ie. certain New Age, earth-centered spiritualities that seem to have little connection with actual Catholic teachings).

5. About vocations, the report also notes that while candidates today often have more education and professional backgrounds than previously, they have “less prior theological and spiritual formation.” This is certainly true. And that, I think, points to the real problem with religious life today. It is not an isolated problem but one that reflects problems of the wider Church: lack of a basic Catholic understanding, the falling away from Catholic prayer practices, falling participation in the Mass, the breakup of Catholic family life. And that is something that concerns all of us. If we want more sisters, if we want a more vibrant and powerfully effective witness in the consecrated life, all Catholics need to take their faith more seriously, practice it, live it, and pass it on to others.

Finally, just to note, this report is not about the LCWR. This report is from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and has to do with the way religious communities actually live their lives. The investigation of the LCWR is being done by the CDF and that report is still awaited. It will certainly say more about doctrinal issues.

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