The problem with the magnified attention given to the Nashville Dominicans -- the latest being a approving piece by National Public Radio -- is that it carries a silent agenda in addition to an obvious one.
The obvious one is to record the life and faith of a community of nuns that has unquestioned integrity and value all in itself. The print, radio and television reports capture an interesting story of women preserving a way of life that is sincere and grounded in solid convictions. Journalists rightly note this development.
That part is clear and well-founded.
What goes unspoken, however, is that these accounts usually ignore the attack by those who advocate conservative women's communities against the forms of religious life that emerged from Vatican II. Unwittingly, perhaps, the media are taking sides in a struggle that launched the investigations by Rome aimed at rolling back those emerging forms. Those investigations continue even as the Vatican takes steps to dispel fears of a crackdown.
In this struggle, the Nashville Dominicans have become spotlighted symbols of what consecrated life "should" be. The implication is that they flourish while the Vatican II communities languish and that a sleight-of-hand numbers game proves that God likes traditional convents best.
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The CARA studies and others report that the majority of young women choose traditional groups. It is important to point out that these convents favored by the Vatican are growing at a relative snails' pace. There is no flood of applicants. It is a trickle. Nothing wrong with that but that small relative increase is extrapolated in media accounts into a claim that young women are flocking by the tens of thousands to the communities that advertise themselves as
keeping the orthodox flame in the midst of radical feminist sisters.
It would be surprising if, in a time of a reactive tea party and an upsurge of political conservatism in general, that the tiny fraction of young Catholic women seeking a consecrated life didn't gravitate to conservative orders. Vitality, where it exists in Catholicism, is found on the right.
For 40 years, the Vatican has rejected a live-and-let-live attitude toward differing styles of community life and given active support to an organization of conservative nuns dedicated to overthrowing the Vatican II forms of sisterhood. Unable to topple the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Council of Major Superiors of Women became the Vatican's surrogate in the struggle.
Nobody denies traditional nuns their right to lead a life more in keeping with pre-Vatican II norms. They deserve respect for that. But nearly everyone on the traditionalist side denies legitimacy to the manner in which Vatican II sisters have chosen to express their vows
All credit is due to Nashville Dominicans for leading a life of religious dedication and service. By all means note their growth and vibrancy. But at the same time, recognize that such groups, perhaps without their consent, are proxies in a much larger, consciously fought battle initiated by the Vatican. However the results of the investigations are rendered so as to appease the very sisters who have been most distressed by the blatant assault on their integrity, the fact remains that great psychological damage has been done not only by the investigators but by glowing profiles of those who are being falsely portrayed as evidence of a great triumph.
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