Say it isn’t fair, but when the Vatican announced Jan. 30 it had begun a study of U.S. women’s religious congregations (Page 1), I couldn’t help but recall the utterly failed effort by the U.S. bishops in the late 1980s and early 1990s to write a pastoral on women. They were coming off a high then, having written pastorals on peace (1983) and justice (1986). Pastorals were the way of the day then. But before the bishops abandoned this effort, retreating as they did with their ecclesial stoles tucked between their knees, they had become the butt of church jokes and had alienated a sizable number of women.
The women’s pastoral was a no-win document from the start. Some women criticized it for the very reason that it was about women in the first place. They argued that anybody with any sense of church function and church structures knew it couldn’t possibly address the most volatile and divisive question: the ordination of women.
Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister summed up the thinking of many when she wrote at the time: “Women aren’t the problem … patriarchy is the problem, sexism is the problem, male chauvinism is the problem, a skewed, distorted and enslaved theology of God is the problem. Write papers about those, indeed, but don’t write one about women.”
It could be argued that talking about a study of Catholic women then and a study of them now is like mixing apples and oranges. I can hear some people saying this time it’s different because two American women religious are in charge of the Vatican’s “apostolic visitation.” After all, women will write the report. But they will then return it to the man who commissioned it, Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
In the final analysis, it is men studying and reporting on women. It will be up to Rodé and his Vatican aides to order some reform or renewal actions in its wake. As much as one might hope to think that good can come from this, I suspect the medium is once again the message. Word on the street indicates that few expect Rodé to follow reception of the visitation study with a grand party, as he should, celebrating the unparalleled achievements of our U.S. women religious.
I feel bad for Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, charged with carrying out the visitation. She’s not the problem; it’s structural. What we have here is one more attempted study of women by men, in this case a study by male clerics of women religious. Maybe 50 years ago it might have worked. Maybe. But no longer. So the study itself, by its very nature, points to a larger elephant in the sanctuary. For the sake of fairness, next time let’s have our women religious study the quality of life of our male clerics. That’s a report many would read.
Meanwhile, for the edification of anyone wanting to read more about the heroic lives of U.S. women religious, you might turn to Page 16a to learn about an exhibit put together by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It’s a self-generated effort to share some rich history. I’d recommend it as “Exhibit 1” in the Vatican visitation study. And for another slant on how women religious are reshaping their structures in these complex times, read the story on merging religious orders on Page 1a. These articles are elements in our special section on Religious Life. Rome, are you listening?
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We’re delighted to welcome Alice Popovici as a contributor to our pages and to our Web site. Popovici, whose piece on immigration policy and its impact on real people starts on Page 1, most recently worked as a reporter and photographer at the Mohave Valley Daily News, headquartered in Bullhead City, Ariz. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Popovici will focus on social-justice concerns. In the next issue she’ll tackle the politics of the death penalty in a feature that includes an interview with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an opponent of capital punishment.
Printed in the National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2009.