Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nuns and the Vatican

I've been following, on and off, the story of the Vatican's two investigations of American nuns. One of the investigations, the Apostolic Visitation by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), which began in 2008 under Pope Benedict, came to a formal end on Tuesday with the release of its report, and a press conference in Rome.

You'll find a decent summary in Wednesday's New York Times, but here are my takeaways:

  • CICLSAL said nice things about the work US nuns are doing: for each other and for society.
  • Individual orders/institutions who aren't will be called in for a little chat.
  • The current pope, Francis, is saying hopeful but vague things about women in the church. "Many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church."
  • CICLSAL is being equally non-specific. "We will continue to work to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding "the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life."
  • Although this was initially interpreted as an confrontative move on the part of the Vatican, and so some nuns felt angry and suspicious, everyone is now anxious for the Visitation to see as routine, indeed rather helpful. Many are cautiously optimistic that Pope Francis has set a new tone and things are looking up.
  • Not everyone is buying this.*
  • No matter what your perspective, it's clear the overall situation needs some attention. The median age of the American nun is mid- to late-70s. They are getting old and fragile and they are not well funded.
  • Overall, US nuns, as represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and the less liberal Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, seem to think the report was a good thing, a signal of gratitude for and appreciation of the work women do in the Church, with some tantalising hope for the future.
The obvious gear-change on the gender stuff, the turning of "You women are getting uppity" into "Oh, gosh, we really, really need you. Like Mary, Mother of God, you nurture us all" is interesting. If you add it to the pig-in-a-python age situation, its consequences, and possible futures, it becomes fascinating. 

From the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, women—mostly white, mostly lower middle class (I have no hard data for this, just anecdata)— flocked to the church. I have some guesses as to why (but I want to emphasise that they are only guesses; this is not something I've spent much time thinking about). 

The end of World War Two coincided with women being encouraged to leave the workforce to make way for the men returning from the front. (And if they didn't leave voluntarily they were pushed.) Being a nun was a path out of poverty and towards rewarding work, visibility, and respect within a community. Those women who took that path are now ageing out, and few novices are signing up. Those who are considering taking vows today have different motivations. According to the report, they are more diverse, well-educated and older than novices of the mid-20th century, though the report gives no specifics (rather startling in this day and age). Apparently, these women are looking for ways to live in a visible community. Reading between the lines (oh, I want raw data!) it seems that women would like to live with other women, set apart from the laity by obvious cultural signifiers such as vows and habits. The church is no longer a path to education and away from poverty but instead a way to live a meaningful life, giving to the world at large while being part of a tight community with common values.

To me this leads to the possibility that if the Vatican plays their hand just right, the church could recruit a significant number of capable and financially secure women in the next ten years. Those women are used to being treated with respect, to getting things done, and to being subordinate to no one.

A lot depends, of course, on the other Vatican inquiry: the continuing investigation of the LCWR by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, as of September, was not looking too promising. We won't know for a while. But I always like to think smart people are in charge, and Pope Francis might be steering things in a better direction. I am not holding my breath, though. There are intriguing signals from the Vatican, but he is still a Catholic.

On the other hand, I'm seeing a parallel to the situation 1400 years ago, when another smart bishop saw a way to influence a whole new segment of society. All Francis has to do is be as smart as Bishop Aidan and find a woman as amazing and able as Hild to build and lead a new generation. This could get interesting...

* I like this roundup of video responses and reports from Global Sisters Report: input from a variety of perspectives.
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