Depending on your point of view, the report released today on the state of religious life in the United States is either a confusing disappointment or pleasant surprise. After all, the years of the Visitation are peppered with ugly accusations against the women religious and disconcerting defiance against ecclesial authority. Surely the majority of media-informed spectators expected a public flogging. This report certainly appears to be a commuting of sentence, leading to both head-scratching and champagne-popping. Main stream media certainly looks to be celebrating the new tone of the report.
After reading the actual report, I heartily applaud the strong commendation of the zeal the women religious have for their institutions and the hard work they do to serve the poor and uneducated. Credit is given where it is due, and the report does not hesitate to be generous in this regard. The fact that the final report on the Apostolic Visitation embraces a more positive tone should not be seen as a bad thing, nor should it be seen as an about-face from the concerns publicly raised throughout the visitation process. The report states clearly, at the outset, that “in addition to this general report…individual reports will be sent to those Institutes which hosted an onsite visitation and to those Institutes whose individual reports indicated areas of concern.” In the spirit of Matthew 18: 15-17, problem areas in specific institutions will be addressed only to those with the problem areas. Frankly, for the public to know who is doing what wrong is tantamount to gossip, and therefore harmful and unproductive. There is no reason to expect, then, any other kind of report than the one we’ve been given.
Does this report scrub existing issues found by the visitation process? Absolutely not. Early in the text, it is said of the Apostolic Visitation that “the entire process sought…a sincere and transparent depiction of their lived reality.” The term lived reality implies a purposeful comparison between what is and what should be. Though phrased charitably, the report reveals a serious concern about the public and private exhibition of “deep intimacy” with Christ in the lives of religious institutions. In seeking to understand the decline in vocations, “vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize theses aspects of religious life.” With regards to the sacraments, the institutes have been found, in general, to have written guidelines for receiving the sacraments and “sound spiritual practices,” yet members are being asked to “evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer” to encourage a “deep intimacy” with Christ. These statements do not indicate a harmony between what the religious life currently is and what it should be as originally conceived of.
The vocal and well-reported desire of women religious to be taken more seriously by bishops is briefly addressed toward the end of the report. It’s significant that this section leads with the many women religious that see themselves as valued by the Church and simply want to “collaborate in maintaining and strengthening bonds of ecclesial communion,” whereas “some spoke of their perception of not having enough input into pastoral decisions which affect them or about which they have considerable experience and expertise.” Obviously not all women religious see eye to eye on how they are valued by the ecclesial authority. Hopefully, with Pope Francis’ suggestion to update Mutuae Relationes, outlining with greater precision the collaborative relationship between bishops and women religious, will help the women religious be more of one mind on this issue.
The report’s conclusion on women religious being taken more seriously by bishops is brief and biting. “We will continue 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’.” Notice the phrase “competent women religious” and let it sink in. It is significant because it gets to the heart of the visitation. The report rightly praises the good works of the many women religious in the United States, but competency in good works is not the point of religious life. It’s not the point of any life, in fact. Anyone can be competent at things. We are all called to be competent in Christian intimacy. Without a deep and abiding intimacy with Christ, good works are pale. We are not called to be pale, but the brightest of lights in Christ. This report wisely reminds us all of this in its balanced tone between praise and fraternal correction. May we all “welcome this present moment as an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust” in our ecclesial leaders, in our women religious, and in each other.