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A Personal & Ecclesial Tragedy of Immense Proportion

Apostolic Religious Life in America Today: A Response to the Crisis

By Richard Gribble, C.S.C.

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 169 pages

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

The story of Vatican II and its hijacking resembles the plot of King Lear: An aged monarch trusts too much in his children’s expressions of love and gives away his estate. He is confident that his fatherly authority will be piously respected after he has discharged himself of power and resorted to a purely “pastoral” approach. As soon as the fateful transfer occurs, Goneril and Regan, who had just professed undying love for their father, take off their masks and drive him to the wall. There must be some mistake, he thinks, so he reasons with them, entreats them to defend the ancient moral law, the “culture of life” now under violent assault. Instead, the upstarts publicly embrace the “culture of death,” even while declaring (with a wink and a nod) that they are personally opposed to it. They claim to be faithful while treating him as a fool.

In 2005, forty years after Vatican II, Pope Benedict XVI explained why the implementation of the Council, especially with regard to consecrated life, has been “the source of so much turmoil.” He pointed to “two contrary hermeneutics” used to interpret it, the “hermeneutic of continuity” and the “hermeneutic of rupture.” He warned that to embrace rupture, or endless innovation, was to underestimate “the frailty of human nature.” Even so, most of the books, both secular and religious, published about the Council continue to treat it as a welcome rupture with the past.

Years ago I asked the late Fr. Stan­ley Jaki what went wrong at Vatican II. After a short pause, he replied, “Original sin was virtually ignored; it was mentioned only once in the documents, in a short paragraph.” Were the Council Fathers un­wary, like King Lear? In the euphoria surrounding the Council, did they underestimate the frailty of human nature?

Apostolic Religious Life in America Today is composed of eight essays. The first essays explore the origin of the crisis in religious life today and the later ones offer remedies. The contributors include two cardinals, a bishop, three sisters, and four priests. In his introduction, Franc Cardinal Rodé, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, praises the Council documents for their “fine balance.” Yet he concedes that “at the time, given that the mandate was for updating, it was easier to justify change than to defend continuity.” He explains that Per­fectae Caritatis (PC), the Council’s decree on the adaptation and renewal of religious life, gave sisters broad mandates: “Let constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited.” Everything “obsolete” in these texts was to be suppressed. Further, the sisters were to “adapt their ancient traditions” and “adjust their way of life to modern needs.” They were to be instructed in the thinking and attitudes “prevalent in social life today,” and their habits “suited to the circumstances of time and place.”

In addition to all this, Sr. Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., informs us, the Holy See told them that “experimentation contrary to canon law was permitted.” Sr. Elizabeth Mc­Donough, O.P., comments, “In retrospect, it is fair to ask if those who mandated revision of all community documents as worded in this cryptic, significant text may have had any idea of its possible far-reaching, long-term consequences.” With hindsight it’s easy to see that these mandates were invitations to trouble in the context of the 1960s. No surprise that the Gonerils and Regans, armed with the hermeneutic of rupture, immediately used them for revolutionary ends.

Richard Gribble, C.S.C., insists that feminism was not “generated” by the Council, and Cardinal Rodé praises the Council as “truly inspired by the Holy Spirit” in “its thrust to renew religious life.” Yet the cardinal laments the militant feminism that followed. He twice mentions how some individual sisters, groups, and communities have “opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to ‘stay’ in the Church physically.” In other words, there are sisters today who remain attached to the Church — shall we say as gangrenous limbs? Sr. Sara mentions these sisters as well, calling them “sojourners” who are “already so far out on the ‘margins’ that they expect to leave Jesus Christ and his Church behind for the sake of a new, universal spirituality.” They are more concerned with “the future of Earth than the future of the Church.” One may well ask, is there anyone in authority still willing to perform the public act of excommunication?

Cardinal Rodé observes that the result of Vatican II was a “fading sense of the supernatural, in some cases doubt about the relevance and centrality of Christ.” He blames this not on Vatican II but on the simultaneous rise of naturalism and the “new theology.” In the Council’s aftermath, social and political agitation became the epitome of “apostolic action.” Personal sin was minimized, prayer abandoned, and ecclesiastical authority rejected. The world became the criterion for reforming the Church, rather than vice versa.

Sr. Sara calls attention to the context of PC. The Council Fathers directed the sisters to adapt their “manner of living, praying and working” to the surrounding culture at the very time when the civil-rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and liberation theology were bursting noisily on the scene. Many used the new mandates to justify throwing off their habits, becoming professionals, and abandoning the common life, which they now saw as an “outdated imposition.” Today the Holy See declares that the common life belongs “to the definition of religious life.” Sr. Sara agrees, adding that in our time of “exaggerated individualism,” common life is “truly a prophetic sign,” a “striking witness to the Trinitarian mystery of self-emptying love.” Apparently this was not made clear in Perfectae Caritatis.

According to Sr. Elizabeth Mc­Donough, it’s no surprise that there were problems implementing such a “comprehensive” call for renewal, but the problems were compounded by a lack of oversight. The Roman curia failed to address the “radical transformation” underway and “vastly underestimated the feminist-oriented social-justice agenda of women religious in the United States that had begun to emerge as early as 1964.” For instance, the curia ignored “the far-reaching consequences of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) Sisters’ Survey project, begun in 1965.” This was a sociological assessment of “readiness for change” that served as “catalytic” for experiments to flourish “totally unchecked.” The Gonerils and Regans somehow convinced the other sisters — and the curia — that they were only following “the provisions of Perfectae Caritatis.”

Sr. Elizabeth finds an “apparent lack of foresight on the part of the (then) Sacred Congregation for Religious regarding the extent, duration, difficulty, and complexity of implementing PC‘s multiple challenges.” The congregation was soon overwhelmed with texts requiring “review and approval,” some of them containing ambiguities that made room for further experiments. Moreover, the bishops, instead of exercising vigilance, adopted a hands-off approach. By 1971 feminist nuns were in control of LCWR, and by the 1980s were able to co-opt John Paul II’s “attempt to assess the state of religious life” in the U.S. The secular media offered protection from the hierarchy, for whenever the Magisterium intervened in matters related to the sisters, it was “an immediate media cause célèbre.”

Today leading feminist sisters often take public stands against Church teaching. Some claim to have a “prophetic” vocation to eradicate injustices in the Church. Sr. Sara responds that “it cannot be the prophetic vocation of apostolic religious to repudiate the ministerial priesthood and the hierarchical structure of the Church.” Ironically, the LCWR leaders charged with main­taining ties with the hierarchy themselves support the “anti­hierarchical option” and give their allegiance to the People of God, a chimerical Church that is a “discipleship of equals.” Sr. Sara notes that while many women religious are influenced in their thinking by these ruling feminists, others remain aloof and silent like Cordelia, fearful of speaking out. Sr. Elizabeth writes that “the ongoing, functional tutelage of LCWR” has brought “community after community” under the control of “progressive leadership who belong to that conference, which systematically co-opted the entire course of renewal by effecting a ‘corporate transformation’ into a liberal-feminist-ecological-social-justice-oriented agenda.” These leaders live a “corporate executive lifestyle” while publicly challenging Catholic doctrine and worship; they seem not to be accountable to anyone for squandering their religious orders’ physical and spiritual heritage.

The last five essays in Apostolic Religious Life in America Today offer more ideas about the origins of the crisis and remedies for it. Bishop Robert Morlino speaks of how “conscience” was deconstructed in the 1960s and turned into the creator, rather than the discoverer, of moral law. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., regrets that from 1965 onward there occurred an unprecedented “dissolution of common signs” in religious life, and to fill the vacuum new secular signs were adopted that “divided rather than unified.” Gill Goulding, C.J., sees the way forward as self-surrender, obedience, and “an abiding openness to the world.” She calls for a hermeneutical stance “that benignly interprets the words or actions of another.” The late Kurt Pritzl, O.P., thinks the reason that renewal is “so elusive” has to do with the “natural tendency” of the religious “to laxness,” and he offers the remedies of dialogue, cooperation, and loving reciprocity. Last, Hugh Cleary, C.S.C., admits that we live in “a tumultuous moment,” but sees the crisis as caused by the en­lightenment’s inauguration of secularism two centuries ago. He praises the consecrated life as a sign of contradiction to the culture of death and to “the current scientific judgment that social and biological determinism represent the ultimate laws of existence.”

None of the remedies offered is adequate to the crisis. Long ago I asked Fr. Jaki what he thought about the turmoil in the Church, and he replied that it was unparalleled in the past 1,600 years and to find its match one had to go back to the fourth century, when Arianism nearly destroyed the Church. What is the sense of responding to such a colossal crisis with self-surrender, dialogue, and meek reciprocity? Did St. Athanasius dialogue endlessly with Arius and wash his feet? On the contrary, he preferred to go into exile rather than lift that serpent’s excommunication and allow him to receive Holy Communion. The meek pastoral approach will not work when the wolves are already in the act of devouring the sheep. When King Lear had given away his royal power, he still retained (as Kent assured him) the mark of a “master” — namely, his authority. What is needed is the exercise of authority.

It is a commonplace in English history that revolutions have occurred when kings were perceived as weak. And, of course, that’s when they were labeled “tyrants.” Over the past four decades we’ve heard a lot about the tyranny of ecclesial “patriarchy,” but have seen none of it in action. Now is the time for patriarchs to clean the rust off their ancestral swords — if only to rescue those who in this book are called the “losers” among the sisters, those (perhaps the majority) who are trapped in “progressive communities” and have been wandering in a desert for forty years. They deserve the chance “to live more faithfully the vows they thought they once professed.” Theirs is indeed a “personal and an ecclesial tragedy of immense proportion.”

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