While Pope John Paul II's relationship with American nuns appeared to be a reining in of what he considered the more exuberant experiments and freedoms they embraced after the Vatican II reforms (1962-65), Pope Benedict XVI's recent decree, the "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" is drop-dead shocking.
After a three-year study, the Vatican recently charged that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has been too tolerant in its views about homosexuality, too silent in opposing abortion and contraception and too amenable to "radical feminist themes" that are regarded as incompatible with Church teaching, including women's ordination. The LCWR represents 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States.
Actually, such reprimands are nothing new in Church history, said Dr. Margaret Thompson, professor of history, political science and women's studies at Syracuse University. Every time women religious attempt to break new ground or re-dedicate themselves to new needs among the People of God, the Church questions them.
Since Vatican II, no one knew the cost of change more intimately than Anita Caspary of the Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles, Calif. As Mother General (1963-70) and president (1970-73) she led her sisters through the Vatican II reforms with careful deliberation. Nevertheless, in that process she experienced the wrath and power of hierarchical politics and the forced relinquishment of her community's canonical status.
According to Caspary's account in her book "Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California" (2003), James Francis McIntyre, the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, did not accept the renewal of Vatican II and came into conflict with the IH Community over its decisions to change the habit, form new structures of convent governance and re-design daily devotional practices.
"Slowly we came to realize that what we claimed for ourselves -- the right to make decisions affecting our personal lives -- we could not surrender," Caspary stated in her book.
Caspary died in October 2011 at the age of 95; however, in my 2004 telephone interview with her, she stressed that the conflict with Cardinal McIntryre occurred within the cultural context of the history of women at the time.
"Women were always secondary among priests, governors, and men in general," she said. "The dependency of women religious on the hierarchy wasn't a choice, it was prescribed. And we didn't believe in it."
"The vows (poverty, chastity and obedience) of women religious should be analyzed from a U.S. cultural perspective that promotes money, sex and power as important values," added Sister Susan Marie Maloney, SNJM, currently Regional Director of American Academy of Religion/Western Region. She was a friend and colleague of Caspary.
She said that the IH Community faced the power issue and found that even reason and documentation could not persuade the archbishop or Vatican officials of the sisters' faithfulness to the Vatican II reforms.
However, what happened to the IH Community was an "historic moment" that showed a way to the future of religious life, said Sister Susan Marie. "It wasn't just about renewal in the Church, it was about reformation. The IH Community changed their community life structures according to the renewal mandated by Vatican II. They were loyal to the Church's new directives and grounded their changes in solid theology and their experience of religious life as women."
One of the "perverse ironies" in the relationship between women religious and the hierarchy, Thompson explained, is that the nuns actually renewed their communities as they were told to do in the Vatican II document, Perfectae Caritatis. The sisters responded more quickly and more extensively than any other group because they were well-educated and knew how to analyze history and ideas.
The IH Community was in the forefront of the Vatican II renewals and essentially got into trouble because the sisters attempted to be faithful to the charism of their founder, she said. The charism is the attraction of women to do the works of the community and the Church, as guided by the Holy Spirit
"I've come to realize the power of the charism of the founder," said Thompson who pointed out that charism emerges not from one person but from the entire group of sisters.
"We need to understand the nature of women's intuitive and holistic views of power, which is at odds with the institutional, hierarchical understanding of power," she said.
Thompson illustrated women's conception of power as comparable to the Pascal candle at the Easter Vigil. While the whole congregation lights candles from the Pascal candle with each person contributing to the entire light, the Pascal candle continues to burn just as brightly as it did in the darkness.
Questions about the Church's treatment of women has had much to do with their fuller participation in the Church, like women's ordination. However, authorities tired of this issue and in a 1995 decree entitled Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II demanded silence about it not only from the nuns but from the entire church membership.
So when Sister Joan Chittister was invited to speak at the first Women's Ordination Worldwide Conference in June 2001 in Dublin, Ireland, Vatican authorities delivered a "precept of obedience" to Sister Joan's community that would prohibit her from speaking.
By this time the sisters' relationship with the hierarchy was characterized by collaboration and reconciliation -- quite different from that of the IH Community in the '60s and '70s. The leadership of Sister Joan's community went to Rome and successfully worked things out with Church authorities.
Sister Camille D'Arienzo, RSM, former president of the LCWR, applauded the community's response to the Chittister incident, and said it provided a witness to the strength of religious women's sense of community.
"The sisters engaged in communal consultation and deep prayer," said Sister Camille in a 2004 telephone interview. "They knew the implications of their choice, and yet were willing to accept the consequences of their decision and share the penalty. It was a reminder of what we are called to be and do [as religious women]."
During her nearly 40 years as a broadcaster and public speaker, Sister Camille said she has had only two run-ins with bishops on positions she took over issues.
"We didn't walk away agreeing," she said, "but we maintained a working relationship that kept the door open so the ministry and mission didn't suffer."
Even Sister Theresa Kane, RSM, who confronted Pope John Paul II in 1979 and asked for "the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of the church," reported a softening of the Vatican's position on women and their role in the Church and society (National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 8, 2000). The pope, who was noticeably annoyed by her plea back then, occasionally asked about "Sister Kane" when Americans visited the Vatican. He also looked into more expanded roles for women in the Church.
Actually, Sister Camille said that the laity castigated Sister Theresa Kane more than the ecclesial authorities had.
The '60s were a difficult and tempestuous time, said Sister Camille, and the hierarchy may have had different expectations than the nuns did for themselves. Now, 50 years later, many women's religious communities are more focused on mission and ministry than on their differences with the hierarchy.
And, so what does the future hold for women religious, especially when their numbers of vowed membership are down and their median age is up to 75 years old?
"The future is now," said Sister Susan Marie. "The work of Sister Helen Prejean [on the death penalty]. She's the future." Sister Helen wrote the book, "Dead Man Walking," and a movie and an opera were subsequently produced under the same name in order to address this important contemporary issue.
Sister Susan Marie believes that Sister Helen's work has greatly influenced the moratorium on the death penalty in United States because it made an impact for justice on millions of people through the use of film." She added that this approach to ministry in the 21st century is comparable to the ministry women religious performed in the 19th century when they opened up schools and hospitals.
Sister Camille added that Pope John Paul's more "forthright opposition" to the death penalty was also encouraged by Sister Helen.
The future is also seen in the growth of "associate membership" in many religious communities.
Associates do not take vows but they "make a commitment to a life that is a public witness in an overly consumerist society and culture, which is overly sexualized and which objectifies women for profit," said Sister Susan Marie. "The ministry they do is one of service to love and justice."
Sister Camille, former president of the Brooklyn-based Convent of Mercy, reported the same phenomenon occurring in her community. She said religious life is focused on an expanding associate program with laywomen and laymen. Co-workers in their Catholic institutions are also "systematically prepared" to "carry on the charism" of the sisters' mission, and retired sisters are starting new ministries.
"Where is our place as women religious?" asked Sister Camille. "In the works of justice and mercy. That's what it's about."