At 5:30 a.m. EST on Dec. 16, 2014 the Vatican held a press conference reporting on the findings and conclusions of a four-year Apostolic Visitation conducted regarding American nuns. The investigation was complete two years ago. This process called into question the fidelity and faith of almost 50,000 women religious in the United States. The facts of this story have been well reported. That is not the point here. This is about why this story means something to us all.
I have been a friend and advisor to the leadership team of one congregation of nuns for the past eight years, in which I had an intimate glimpse into this process. Announced without warning in 2008, The Apostolic investigation was a shock to the soul and sisterhood of women religious. It was the women religious that called out the church for denying and protecting its criminal acts towards children; now the church, in a formal and judicial way was suddenly investigating its most loyal members. It was projecting onto its sisters the accusation of an unwillingness to adhere to the faith. Visitations have been conducted since the 4th century with the purpose of ensuring strict adherence to church doctrine. It is a serious matter. In the beginning this Visitation came as a betrayal, in the end it was transformative for the sisters themselves.
What may be the most important meaning of this Apostolic investigation of the nuns was its assault on the feminine. There are few more powerful, financially independent and historically permanent congregations of women in the county, maybe the world than the sisters. The sisters are an institutional embodiment of the feminine. They give this patriarchal culture something to worry about. Not surprising the Cardinal Rodé and the church thought action was required.
Firstly, sisters take a vow of poverty. While most of the world wants to eliminate poverty, the sisters choose it. In taking this vow, they are opting out, and in fact discrediting, the core tenet of modern economics: consumerism. They are choosing a life of service and community over consumption. They take the vow of poverty in the belief that their community will care for them. It will provide meaningful work, food, shelter, care for illness and comfort as they age. They trust relationship over acquisition. They chose an economic future based on reciprocity and non-monetized exchange. They are not wage laborers. They have jobs, are productive (or not), set goals, run things, get schooled (or not), but they are going to be cared for no matter what. They are a powerful model for the new economy we are all talking about. It has been working for a long time. And done some good in the world. Like inventing health care.
The second reason for the dominant culture to be nervous is that the world is welcoming Sophia, the feminine wisdom figure, in from exile. More and more denominations are welcoming women as priests and clergy. Among Catholics the call for women to the priesthood, to delivering Mass, to live independently, even to marriage, has grown stronger as the wider society has begun to demand and accept women into leadership positions. There are seismic cultural shifts in attitudes about sexuality, drugs, healing arts and the freedom of people historically marginalized. Women are increasingly politically powerful. There was no peace in Northern Ireland until women, the feminine, sat down at the negotiating table. These are a challenge to the traditional social order.
Third, when women, at least in the case of the women religious, do take power, they do it in radical ways. This may be their most indictable offense. They begin by being selected by their peers, which means they are accountable to those they lead. Not your typical organizational structure for succession and promotion. In a dominant culture that wants "strong leadership" and then becomes disappointed in them, the sisters have discovered a leadership of real collaboration.
They create authentic leadership circles. They know how to speak to their stakeholders with humanity and they know how to run a meeting. They sit in a circle, not a rectangular table. They lead and finish with song, and prayer, deep listening to each other and all who come to them. They then make tough decisions about what to do with their real estate. They have large buildings and land no longer needed for shrinking congregations; complicated choices among permanent housing for the elders, commercial development, how to handle poor performers, and how to deal with investigations. All of this done together, in the face of their differences.
Finally, the manner in which the sisters responded to the threat of the Apostolic investigation is also significant. The cultural instinct is to run, deny or fight. To raise legal questions, to demonize the "other." To publicize the injustice of the Vatican. To view the situation as an image and marketing problem.
While canonical lawyers were consulted about the implications of the Visitation, the sisters chose to use this occasion to deepen their own bonds. To engage each other in their foundational commitments. They initiated long conversations to remind themselves of their purpose and their feelings about this moment. They also created space for differences with each other. Some welcomed the Visitation, others not. They rejected the myth of a "united front."
In a litigious and retributive society, they also chose to engage the Vatican point person, Sister Mary Clare Millea, throughout the investigation. They welcomed her, had empathy for the position she was in.
They discovered their power to say no in a respectful way, and at times stood firm in refusing requests that were pejorative in the asking. Such as the Questionnaire, a major tool of the Visitation, that carried within the questions the accusations. The specifics of the investigation were concerns that they were living alone instead of community, not following the Divine Office, and providing Reikian healing.
What is also interesting is that retribution, Visitations and other forms of aggression, are always conducted in the name of care, in the name of development and in the case of the Vatican, out of concern for the "quality of life" of women religious in the United States. Their words. This claim to only wanting to serve and be of help is a dangerous rationalization for the abuse of power. Whether it is your boss delivering a performance appraisal, the police only "doing its job," or the Vatican investigating its sisters. Authentic care for the wellbeing of others needs no masquerade. It needs no institutional process, canonical or legal justification. Beware of those who want to save you, develop, improve your quality of life. It is manipulation in every case.
The Apostolic Visitation came to its conclusion, likely with little practical outcome to the quality of life of the sisters. All of the players who began this investigation have now been replaced, Pope included. What we might pay attention to is what the sisters have always taught us and continue to demonstrate; that the language of the faith community which is acceptance, relatedness, forgiveness, compassion and inward reflection can function successfully in an institution. That in the women religious, we have a national treasure, an alternative practice of powerful leadership. The nature of their leadership and the alternative, cooperative economy within which they live are worth important to our nation. This should be the news story. Not in the religious section of the paper, but in the business section and for this moment on the front page.