18 December 2014

A few Thoughts on the "Final Report"

So, the Final Report on the Visitation of Apostolic Religious Women in the US has been published, a press conference held, the positive parts of things emphasized --- especially what women religious made of the really awful fact of the Visitation and the terrible assault on their fidelity and lives of generous service it represented. I could not have been more impressed with Mother Clare Millea and the job the visitators did under her direction despite the roots of and stated reason for the Visitation --- at least from the stories I have heard. Neither could I have been more impressed with her presentation yesterday (not least for the solidarity evidenced) nor that of Sister Sharon Holland either. Both were trying their best to focus on the positive, to build bridges, to foster reconciliation. They were, to put it frankly, doing what women religious have been doing or trying to allow God to do in the face of this CICLSAL "action" right along: namely, allow God to bring good from evil, life from death. and meaning from senselessness so that everyone can move forward with their real mission and lives. Moreover, they were doing it together. But despite the concerted and determined effort to put this behind the Church and get on with the business of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed, I wonder if I am the only one who felt dismayed by the disingenuousness of parts of this report?

One example. The body of the report begins: "Visitations are a normal instrument of governance in religious life. Major superiors are required to regularly visit those religious under their jurisdiction as an essential part of their loving service of their brothers and sisters. In addition, the Apostolic See regularly authorizes Apostolic Visitations, which involve the sending of a Visitor or Visitors to evaluate an ecclesiastical entity in order to assist the group in question to improve the way in which it carries out its mission in the life of the Church." Well, yes. This is true as far as it goes. Even so, is anyone under the impression that this visitation was a normal instrument of governance, an act of loving service carried out in a regular (and therefore mutual and anticipated) manner? Of course it was not; it was not "this kind" of visitation! So why begin in this way unless one desires to obscure the facts and, perhaps, justify otherwise unwarranted actions? This visitation was an Apostolic Visitation, one supposedly regularly authorized by the Apostolic See to "evaluate and assist in the improvement of mission". But that was hardly the reason this Visitation was undertaken nor does it do justice to the nature of such visitations in the history of the Church; these are ORDINARILY occasioned by serious problems in and even malfeasance or infidelity within the organization visited.

Similarly, the report speaks of the visitation as a caring, respectful process of support undertaken like the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, a sister-to-sister dialogue. But in the Scriptures both Mary and Elizabeth are uncertain of what is happening, what the "big (Divine) picture" really is. Of course they know that God has intervened in their lives, the Spirit has overshadowed both of them in different ways and the result is new and prophetic life, but what is occurring is also a new thing and the plan of God is still hidden from them. They come together as peers celebrating a mysterious fruitfulness which awes and overjoys them both; they meet as women who TOGETHER will discern and more completely commit to what God is up to in and through them and through the new life each one carries.

While there were moments in which Visitators did indeed learn from the institutes they visited, and while bridges were built between the Sisters whose lives were being examined and those doing the examining as well as between the Sisters themselves, the process was hardly analogous to one between two women (or peers) both of whom were collaboratively seeking the plan of God in everything. Moreover, no one aware of the way in which the Visitation came about can honestly speak of its initiation as motivated by respect or "caring support". Sisters and their missions (along with their commitment to Vatican II and all the difficult and demanding reform undertaken in its name) were questioned, maligned, and condemned.

If the Visitation was truly transformed into more and other than this it was through the fact that 1) the Sisters/Congregations visited refused to allow themselves to be victimized and spoke transparently from and for their own profound faithfulness and integrity while 2) Visitators sought to make of the process (or allowed it to become) something other than the initiators originally envisioned. A third factor is, of course changes in CICLSAL and the Vatican itself which fostered a less authoritarian approach to the matter. So, to some extent the final report is a sign of where we are today; it indicates there might be a commitment to truly DIALOGUE with Sisters BEFORE taking unilateral action to search for evidence to support an already decided verdict of infidelity and betrayal. It surely indicates a kind of peace (or truce) between the Vatican and contemporary women Religious along with a desire to proceed differently from this point on. For this we should be profoundly grateful and celebrate.

Still, as an ending or "resolution" it is inadequate at best. What are we to think of the claims by the instigators and their supporters that Women Religious had essentially gone off the ecclesial rails, that they were more committed to radical feminism than to Christ, that through their rampant secularism they are responsible for the awful decline in vocations and diminishment of many institutes, and so forth? I suppose these matters will be covered in the private letters going to congregations which raised concerns! (The report did devote one or two sentences to this ominous fact.) It was refreshing, of course, to hear this Vatican dicastery plainly admit the huge number of vocations in the 50's and 60's was anomalous or to hear a moderated reference to (the new) cosmology instead of a fearful and theologically unnuanced rant, but what of the accusations made against most congregations of Women Religious as a whole? The supposed "finality" of this report begs the question. Were the accusations (along with all the time, expense, trauma and heartache this "unprecedented" Visitation involved) justified or are abject apologies warranted?

Perhaps today's report and press conference is a beginning point, a place to start. The invitation to do so is present in every paragraph of the report and in the comments of those representing CICLSAL and the leadership organizations of Ministerial Women Religious. Pictures of Pope Francis and Sisters Sharon Holland, Clare Millea, and M Agnes Donovan marking this day image a new tone and direction. Meanwhile, the manifest desire to move forward on behalf of the whole Church is undoubted on all sides. The Gospel imperative to do so is equally clear and compelling. However, if there is ever truly to be dialogue between Women Religious and Vatican dicasteries like that between Elizabeth and Mary, if the Church is truly to move forward from this point, the fact that the report obscures the Visitation's own origins, motivations, implicit and explicit accusations, highhandedness, and the fundamental disrespect which occasioned it is not something we can wisely, prudently, nor in genuine humility or charity, forget or ignore.