Last week, the Vatican announced that it had commissioned several American bishops to investigate and oversee an organization known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious ("LCRW"), a kind of umbrella "trade group" that represents numerous orders of nuns in the United States. The LCRW said it was "stunned" at the Vatican's move. But anyone who has been watching the life of the Roman Catholic Church in recent years would see the action as no surprise.
For the sake of blog-demanded brevity, let us say that life of the Church since circa 1965 has been tumultuous. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the changes in the secular culture that flowered in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Church experienced major crises and rampant confusion in doctrine, liturgical norms, sacramental practices and the understanding of vowed religious life.
While the troubles in the life of the modern Church are not over, there has been, in more recent times, a sort of informal agreement on the need for a "reform of the reform." Through the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church as begun to live out the "New Evangelization". In short, the New Evangelization is a call for the Faithful to renew their personal commitment to discipleship--to following Jesus Christ and His Gospel--through a renewed embrace of the Church's sacramental and prayer life. There is no question that the present pope, like his predecessor, sees the New Evangelization as, at long last, bringing to fruition the true and proper aims and ends of the Second Vatican Council.
The New Evangelization has taken many forms. It has re-emphasized a devotion to our Blessed Mother and encouraged the prayer of the Rosary. It has returned the practice of Eucharistic Adoration to a commonplace in parishes. It has priests again donning traditional religious garb, such as the cassock. It is responsible for the new edition of the Catechism and the renewed focus on formation. Perhaps most importantly, the New Evangelization is behind the renewal of the Mass, most evident in the new translation into English of the Latin.
Therefore, I believe, the crisis in the life of the Church that followed the Council is over and a new spirit, grounded in tradition, yet enthused with fresh zeal for the Gospel, has taken hold. Yet this project of the "reform of the reform" cannot be completed without the renewal of women's religious life.
The history of women religious, particularly in the United States, is nothing less than awe-inspiring. The achievements of Roman Catholic sisters can hardly be overstated, from the historic founding of countless schools and hospitals to the unrivaled (and vastly under-appreciated) education of tens of thousands of students.
That history, for all practical purposes, ended in the years following the Council. Perhaps no institution in the Church was more damaged and diminished by the mistakes, confusion and foolishness that ran amok in the bad old days. Now, at long last, the Vatican itself has apparently tired of the transformation of women's religious orders from actual religious orders that follow a "rule" and are given over to a particular charism, or mission within the service of the Church, into organizations based around liberal fads and nebulous conceptions of secular "social justice." A quick glance at the website of the LCRW reveals a group with concerns that mirror the hobbyhorses of the Democratic Party, from environmentalism to the wonders of Obamacare.
However noble their intentions, it is indisputable that many of the members of the LCRW no longer participate in what can fairly be characterized as Roman Catholic religious life, nor is it an overstatement to say that discipleship with Jesus Christ no longer forms the central purpose of a number of these communities. Instead, a politicized Gospel has turned these orders into, essentially, groups of liberal activists.
And their absence from the life of the Church has left a gaping hole in the ability of the Church to build the Kingdom on Earth. Contrary to the leftist polemics about the Church's debasement and marginalization of women, the fact is that women have always been integral to the mission of the Church, from at least the moment that Mary Magdalene encountered the Risen Lord in the garden outside the tomb on the first Easter.
When He spoke her name, she knew Him and knew He was alive! This, not political or social causes of various stripes, is the foundation of religious life and the call of the Gospel.
The Spirit is once more at work in the Church and, through the New Evangelization, the Spirit is renewing the Church in this age, just as it has over and over for the past two thousand years. The Church cannot be whole without vibrant religious life, just as it cannot be whole without a vibrant and active laity. Some will grouse about the heavy-handed Vatican bossing around poor little nuns; in truth, the Church is working to reform and renew women's religious life, to heal it, save it and restore it to its proper and glorious place within the Body of Christ.