Sunday, June 10, 2012

Re-Imagining Nuns

Sr. Sandra Schneiders has been writing and speaking on the topic of religious life for many years and her name is a household word among many religious communities as she articulates a theology of religious life for today. Her reflections invite us into an exploration of what is emerging in religious life today as we live a period of unprecedented demographic shifts among women religious in the US. I would like to take up the conversation and respond to a paper entitled The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life she presented at the Theological Seminar held in Rome by the Union of Superiors General of men and women in 2011.1 I hope that in a robust exchange of ideas we can all sharpen our perspectives and explore new horizons.
The recent news regarding the CDF-LCWR issue highlight the importance of continued reflection about the ongoing relevance of religious life and it's emerging realities.

Religious and the “World”

In the paper, Schneiders proposes “the World” as the category for understanding the shift of apostolic religious life at the time of the Council. I'll have to say that she mentioned 'the Council' and I had to ask myself – which council do you mean? I think to most of her audience, it was obvious that it was the council they had lived through. But for those of us who didn't live through it, it's not 'the' council any more than 'the' war is any particular war. In any case, I agree that the world is an important category for understanding the shift that happened in the VCII renewal, and the more significant shift that is underway today as we come to understand the world in its evolutionary cosmology.
Schneiders also points to certain structural elements of religious life that prevailed for most of the first two and a half centuries of the life in the US context. The cloistering of women religious is a huge issue that has had a deep and lasting effect on women's religious life. With the ominously named decree Pericoloso of Boniface VIII in 1298, the complete cloister of women religious became obligatory in the western Church. Although it was variously enforced, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of strict cloister which legislated nearly complete isolation of the entire movement of women's religious life from the wider cultural context for nearly six centuries from 1298 to 1983. Many women religious continually sought ways to engage in ministry outside the cloister and were able to do this, but only with strict limitations on their activities, dress and interactions.
The Second Vatican Council mandated the adaptation and renewal of religious life in its decree Perfectae Caritatis, in which it directed religious to return to the original inspiration for their institutes, to the words and works of their founders and early members. They sought to discover the core values of their institutes and to reinterpret those values for their own age. For institutes of women, this meant returning to the sources only to find that their founding members struggled with the ability to establish a lifestyle that was, on the one hand, true to their inspiration and, on the other hand, conformed to restrictive requirements placed on women's religious life at the time. The founding inspiration sought to incarnate the Gospel in a particular time and place and to gather members around their particular experience of spirituality, community and mission. If the group was to obtain official approval and support, the group was required to adhere to certain external norms of dress, schedule and cloister.
Returning to the sources during the Vatican II renewal of the 60s and 70s, women questioned the value of these very visible external elements which hindered the living of the founding values. These external elements had taken on a huge symbolic value in the intervening centuries, to the point that some equated fidelity to religious life with fidelity to these external structures. These very visible elements are often pointed out critically by ecclesiastics and are a point of dis-juncture among women religious today as we strive to find new stories, new models, new images and new ways to express the age old values in a world hungering for our authentic witness.
 I'll continue this reflection on Schneiders' paper in future posts....

1Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Radical Nature and Significance of Consecrated Life” (presented at the Theology of Consecrated Life: Identity and Significance of Apostolic Consecrated Life, Rome, February 8, 2011).

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