Pope Francis’ message to the nuns

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St. Scholastica

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St. Scholastica

St. Scholastica

St. Scholastica

His droll voice mail for those Spanish Carmelites got all the ink, but Papa Francesco’s most important New Year’s message for nuns is to be found in La Civiltà Cattolica’s report on what he told the male heads of religious orders at their annual meeting in late November.

According to editor Antonio Spadaro (who conducted the big Jesuit interview with His Holiness back in August), the pope was asked to comment on “the activities of religious communities in the context of local Churches and about their relationship with bishops.” His answer was to say that bishops need a better appreciation of the specific “charisms” of the various orders and to call for a revision of Mutuae Relationes, the document that has governed relations between bishops and religious orders since 1978. It was, he said “useful at the time but is now outdated.”

We bishops need to understand that consecrated persons are not functionaries but gifts that enrich dioceses. The involvement of religious communities in dioceses is important. Dialog between the bishop and religious must be rescued so that, due to a lack of understanding of their charisms, bishops do not view religious simply as useful instruments.”

These words recall the famous conflict between the nuns of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who staffed Los Angeles’ parochial schools, and the city’s archbishop, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre. As pointed out by Boston College’s Mark Massa in The American Catholic Revolution, the IMHs were inspired by the Second Vatican Council to recover the inspiration of their 19th-century Spanish founder, who established the order for women to live a life of service to the poor. McIntyre wanted fully habited diocesan functionaries. He appointed a commission to scrutinize the IMHs and in 1968 kicked them out of his schools.

Promulgated a decade later, Mutuae Relationes represents one of the John Paul II era’s efforts to restore hierarchical control in the wake of Vatican II. It made clear that religious orders were part of the local church — “the diocesan family” — and that their “right to autonomy” was subordinate to it. “Great harm is done to the faithful by the fact that too much tolerance is granted to certain unsound initiatives or to certain accomplished facts which are ambiguous,” the document warned.

It’s no stretch to relate Pope Francis’ comments to the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) ginned up by the Catholic right four years ago and currently in the hands of the Vatican’s doctrinal office. Now again there are hierarchs who want nuns simply to be obedient to diocesan authority and who are hot and bothered by “unsound initiatives” and “ambiguous” facts.

In the spirit of Vatican II, which is very much his own, Francis is telling the bishops to give greater deference to the religious orders and what inspires them. The LCWR ought to be breathing a little easier.

  • Justin M.

    Poor article, and very ignorant. The problem Francis is addressing is bishops treating religious as though they were their own diocesan clergy. That being said, religious are incardinated into a diocese at the pleasure of the local bishop, and he is free to order them out at any time should they prove to be harmful to the operation of his diocese. Cardinal McIntyre was fully within his right to order the IHMs out of his schools, and I believe he made the right decision by doing so, as they had outright abandoned their charism and had become indistinguishable from secular society. It’s the same situation with the LCWR. They have completely forgotten what it means to be religious sisters and have in numerous instances openly rebelled against the bishops, which is absolutely unacceptable, especially for individuals who have taken vows of obedience. And I will also point out that one of the first things that Pope Francis did after being elected was reaffirm the need for the Church to reform the LCWR and endorsed the CDF’s actions. You may not realize it, but Pope Francis IS an orthodox Catholic, and he is not going to make radical changes to Church teaching the way you liberals seem to want him to.

  • Jonna

    And you know all of the how, Justin? By reading Catholic blogs or actually interacting with the Sisters?

  • moresteps

    “…they had outright abandoned their charism….”

    you give us, Justin M., melodramatic claptrap. the sisters of the immaculate heart of mary had, after vatican ii, abandon only their medieval mediterranean garb. wearing conservative but standard american garb, they focused their charism on giving support and education to those of the los angeles area most in need. that is hardly abandoning their vocation or becoming “indistinguishable from secular society” unless you do believe that clothes alone make the person.

    that cardinal mcintyre insisted all the way to rome that they had to leave his diocese speaks more to the fact that the cardinal was then, as now, seen to be the most conservative prelate of the american church.

    no one should doubt that pope francis is an orthodox catholic. the enthusiasm surrounding him comes from his open spirit, his willingness to talk to people to promote a better world, a more (if i may) christian world, rather than to simply condemn those who do not measure up.

    that in itself is a radical change. if the cardinal archbishop of los angeles had had that openness of spirit the church could have had the dynamic charism of the immaculate heart community working inside and supportive of the catholic structure. instead the community had to waste time and energy building a structure outside the formal structure to fulfill their charism.

    today pope francis is not trying to turn the bark of peter on a dime. that he didn’t simply shut down the investigation or of the “reforms” that the vatican then was beginning to enforce, does not mean that they may quietly be moderated. the woman institutes of the catholic church will likely be given more autonomy comparable to what the orders of men traditionally have had.

  • fedupwithignorantCatholics

    Oh Please!!!!! Another IGNORANT Catholic voices an ignorant opinion on a topic he knows little or nothing about. Please inform Justin we have left the Middle Ages and the Feudal System! Women are half, if not more, than the practicing Catholic in the Church – they are SUBJECT to no one. I believe that should apply to Religious Orders – both women and men – they are “responsible to” and “obedient” to their superior ad major superiors- NOT, I repeat NOT, the Bishop. Without the religious, many, many diocese would be in BIG trouble. I think the Pope meant EXACTLY what he said – it’s time for a dialogue. The Bishops have been speaking a MONOLOGUE for far too long!

  • Justin M.

    I am a Roman Catholic seminarian, actively involved within the Church and I am familiar with many different religious orders, both male and female. I will also clarify that I have interacted with religious sisters both within and without the LCWR, and consider many religious sisters to be dear friends of mine. My experience with them is first hand and quite extensive, Jonna, hopefully that eases your concerns.

  • Justin M.

    Melodramatic claptrap? Moresteps, sir, I don’t believe you realize the depths they had gone to. These sisters abandoned much more than simply their habits. They also: stopped reciting their daily liturgy of the hours, gave up communal living in favor of individual apartments, took up wearing clothing indistinguishable from that of the laypeople, and had started teaching and supporting subjects within their schools that were directly contrary to the Catholic faith. None of this was ever called for by
    Vatican II (I actually find it funny how often those with heretical viewpoints cite Vatican II as being their inspiration when the council not only does not support these viewpoints, but is in fact in direct opposition to them) and Cardinal McIntyre was rightfully alarmed by that. He responded, as was his right as archbishop, by giving the sisters three options: return to their previous charism and give up their newfound unorthodox, and sometimes outright heretical, positions; or they could simply leave his archdiocese and try to set up elsewhere; or they could request Rome absolve them of their vows and leave religious life. Most took the third option, though around 50-60 of the sisters accepted the cardinal’s requirements and returned to their previous rule of life. The problem with the LCWR is almost exactly the same as it was with the rebel IHMs, with members of the LCWR deliberately and publicly contradicting the teachings of the bishops, who are the proper teachers of faith and morals within the Catholic Church as the successors to the Apostles. The author of the article seems to be under the impression the Pope Francis is just going to drop the CDF’s justified attempt to reform the LCWR and save it from dying out as their numbers are rapidly declining and their members are increasingly getting older with few, if any, young women coming to replace them. If these numbers don’t change and soon, the LCWR could literally die out in the next 20 years. This is what the Church is trying to prevent and it would be nice if we could do this work without laypeople, either misinformed or simply outright rebellious, trying to hinder us from all sides along the way.

  • moresteps

    yes, Justin M, claptrap. that is a rhetorial device to gain approval or applause from a target audience by trading in cliches that avoids any but the most superficial analysis of the subject. thus claptrap.

    “I don’t believe you realize the depths they had gone to.”

    you then note that beyond the change of garment i mentioned that they had:
    * “stopped reciting their daily liturgy of the hours,
    * “gave up communal living in favor of individual apartments,
    * “took up wearing clothing indistinguishable from that of the laypeople, and
    * “had started teaching and supporting subjects within their schools that were directly contrary to the Catholic faith.”

    ignoring the fact that you repeat again the clothing item, you give 3 other items that you seem to think essential to their chrism that were lost. only one has a serious implication: “teaching…contrary to the catholic faith.” but you give no details that suggest what you are talking about. thus there is no way to analyze what you are referring to. is it just that they had a public dispute with their bishop?

    vatican ii challenged catholics to find the deep core of their faith common to the catholic church and to change the externals, as needed, to be better able to present the word to the world. the sisters were doing that. their chrism did not depend on their clothing, on their communal recitation of the “daily liturgy of the hours” (though i would be very surprised if the majority did not continue reading the office individually), or their communal living. the sisters of the immaculate heart of mary were an order that taught and provided medical care. that is they were an active order. their schedules in their modern urban society could not be balanced with monastic tradition. they had to reform it, not to make it easier, but to make their chrism possible in the latter 20th century.

    “…Cardinal McIntyre was rightly alarmed by that.”

    cardinal mcintyre was alarmed at vatican ii by the possibility that the form of the mass structured by the council of trent might be changed. he himself privately said the trentine mass until he died. by all reports mcintyre was, personally, a good man, but by the time he retired he had a whole diocese simmering with revolt. he was authoritarian, in the negative sense, verging on dictatorial. you are right that mcintyre had the juridical power to force the nuns to return to the habit, to communal living, and to common recitation of the divine office. the mess then is on him. most of the sisters choose the third option he gave them: to leave canonical religious life. yet most of then continued and continue religious life in a non-canonical way. the church’s loss.

    “it would be nice if we could do this work without laypeople, either misinformed or simply outright rebellious, trying to hinder us from all sides along the way.”

    i am not sure that you want any layperson with you unless they pass your personal judgment of orthodoxy. here i would urge you to again read ‘lumen gentium’. meditate on such concepts such as “…the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.” (from paragraph 12) this of course does not mean that any individual person or small group of people can speak for the church. but it does mean that you cannot simply write people off who do not agree with you because you think they “misinformed or simply outright rebellious”. you, nor an individual bishop, nor the vatican bureaucracy has that chrism. in difficult things only the whole church speaking in and with the office of the pope has the chrism to declare what is or is not acceptable in the church.

    as i noted in my previous comment the church investigation of the l.c.w.r. will likely not be squashed by pope francis, but it will be modulated. every one, i believe, will walk away saving face and the reforms of religious nuns will be rhetorical, with little substance, as the original charge, from a few american bishops, to the vatican had little substance. regardless of your complaint that they were “deliberately and publicly contradicting the teachings of the bishops…,” in fact they only opposed a political move on the part of the bishops. they opposed no church teaching.

    i reacted strongly to your original comment as you were simply trashing those who disagreed with your vision of the church. i like your passion for the church–even if i disagee with most all you wrote. but your impatience and lack of generosity to those you think wrong only inspired the like reaction in me. we are all in this together. whether you like that fact or not.

  • Brother Rolf

    Where are the supporters of the LCWR when the Little sisters of the Poor are fighting Obamacare?

  • Here’s how Mark Massa describes the situation of the IHMs on pages 84-5 of The American Catholic Revolution:

    “The decree on religious life issued by the Second Vatican Council, followed by Paul VI’s norms for implementing that decree in 1966, thus represented a dramatic recharting. Suddenly groups of religious women were not only allowed, but expected to reexamine the historical visions of their founders and to reorder their common lives and apostolic commitments as closely along the lines of these visions as they could. Decades of movement toward ever-stricter standards of cloistering were halted, and then seemingly reversed by two directives issued by the highest authorities in the Church; first by an ecumenical council, and then forcefully by the pope himself! What the IHMs of Los Angeles found when they returned to the “original vision of their founder” would not bring joy to those (like their cardinal archbishop) who had come to rely on them to live lives of cloistered submission to Church leaders and who needed nuns to staff the growing institutional commitments of a complex religious organization.

    “The IHMs were founded as a semicloistered community of women in Gerona, Spain, in 1848 by a Spanish diocesan priest, Joaquin Masmitja de Puig. But Masmitja de Puig’s emphasis in their founding had been on the MISSION part of their identity, which was to be active among the poor, with the semicloistered part added in order to meet the accepted notion of the time as to howgroups of religious women should organize their communal lives. From their founding, then, the sisters of the IMmaculate Heart of Mary had a spirituality focused on active service to those on the socioeconomic edges of society. Their habits (like the clothing of many other such groups) were simple renditions of the common dress of sober and pious laywomen, mandated not to set them off from those they served, but to provide no-fuss clothing that was durable and practical for service among the poor. Their clothing was to be simple, not special; it was to make them invisible, not obvious; it was to mark them as members of the working poor, not a caste apart. Likewise their common life of prayer was to be balanced by their apostolic work; they were not meant to be cloistered women who broke up their real lifestyle with active ministry among the poor, but women who actively brought the fruit of their prayer to apostolic activity that was intrinsic, indeed central to their communal identity.”