Monday, July 20, 2009

The History of Vatican Visitations

Recently I reflected upon the current Vatican investigations of U.S. communities of religious women, and noted that because of my affiliation with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet – St. Paul Province, I’d be watching this issue closely.

Well, I’m happy to say that Catholic historian Gary Macy (pictured at left) has provided an invaluable historical perspective to such an observation by publishing an insightful article in the July 10 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

Macy, a professor of theology at Santa Clara University in California, begins his article by noting that this current Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious would have “astounded religious women of earlier centuries” as, for at least 1,200 years of Christian history, “religious women would not have looked to the Vatican for oversight of their lives.” That prerogative, says Macy, “belonged either to the abbess of a religious community or perhaps to the local bishop. Furthermore, bishops and religious were considered self-governing within their own communities or diocese. Rome may have been recognized as the sole patriarch of the Western church but this did not imply that other bishops would welcome or even tolerate Rome’s interference in their affairs.”

Hmm . . . this fact, along with the reality that in bygone days the people of a given diocese played an active role in the selection of their bishop, makes me long for some of that “good old time religion.” I wonder why the so-called traditionalists of contemporary times never call for a return of these types of traditional practices.

Anyway, following are more excerpts from Gary Macy’s National Catholic Reporter article, “Visitors in the Past.” Enjoy!


Early abbesses were powerful and acted independently not only of the papacy, but also of the local bishop. . . . Only in the 13th century did the popes assert the right of visitation of religious orders. Chapter 12 of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 ordered that “religious and prudent persons should be appointed who, in our name, shall visit every abbey in the province, not only of monks but also of nuns.” The canon assumes, however, that the visitor will either be the local bishop or a neighboring abbot or abbess.

This laws repeated by the Council of Vienne (1311-13) and the Council of Trent (1545-63). This did not mean that women always followed papal directives. Clare of Assisi [pictured at right] rejected again and again rules imposed upon her order by the pope. Clare insisted that the nuns be allowed to visit the Franciscan brothers and to live the strict life of poverty embraced by her and Francis. She finally prevailed when Pope Innocent IV confirmed her rule just two days before Clare’s death in 1253.

Only with the promulgation of a new Code of Canon Law in 1917 is there an insistence on the pope’s more direct oversight of religious orders. According to the commentary on the code by Benedictine Fr. Charles Augustine, “All religious are subject to the Roman pontiff as their highest superior and must obey him also by virtue of the vow of obedience . . . And this obedience must be offered to any and every legally elected pope no matter what his personal qualities might be.” However, even Augustine adds, “In virtue of the vow of obedience, religious are bound to obey the pope only as far as their rule and constitution demand, and no farther.” As in the past, the code envisioned the bishop or religious superior as the ordinary visitor, but notes that “there may be extraordinary visitors and visitations for certain causes. . . . Hence surprise visitations are possible.” Here the direct oversight of the papacy of each and every religious order is made clear for the first time in Christian history.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, while certainly not denying papal oversight assumes that the visitor of a religious order is the superior of the institute in question. A diocesan bishop has a limited responsibility in this regard and no mention is made of papal oversight. Interestingly, the commentary on the new code by Rosemary Smith notes that “one limitation on such legitimate questioning [by a visitor] would be prohibition of superiors from inducing from any member a manifestation of conscience.”

According to Smith, “Such manifestation of conscience includes disclosure of all matters of the interior life, both graced and sinful.” The distinction is important since it preserves freedom of conscience in the visitation process.

The direct supervision of the papacy of religious orders, then, first obliquely claimed in the 13th century, in fact seems a product of the late 19th century and early centuries. [Hmm . . . can we all say ultra-montanism?] Before that time, women religious not only disagreed with the papacy, but also prevailed in those disagreements. Independence and respectful disagreement would appear to be the more ancient tradition of religious women in Christian history.

For more of Gary Macy at The Wild Reed, see:
Revealing a Hidden History
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
Conflicting Understandings of Church and Revelation Underlie Situation in Madison and Beyond

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Beyond Papalism
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity


Ray from MN said...

If I were in an organization that appeared to be threatened on all sides by modern trends in society and one that was growing smaller by the years, I also would feel really threatened if a major world leader decided to send a team over to my group to gather information.

It would sound to me like a purge was in the process of happening.

Let's look at it from the Pope's point of view.

Female religious orders that have existed for at least 1500 years are in the process of self destructing. Between 1978 and 2005 the number of members of women in religious orders has decreased from 985,000 to 783,000.

I don't have the figures but all would agree that few enter into religious life of any kind these days.

So in another 27 years, as existing members age and die, the size of membership will be even more markedly smaller.

Is this something the women have done? Or is it the result of changes in society? If the trends are to be reversed, someone has to determine just what has happened.

I'm not gloating. I'm very sad about this. I was taught by Benedictine Nuns in Duluth for 12 years and they gave me a wonderful education. My Mom's eldest sister was a Nun in that order and became president of their college, St. Scholastica. Some of my teachers are still alive and I treasure our occasional meetings.

If I were Pope (fat chance), nominally directly in charge of all Catholics in the world, I would be far more sad about this state of affairs.

I too, might send a team of women, nobody seems to mention this factor, to the various female religious orders in the United States to gather information about the state of affairs and have them bring it back to Rome to have it analyzed and form conclusions that might have those female religious orders reverse this horrifying trend.

I would suggest that the female religious orders welcome with open arms the visitation teams sent from Rome. They might be their last chance for survival.

To do this, they will have to suppress their feminist agenda.

Anonymous said...

Questions for Ray: What is a "feminist agenda"? And have you looked at all at how U.S. religious orders of women have evolved? Why should the forms that worked in the modern era survive when that world is gone? Paula

PrickliestPear said...


Some of your points are quite reasonable, but I think you're being very generous in your explanation for why this visitation is taking place.

Even if the Vatican is sincerely trying to understand why the number of women religious is declining, the sisters are quite justified in questioning the Vatican's motives, given the other investigation (the one concerning their failure to promote the male-only priesthood, the traditional teachings concerning homosexuality, and the Roman Catholic Church's status as the primary means of salvation).

If the Vatican really wants to know why women are not entering religious life in significant numbers, they should be asking the women who are not entering religious life, not investigating the ones who already did (many years ago in most cases).

Ray from MN said...

All I know about evolution is that you need reproduction and growth to evolve.

Right now it looks like the paths of many of the larger female religious orders are leading towards extinction in forty years or less.

They have already given up operating their hospitals. Who will be operating St. Scholastica, St. Benedict's, St. Mary's and St. Catherine's. They might still exist, but under whose ownership?

Will St. Kate's become part of St. Thomas?

Thousands of women sacrificed their lives for a vocation, for a ministry and for education. Is it to just disappear? Is that the legacy that they are leaving the future?

Ray from MN said...

Prickliest Pear:

Thank you. Oh, I have no doubt but that a major reason for the visitation is to determine why extinction is on the horizon for some orders. All they offer a young women is a job as a teacher at a lot less money than she could make in a public school. Or she could become a massage therapist like one sister in the Twin Cities.

But I seriously doubt that the Vatican will crack the whip on these orders. One of the ways that the Catholic Church got to be 2,000 years old is that it doesn't act precipitously.

I regularly use the example of the Protestant Revolution. Martin Luther tacked his 97 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. The Church didn't convene the Council of Trent to deal with the issue until 1545 and it took 18 years and the Thirty Years war before a settlement was reached.

I would imagine that the Vatican won't want to pick a fight because they also can read demography books and they know that the dissidency problem will disappear in 40 years or so.

Ray from MN said...

Paula wanted to know what I meant by the "feminist agenda."

I guess I would consider the following to be a "feminist agenda" for a female religious order

1. Unbridled pride

2. Unisex and improvisational liturgical language. I thought I was going to get punched one day in St. Kate's Our Lady of Victory Chapel for saying "for us men" while reciting the Creed.

3. Support for the concept of women priests, something that is not going to happen. One of the vows that sisters take is "obedience." I think one could get punched for bringing that one up too.

4. Obsession with Labyrinths and other New Age gibberish.

5. Lack of distinctive clothing. Another way to display a lack of humility and obedience. Don't get me wrong there are a goodly number of priests and brothers who have this problem also.

Those are some of the things that I believe detract potential members with possible religious vocations from joining many religious orders.

I would grant that revolution of the past 50 years that created the drugs, sex and rock and roll generations probably are far more powerful than the religious feminist movement.

But there are women joining religious orders these days. But they are joining orders with traditional rules and lifestyles.