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:
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity