But this independence gives many bishops agita. The bishops often get complaints from the laity, especially right-wing ones, who want the nuns in habits or who resent the freedoms that many religious have in the years since Vatican II. Today many sisters have gone on for graduate degrees and teach and lecture in colleges, do social work, are involved in lobbying on behalf of the poor and minorities, work with immigrants or abused women and engage in works that more conservative Catholics resent. Those opposed to the nuns’ liberalism appeal to the bishop to rein in the nuns and the bishops are powerless. While religious men tend to be more conservative than religious women, in many more conservative dioceses, parishes run by religious men are still more progressive than those run by local diocesan clergy. The religious men often work better with women, give women—both lay and religious—more decision making roles and leadership in ministries, and speak up more on women’s issues. Religious priests often tend to be less clerically oriented than diocesan clergy, especially the “new crop” currently coming out of seminaries. The religious priests and brothers are more inclined to wear ordinary clothing when not in the habit of their congregation or order. They also more often go simply by their name and do not bother with titles. This too drives many neo-traditionalists crazy, especially when the laity flock to their parishes. Now I need to make sure that the reader doesn’t let me generalize because I myself can think of many fine diocesan priests who are keeping Vatican II Catholicism alive and well and I know some religious, even in progressive communities, who are, well for the lack of a better words, nuts. (For emphasis I would use a Joe Biden expletive here if I could).
Traditionally the religious orders, both of men and of women, have had their independence from the authority of the local bishops. In times past when communication with Rome was long and difficult, that meant that monks and nuns were virtually a Church within the Church—answerable to no one outside their own monasteries or their Order. While some small congregations of religious are in only one diocese and therefore “of diocesan right” and thus do report to the local bishop, most are part of larger organizations with a Superior General who reports directly to the Congregation of Religious in Rome. Such religious communities need the permission of local bishop to come into a diocese and establish a community there, but once in the bishop has little or no say over them,. If that community is involved in an apostolic work that is under the bishop—such as religious priests serving in a parish or religious men or women who teach in a diocesan school (note: a diocesan school, not a private school owned by the religious congregation) they are accountable to the bishop for matters that pertain to their ministry but not to matters of their religious life. In matters of religious life they answer to their own superiors who, in turn, answer to the Congregation for Religious in Rome. In Europe it is even typical for many religious communities of men, and even some of women, to have their own churches where the faithful gather to hear mass. The friars—the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites—in particular run many public churches that are not parish churches but offer a full range of Sunday and daily masses. The liturgy and in particular the preaching is often better in these churches than in the local parishes and often the laity choose a “friary church” as an alternative to their parish. But even in the United States many bishops are slow to interfere in a parish run by a religious order—even though, if it is a parish, it has to obey the bishop’s guidelines. Some bishops see a parish run by Benedictines or Franciscans or Dominicans as a “safety valve” that provides a place for people who are disaffected by the more conservative parishes to worship. During the Civil Rights era or the Vietnam War era the religious priests often were more outspoken than the diocesan clergy felt safe in being. In some dioceses such as Los Angeles where the Archbishop—then the dreaded Cardinal Francis McIntyre—forbad the clergy to speak about Civil Rights, the religious clergy dared to speak out when the diocesan clergy could not.
The boys in the Vatican are better dressed,
but God bless the Sisters for the great work
they have done and continue to do--by the
way, the picture is stolen from the NY Times
The tradition of religious exemption is nothing new and, in fact, ever since the 1917 Code of Canon Law, is actually more restricted than it had been in times past. In the Middle Ages some of the great Abbeys of nuns were not only exempt from all authority except that of their own abbess and the far-away-in-Rome (and in the days before modern communication that was far away indeed), but their abbesses ruled dioceses (called abbeys nullius) where they granted annulments and dispensations, appointed pastors, wrote letters dimissorial, convoked clerical synods and all the other things bishops did except for administering the sacraments (for which they had to hire a priest or bishop).
Even today many religious houses of women report directly to the Holy See bypassing not only the local bishop but the control of their order. Among them is Mother Angelica’s Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels in Hanceville Alabama. The good Lady Abbess (Poor Clares have abbesses) took her monastery outside the jurisdiction of the bishop and of the Franciscan Order and made it directly reportable to Rome.
Religious foundresses such as Saint Mary MacKillop of the Australian Sisters of Saint Joseph and Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger of the School Sisters of Notre Dame were bound and determined that their communities would be self-governing and not under the authority of the bishops. But today many bishops want to change that.
One of the issues, of course, is that these congregations of sisters sometimes own considerable property and as the congregations get smaller and will die out, the question is –who will get control of their properties. Now many of the Sisters’ groups have not planned well for the future and depend on our generosity for the support of the older nuns, but some groups have been very provident. You can imagine that they are not going to let whatever survives them fall into the hands of the men who have persecuted them. Part of the agenda of the Holy See and the bishops is to get sufficient control over the sisters that their properties will transfer to the various dioceses in which they stand.
A major factor in this nonsense between the American Sisters and the Vatican now has to do not with their “doctrinal aberrations” but with their independence. It is American bishops (and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus) that are behind the stir up. Many bishops are frightened of the nuns as today’s nuns are highly educated and articulate women, many of whom have better theological training than most priests, indeed more than most of the bishops themselves. Sisters such as Sandra Schnieders or Elizabeth Johnson are a theological match for the best educated bishops. Moreover, at a time when the bishops have lost their moral credibility, the nuns inspire great confidence among the laity. The powers that be are frightened and that is the hidden issue—or one of them—behind this current nonsense out of Rome. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.