Women religious in discontinuity

A reader contacted me about a longish piece on religious life written by a Sr. Sandra Schneider, IHM, who recently has kicked up a fuss about the apostolic visitation of women religious.

My correspondent wrote:

It’s an article indicative of just why we need the Visitation in the first place, in my opinion.

He was kind enough to send a synopsis of this article, which I share with you here with my emphases and comments.

Sister Sandra is looking at data on religious life and interpreting it, and in so doing draws some conclusions.  Primary among her conclusions is that Vatican II has established vowed religious as an entirely new way of Religious Life in the Church.  She writes, "we (and many Congregations like us) are in the process of becoming, or already have become, a new form of Religious Life that has emerged since Vatican Council II."  She says that  because of Vatican II, "We are a Religious Congregation. But, as we will discuss in the next major section, our life also involves some very significant discontinuities with earlier understandings of enough of the constitutive dimensions of that life that it is really a new form in relation to traditional apostolic Congregations.[A least she is up front about "discontinuity".] She then goes on to refer to Canon Law’s references to the various forms of religious life, and says that her IHM sisters and others like them are emerging as a new form of Religious Life just as the mendicant orders did centuries earlier. [Perhaps… but they sought approval for their way of life.] The term “new form of Religious Life” would have been used, for example, of the mendicants when they became recognizably distinct from the monastics.  Both forms were forms of Religious Life; the mendicants were simply, as a form, younger or newer. We are probably becoming, or have already become, a new form in this sense, i.e., a new form of Religious Life." 

Now, here comes what I thought was the most interesting part, and what shows her true disdain for the Church.  She makes the explicit claim that they are not bound to the institutional Church and that their mission and ministry is their own, not the hierarchy’s[Winner winner chicken dinner!  You knew that had to follow as the night the day.] She writes, "Religious Life, as a charism or gift of the Spirit, has a prophetic identity and role in the Church. [Ahhhh…. that’s their excuse.  They’re prophets!  They don’t have to be bound by law, or even the vows they took.] That role is not an office or official task assigned to us by the hierarchy and governed by them. This is important, especially in regard to ministry. Although we are public persons in the Church in virtue of our public profession and the approval of our Constitutions, we are not, as Religious, agents of the institutional Church. That is part of the job description of the ordained." [And, perhaps that means they are not at the service of the Church.  Also, if they do have some relationship to their Constitutions, don’t those Constutitions still describe an purpose for their institutes or orders?  Don’t they still describe an apostolate?  A reason to exist?]

Despite her claim of discontinuity, she then goes on to claim that the modern religious are actually part of an organic development of religious life, and she compares the mobility of the early mendicants, the new form of Religious Life, with the modern day women religious, who live in apartments instead of convents, and so forth.  She also goes on to interpret canon law (and she admits perhaps outside of the intent of the writers of the 1983 code) so that it permits her desire not to wear the habit.  She says that by the 1983 canon placing the regulation of habit in the hands of "proper law," i.e. the law of the Order, that it is perfectly justified that they simply wear a gold ring on their wedding finger to represent their vows.

Anyway, if you’d like I can prepare you a more detailed synopsis of the document, but it’s pretty much along these lines.  She attempts to prove her view of Religious Life as being in continuity with the 2,000 year teaching of the Church while at the same time explicitly admitting that she is seeking to establish a new order in total discontinuity with the Church.

No one can deny that religious life in the Church is in flux and that in every age new forms rise while older forms perhaps change or dissolve.

But this sounds entirely wacky to me.

This sort of thing is a good indicator of why there ought to be a thorough review, by proper authority, of women religious in the USA.  Get to the bottom of what is going on one way or another.

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  1. TJM says:

    And the reform of the IHM’s has been a resounding success? How many postulants, how many novices? What is the average age of this congregation? Just
    asking if anyone knows. Her views strike me as an apologetic for failure. Tom

  2. ssoldie says:

    The following thoughts from Dr. Coulson are excerpted from an article titled “Repentant Psychologist: How I Wrecked the I. H. M.. Nuns” which appeared in a 1994 special edition of The Latin Mass, Chronicle of Catholic Reform.

  3. The Astronomer says:

    Hmmmm….seems like Fr. McBrien over at NCR has a different take on the Visitation….

    Heterodoxy = boring and predictable. ‘Nuns’ like Sr. Sandra almost caused me to lose my faith while in college back in the early 80s.

  4. ssoldie says:

    Coulson describes what is meant by Humanistic Psychology:

    “It is also called third-force psychology. Maslow referred to it as Psychology Three. By that he meant to oppose it to Freud, which is Psychology One, and Skinner and Watson, the behaviorists, which is Psychology Two. We Catholics who got involved in it thought this third force would take account of Catholic things. It would take account of the fact that every person is precious, that we are not just corrupted as Freud would have it, or a tabula rasa (clean slate), which is available to be conditioned in whatever way the behaviorist chooses; but rather we have human potential, and it’s glorious because we are the children of a loving Creator who has something marvelous in mind for every one of us.”
    Do you suppose the confusion is still with Sandra, and those with her?

  5. Edward says:

    At this point, the best thing for the Church would be for these old orders to just die out. Thankfully, as a result of their own short sighted selfishness, that is exactly what is occuring. These orders are on their way to extinction.

    I look forward to the day when we no longer come accross such insanity as is represented by these so called “sisters.” They have become a financial and spiritual drain on the Church.

  6. Peggy says:

    Ah, the claim to prophecy. It’s an arrogant claim that dissenters often use to follow their own agenda and thumb their noses at Church authority. They know more than we unwashed in the pews, more than erudite popes and even the Holy Spirit.

  7. Heather says:

    I hope they send “Sr. Mary Birkenstock, LPN” to the anglicans (where she belongs), and shut down the Congregation of the Sisters of Perpetual Heresy.


  8. Mitchell NY says:

    Another attempt to remain broken from Rome which is so prevalent in American religious life since the end of the Vat II council…The council never called for independant thought that is contradictory to Rome or her pronouncements…I would suggest she put her habit back on and try to regain a sense of what religious life is all about. Discipline and structure.

  9. Jeremy UK says:

    We’ve had “charisms” and “renewal,” but has she omitted “discernment?” Surely not. It’s all depressingly so predictable.

  10. John says:

    The Orders in question should be allowed to whither on the vine and then be refounded in following generations. They are whithering, and no amount of slogan chanting by the revolutionaries is going to change that.

    Sadly, some of the congregations are so slogan dazed that they advertise their faults. For example, soliciting donations for missions and then listing the “missions” as supporting sisters who are art teachers, professional folk story tellers, career environmental activists etc

  11. Mark G. says:

    An interesting comparisson to the Mendicants. In Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton notes that the revolution inaugurated by both St. Francis & St. Thomas were to make the Church more Catholic, especially by re-establishing the Incarnation, at a time when the practice of the Faith in Christendom had grown stale & idealized, as in becoming a mere idea.

    The path of “sojouring” for these religious sisters seem to include many heterodox & heretical stops along the way. They do not seem to be building up the Kingdom as much as renaming things that are not of the Kingdom as if they were. Both the Franciscans & the Dominicans had to defend their causes before the Roman Pontiff & were vindicated because of their humility & obedience, things that seem manifestly lacking in these women religious.

  12. Hidden One says:

    What scares me is that, while surfing the net, I discovered one of Sr. Schneiders’ works on a course syllabus for a sex/sexuality course taught to seminarians in their final year of theology. Not so surprisingly, but certainly sadly, said prof had “Sr.” before her own name.

  13. John says:

    As for orders dying out, it has already started. Sadly, I think that this merging trend is going to accelerate.

    Dominicans of Peace: Six defunct orders merged together
    Dominicans of Hope: Two or three defunct orders merged together

  14. PS says:

    I clearly need schooling here (I am not being sarcastic). Can anyone explain to me how Religious are or are not “bound to the Church”? I really thought they were not a part of the “hierarchy.”

  15. PS says:

    Also, if you are so inclined, you can listen to an NPR interview with, among others, Sister Schneiders and Laurie Goodstein (who wrote the NYT article that kicked off this furor).


    I think everyone involved acquits themselves pretty well, except for Tom Ashbrook, who seems obsessed with stirring up controversy.

  16. Rob Cartusciello says:

    “[O]ur life also involves some very significant discontinuities with earlier understandings of enough of the constitutive dimensions of that life that it is really a new form in relation to traditional apostolic Congregations.”

    It does not merely involve “significant discontinuities.” It is rather the “hermeneutic of reputure”.

    Sr. Schneider was one of two texts used during our Novitiate. There’s a reason I left religious life to protect my faith. (Sorry to have to put it that way)

  17. steve says:

    Does anyone know what Province of the IHM’s Sister belongs to?

  18. Heather,

    Don’t forget Sister Wanda B. Priest of the Sisters of Perpetual Consternation!

    Seriously, prayers that this reform moves forward and results in a restoration of faithful religious life in the US.

  19. Athanasius says:

    The woman is just a modernist. The principle heresy of modernism is that truth begins with the individual, not exterior to the individual, so that the person becomes the standard of all judgment, not gulp.. that dreaded institutional church. Look at the main issues, continuity with traditional spirituality and doctrine, obedience to the Church, interpretation of canon law, it is all based on what this woman thinks.

    Granted that church officials can make mistakes, and they can even impede the will of the Holy Ghost, but the saints through history obeyed even when our Lord told them things in visions and they were told no by earthly superiors, and Jesus appeared telling them they did will for obeying.

    The mendicants submitted themselves to the judgment of the Church and did not trust in their own judgment. They did not presume to interpret canon law for the magisterium, and even though the prescription of Lateran III against new orders was idiotic, and wisely abrogated by the Church, St. Francis and St. Dominic obeyed it and submitted themselves to the Pope, receiving permission from him. They did not presume for themselves to say this is dumb and we’re going to follow it our own way.

  20. Nick says:

    Within walking distance of my home when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s there were around 175 active nuns. They owned two hospitals, staffed 5 grade schools, and two girls high schools. And the area wasn’t even particularly Catholic.

    What happened?

  21. Fr. Darrell says:

    Lost for words…Please take a look at two Web Sites:
    Dominican Sisters of Nashville and Dominican Sisters of
    Mary Mother of the Eucharist..This is the future!

  22. Steve,

    She is a Monroe IHM. My aunt is an Immaculata IHM (what people tend to refer to as the Philadelphia IHMs, though they are actually Immaculata), which honestly, despite the defense that some in this community have given them, are not much better. The Immaculata IHM’s do wear the habit while working, though, which I appreciate. And there are certainly a fair number of traditional minded among them – but there are a fair number of Sr. Schneiders, as well :-\

  23. Catherine L says:

    The fact that she compares her community and others like it to the birth of the mendicant Orders is hysterical. There are three glaring differences: 1) Orders like those begun by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic worked to evangelize the world INTO the Church, not out of it or into some sort of weird post-Christian bizarreness. Quite the opposite! They were adamantly orthodox. The Dominicans were founded to obliterate Albigensiansim, and they succeeded. Has anybody out there ever met an Albigensian? I doubt it. 2) The mendicants produced massive numbers of vocations. 3) They wore religious attire.

    This woman is deluded if she thinks her wacko community or others like it have anything in common with the mendicants. However, she is already irrelevant. These weird religious communities will be gone in 20 years, due to their total inabilities to produce vocations. As always, the “vocations crisis” exists solely in heterodox communities and in heterodox dioceses. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, the Carmelite Monks of Wyoming, the Franciscan Friars of the Eternal Word, and many others like them. Those who proudly proclaim the true Faith, strictly follow the Magisterium, and devote themselves entirely to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Mother have no problems recruiting strong postulants.

    Once the religious attire goes out the convent/monastery/rectory door, everything crumbles rapidly.

  24. Twice in my life, I have been very open to the idea of entering religious
    life. When I was much younger, I didn’t think there was a place in religious
    life for a traditional Catholic like me. Then when I was over thirty, I found
    out about the Tennessee Dominicans. But so many young women are petitioning to
    join the Tennessee Dominicans, there was really no place for an oldie like me.
    ! Another order was interested in me (if I say so myself), but their charism
    was not at all what I was looking for, and they were rather trendy. Meanwhile,
    I had met too many angry feminist-inspired nuns living on their own in apartments,
    definitely NOT my idea of religious community.

    But in the end I got married, so that is that! But I do feel badly that my
    sub-generation of women missed out on the great “new” orders springing up now..

    It strikes me that if one wants to be a feminist activist, why bother going into
    religious life? Sure, there’s all that property that the previous generations
    built up, but it must put a crimp in your social life and keep you well down
    in the feminist activist pecking order.

  25. Cel says:

    “Winner winner chicken dinner!” ?!?

    Never thought I to see this as a Fr. Z quote. :)
    LOL, I love it. You just made my day.

  26. JohnE says:

    “She makes the explicit claim that they are not bound to the institutional Church and that their mission and ministry is their own, not the hierarchy’s. ”

    (Instant red flag: “institutional Church”)

    So if their mission is their own and is not in obedience and often contrary to the Church that Christ instituted, why should they receive any support or recognition by the Church as if it was?

  27. Sid says:

    Help me re: “prophet”:

    1. Didn’t the Montanist heresy include folk who claimed that, as “prophets”, they had a direct line to The Holy Spirit and could thus defy proper Church authority?

    2. Is it true that the putative Me?ugorje apparitions were not accepted because, by report, they called for disobedience the local bishop?

  28. Sister Mary says:

    In response to ssoldie and Michael Hallman I would suggest being a little more prudent when discussing particular communities. First, the IHM’s who SSoldie was referring to are completely unrelated to either the Monroe IHMs- where Sr. Sandra is from, or the Immaculata IHMs. I could be incorrect here but I believe that community is no longer in existence, however some memebers formed a new community under a similar name. There are three IHM communities who are related by a common history: Monroe, Scranton, and Immaculata. But very early they were split apart as they moved to different diocese and developed independently of one another. They are not provinces of one community – they are three DISTINCT communities. The Immaculata IHMs wear a habit, live in community, and have a corporate apostolate in education (a traditional ministry for women religious and the ministry they were founded to perform). They have the option of wearing leisure clothing when appropriate but it is not the norm. While you may not think that they are as traditional as you wish they were- they are still committed religious and faithful daughters of the Church. For that I would hope that they would receive a little bit more respect. There are “Sr. Sandra Schneiders” in every community (whether they say how they feel or not)- but if a judgment should be made it should be based on the community. Please know that this comment was made in charity and to correct some information. God bless you

  29. TJM says:

    Ohio Annie, that’s a pretty chilling account. Tom

  30. baymedlevel says:

    Wow, what a chilling story. I’m reviewing my entire life to rid myself of this deception.

  31. Ann Carey says:

    I wrote an op-ed responding to the NY Times piece, but it was not accepted by the Times. It’s posted here: http://www.pewsitter.com/view_news_id_20640.php

  32. Daniel Mortenson says:

    The “hermeneutic of rupture” seems to be the “hermeneutic of reality.” (Unfortunately.)

  33. California Girl says:

    from Sister Schneider’s paper (pp. 12-13):

    “Public witness, or at least instant identity and recognition, was once achieved by a completely enclosed and even secret convent life, a highly distinctive (if not somewhat extraterrestrial!) habit….The witness of Religious today is not necessarily less public but there is far less publicity. It is less a matter of physically “standing out” from their surroundings by the sheer non-normality of their appearance and/or behavior and more a matter of where they are found, to whom they minister, what they do, and how they do it. Often it is after the fact that people inquire about the identity or motivation of someone whose commitment has impressed them, and then learn that the person is a “Catholic nun.”….To what do we want to bear public witness in a pluralistic society which is rightly allergic to ascribed status and privilege and that has every reason to be extremely suspicious of ostentatious religion? And if oddity for its own sake is not our definition of witness, how do we understand it?….”

    The habit as “sheer non-normality of appearance”? But a habit is perfectly normal, for a nun.

    “Oddity for its own sake”? What a strange way of looking at religious clothing, as if it had no meaning or purpose other than to “stand out” and be “odd”.

    (I don’t even know what to make of the “extraterrestrial” comment!)

    A “pluralistic” society ought to be MORE open to visible displays of varying religions. But she seems to imply that, since many people aren’t Catholic, we are somehow imposing on their plurality if we “ostentatiously” declare our religion. Does that make any sense at all?

    And why should people have to ask before they can find out that the person helping them is a Catholic nun? Many people won’t even bother to ask, and will never know that they received the love of Christ.

    We need to pray, pray, pray….

  34. irishgirl says:

    Seraphic Spouse-I’m probably the same age as you, but I’m still single [and always will be].

    When I was in my teens and early twenties, I thought of being a nun too. My choice was the Discalced Carmelites. The community I was looking into still wore the traditional habit and had the traditional cloistered life. In the end, I was not accepted as a postulant.

    But I grew up in the days after V II-all I heard and read about were stories of ‘rebel nuns’. I remember the IHM Sisters who were ‘destroyed’ in California in the late sixties.

    Sadly, these days I wouldn’t be accepted in any of the faithful ‘new’ Orders that are springing up in the Church-as a ‘fifty-something’ I’m considered as ‘too old’! Like you, Seraphic Spouse, I missed out!

    John-there is ‘merger mania’ in the Franciscans too: the ‘Third Order of St. Francis’ Sisters in the Syracuse diocese merged a few years ago with two other shrinking Franciscan congregations, Hastings-on-Hudson and Buffalo. Now it’s called ‘The Franciscans of the Neumann Communities’ [for St. John Neumann of Philadelphia]. The original “Syracuse Franciscans’ taught me religious ed in my grammar school and high school days. Growing up, they were the only Sisters I knew. Now they’ve gone ‘weird’-and they wonder why they’re not getting vocations? Well, it’s as plain as the nose on their face-they’ve gone ‘worldly’!

    Good thing about ‘sisters’ like Schneiders….tick, tick, tick!

    ‘Winner winner, chicken dinner’-oooo, I like that, Fr. Z! Did you just make that up? Or is that the same as ‘neener, neener’?

  35. jean says:

    “Father, you and your
    commenters raise some interesting questions but it is done in such an
    ugly way that an attempt at dialogue does not seem worthwhile to me.
    That is unfortunate. I am discerning and make an effort to engage with
    as many views as possible but the ugliness of this exchange makes it
    difficult for me to engage with you, though I suspect that some of your
    views – when washed clean of the vitriol – would be meaningful and perhaps
    even influential in my discernment.

    By the way, I thought your parenthetical aside (“winner winner chicken dinner”)
    was very clever language and I laughed. That said, I do believe that the woman
    who asked if your use of that quip was equivalent to “neener neener” nailed the
    overall juvenile and pugilistic tone of your blogpost and the responses.

    Here’s hoping that this unChristian derision of others begins to fade from your
    contributions, Father. Jean

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