American Women and the Church: A Dialogue

Sister Marita Carew, RSHM is President of the Executive Committee of the New York Archdiocesan Council of Women Religious, a position to which she was elected in 1985. She is also Provincial Superior of the Eastern American Province of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, presently serving her second three-year term. Sisters of her province, perhaps best known for the Marymount schools and colleges, serve in several American dioceses as well as in American schools in Paris, Rome, and London. She met with Catholicism in Crisis contributing editor Phyllis Zagano in mid-February to discuss her views on the service of women, particularly women religious, to the Church. What follows is an edited transcript of their dialogue.

Dr. Zagano: Lumen Gentium calls religious life “a form of life to which some Christians, both clerical and lay, are freely called by God so that they may enjoy a special gift of grace in the life of the church and may contribute each in his or her own way to the saving mission of the church.” I believe secular people are confused about the “charisma” or identity of religious life, and are wondering precisely what distinguishes religious life today from other forms of commitment.

Sister Marita: In Lumen Gentium Paul VI presents that call to religious life in terms of a “charism.” There is a charism for the laity. There is a charism for each of the forms of life we are all called to. We must all “be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect” — that is addressed to each of us, and the manner in which we are given that special gift, called charism, is specific to each form. So we are not here speaking of anything relatively “better” or “less good”; it is not a comparative thing.

For religious, through the gift given to their founders and their founding communities, the charism has been some very specific call to respond at a given time in a given country or setting. So it is the specificity of the call that we are talking about, and the way it has developed and been lived out through the years. A charism is not something that is static. The charism is something very dynamic; it is always a response in the given historical moment to the signs of the times. But charism develops with the group as well. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to all for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts through their office, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to “test all things and hold fast to what is good” (1 Th. 5:12, 19-21).

Dr. Zagano: It appears there is no stability for women in the Church; the way there is stability for men, since women in the past eight hundred years or so have not been included in the roster of clerics. Whereas secular clerics are attached to their diocese and can be assigned anywhere in the diocese, women religious have a somewhat more circuitous route by which they can become gainfully employed. There is never a guarantee of a two-sided commitment, because the general superior is so often dealing with an individual pastor.

Sister Marita: There are many elements that go into choices of ministry. It varies from congregation to congregation as to methods used. There is always an element of mission on the part of the congregation; the congregation extends itself in each sister’s ministry. That is not so for the individual layperson, who does not have to go through a process of that kind. The layperson has more direct freedom of choice. The major superior cannot guarantee a particular ministry unless the congregation owns the particular institution and therefore in accord with her constitutions has the right of placement. There are fewer and fewer of such institutions.

Dr. Zagano: Benedictine Prioress Joan Chittister predicted that soon women religious who wish to participate in the ministry of the Church would of necessity be supported or aided in that ministry by their sisters who were working for privately held academies or, indeed, who were working in regular jobs earning regular salaries.

Sister Marita: The question here is the economic state of the Church and the needs that it serves. The needs are great and, depending on what a congregation may bear, it may wish (because of the mission question) to support a sister in a particular ministry where there is no stipend. Obviously, a congregation can only do that to the degree its other financial commitments — health care, retirement — are met. We have to be careful not to define just working in the formal structures of the Church as working for the mission of the Church. I think there are many ways to serve in the mission of the Church, and that mission is what is critical.

Dr. Zagano: There is a problem, then, with the identity of women religious. Regarding what constitutes the work, the mission, of women religious. How are they distinguished from other laywomen, aside from public vows?

Sister Marita : I think the key to the question is the element of charism. A congregation may have been founded in the 17th century, but how are the elements of its charism played out and lived out in a very modern world today? One has that tension between fidelity and rootedness, and that dynamic element of finding out how it is lived out today. That calls for a lot of discernment of spirit. Certain characteristics of charism should be present. As Michael Buckley, S. J. points out, “the origin of every charism is the Holy Spirit — not the hierarchy or human structures. Its impetus is distinguished from the action of the spirit in the sacrament and the habitual administration of the Church’s ministries. It is by nature a special grace that is given to any one of the faithful as an enabling gift for a specific ministry within the Body of Christ. Its purpose is the renewal and the development of the Church.” Buckley continues: “The authenticity of the charism is to be tested and judged by the hierarchy.”

St. Paul says there is a danger that it can be destroyed by the bad judgment of the very ones who are to judge and support it. There is something about the charism that is always on that cutting edge; seeing it develop and applied today is always a tension. We might have said it was very clear when it was new or in the original foundation, although our founders were discerning the signs of the times and were really trying to see where the Lord was calling them. That is what I think women religious are doing today; they are very sincere in their desire to hear that calling.

Dr. Zagano: The majority of institutes of women religious in the United States were founded for the purpose of education. They came to teach an immigrant Church, and became especially involved in the education of women. Yet we must appreciate two things. As the need for immigrant education ended, and as Catholic education (at least in the recent past) came to be a middle- to upper class luxury, opportunities for it shrank. That, combined with the fact that so many women religious are not, it appears, interested in education any more, has brought about tremendous upsetment and overturning of “the way it was.” Secular lay people now predominantly staff catholic schools, and women religious are seeking to be leaven, if you will, in other areas. This is particularly confusing to a laity, which expects something else.

Sister Marita: The model they are judging against is the model of their own experience. First of all, there is a diminishing number of sisters. Secondly, I am not so sure that sisters are choosing something other than education today; they are perhaps not choosing it in the form more people have seen. I think one has to define the broader sense of education; perhaps we are saying that there are other needs of the church in response to discerning the charism of their founding. It is not a walking away from, but a walking toward and an effort to discern in greater depth where the call of the Lord is for us at this stage.

Dr. Zagano: But where do diminished numbers of women religious concentrate their activity? How are they assigned to perform the mission, and to live out the charism, of their religious institutes, as they understand them, given their personal and corporate talents and abilities?

Sister Marita: That is a question facing each of the major superiors today. We notice the experience of religious communities has moved from a very hierarchical model of community to much more of a collaborative one, so that even the way one is sent, or “missioned,” to a particular place is in a collaborative way where there is mutuality and co- responsibility about that choice. Now very clearly the individual has to seek, own, and develop her talents and place them at the disposition of the Church through the approved missions — the broadest works — of each congregation. I think great trust is given through the various dioceses to the major superiors to honor and respect that mutual dialogue about where the needs are and what the sister’s response is able to be. Physically, intellectually, psychologically, spiritually — placement is a very delicate question and not one where you just place someone because there is a need out there. I think this is because we have learned from the past. The social sciences have developed enough for us to see that one is the most effective instrument when one is in the best place to grow and be an instrument of growth for other people.

Each congregation has certain fixed criteria by which one can judge this “missioning.” Specifically, in my own congregation: “The discernment for ministry is made according to the following criteria: the call of the universal and local Church, the needs of a particular locality, the mission priorities and common good of the Institute, and the talents, capabilities, and personal call of the sisters.” Obviously, one has to discern within that, because you are always choosing between or among goods. It is not a question of the good and the bad, and it takes a lot of real discernment to choose to know where the Lord is calling us, through that individual, to what is the greater good. And it is not only to where she is going to grow the most. It is where she feels she is being called to be a disciple, to be a follower, to stand with Jesus.

I think it calls for a lot of responsibility on the part of leadership to do their part of discernment. It is not that they have “inside knowledge.” They might have information, but I think God works through that and they have a very, very great responsibility to be discerning persons in cooperation with the sister who is being placed in a particular ministry. It is not as simple as I think it was when I entered the community. I think they knew what we did well, but in those days it was not customary to involve the person. They looked at broader needs, but they had a large number of people in many institutions. We have fewer people, fewer institutions, and the best response may be not to keep institutions just to keep institutions.

Dr. Zagano: But there is so much of personal determination that it appears there is the potential problem of centrifugal force splitting a given institute. Critics of women religious tend to argue that a breakdown of obedience has led to the breakdown of religious institutes, that is, a breakdown in obedience either to the ideals of their founders or to Church customs.

Sister Morita: The individual is always subject to authority. Perhaps what people are looking at and judging to be the breakdown of obedience right now is not true. I think they look at obedience in a different way. Obedience, like any of the vows, is really a way of life. It is a form of charity, no matter how it is expressed. It is being with Jesus in the way he loves and cares and acts in today’s world, until death. Jesus had to work out how he was going to be faithful in his life, and so does the individual, within the context of the charism of the group she is called to.

The external form does not measure obedience, and acquiescence to a superior is not obedience either. What we are talking about is the wholehearted entering into the Spirit and placing oneself at the disposition of the needs of the Church. How would Jesus be teaching, serving, administering? It is the living body of Christ building the kingdom within that context, and there are no sure ways and not just one way to do that.

Dr. Zagano: The Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, participated in a recently published interview, which includes some questions regarding religious life. In once section, he says:

On the other hand, active orders and congregations are in grave crisis: the discovery of professionalism, the concept of social welfare which has replaced that of “love of neighbor,” the often uncritical and yet enthusiastic adaptation to the new and hitherto unknown values of modern secular society, the entrance into convents, at times wholly unexamined, of psychologies and psychoanalyses of different tendencies: all of this has led to burning problems with identity and, with many women, to the collapse of motivations sufficient to justify religious life . . . . Many women religious instead, seem to have shifted to the interior (following here too a dialectic linked to sex), pursuing that same “liberation” in depth psychology . . . some have turned with great trust to these profane confessors, to these “experts of the soul” that psychologists and psychoanalysts supposedly are.

The Cardinal is approaching from his point of view what can become a more general question. Women in secular society as well have accepted a new professionalism, and it is the perception of some that this creates a debilitating psychological stance — that women are simply not being women. In regard to the mission of a religious institute, it would appear that there is criticism that some of the missions being accepted as replacements for education, health care, and caring for orphans or the handicapped are being replaced by things, which are not particularly feminine.

Sister Morita: I don’t think we define the mission by the works. Mission is discipleship. It is being sent to be with Jesus in the building of the kingdom. I think we have to grant first of all that there are always abuses of anything. In looking at the general trend, I am concerned that some would have a model of total withdrawal from the world, a separateness, a setting aside, where the focus of life would be within the community. That is a perfectly valid model for a monastic or a contemplative tradition, but I think most of the religious women I speak with and of are apostolic, and I think we are only now coming to understand the nature of apostolic congregations, first founded in the 16th century. A new form of religious life was founded then, and it is only now we are coming to the true flower of what it means to be in the world and yet not of it. Some documents speak of consecration and mission. Consecration is that withdrawal, and it is certainly a valid point, but not necessarily the only one for apostolic women religious. I think mission is the validating point that the charism of the congregation calls women religious to be in the world and to minister in love to the bringing about of the kingdom. You have to find the point of focus. Whereas in the monastic tradition it is within the community, we celebrate both traditions and appreciate the differences.

Dr. Zagano: What, then, constitutes community? There is much movement in the United States to intercommunity living and toward living alone for various reasons, which tends to confuse people even more. Is community the institute to which you are bound through public vows? Is community where you are living? Does where you are living uphold the tradition and charism of the institute to which you are vowed, with which you are not living? There is great confusion in these kinds of situations, and the question of mission perdures.

Sister Marita: I think the question of community is always one of mission, because one participates in these different forms of community because of mission. For example, if a sister teaches at a university where there are no others of her congregation, she may live with another congregation, but it is always a question of ministry. It is not primarily the question of choice of community. Membership is not measured only by what some religious will call “the roof.” That you live under the same roof with other members of your own congregation in a house that is canonically constituted is one model. I think that we’ve seen for years that it is far more than that, and we cannot use just physical space to define community. How one is a member and augments the life and spirit of one’s institute is a critical question, along with the ways in which you share the life and bear the life of the others. But we are not primarily here just to make community. We are here to be disciples and followers, and we need community to help us do that because of our lifestyles. But those are the reasons why people cannot respond to their call to certain ministries without the support of an intercongregational setting or some other form of religious community. It is not a choice away from your congregation; it is a form of community. It is a choice of the mission and the best way to facilitate it.

Dr. Zagano: The ecclesial institutional reality is such that it expects more of a public witness from religious. While most of us have found out that the Middle Ages are over, and we do not need, for our understanding of “Church,” to see women religious garbed as they were in the 14th century, or the 16th century, or even the 19th century, personal identity is not always immediately apparent because of the changes in the ordinary garb of women religious. There are those who would therefore question the public witness of women religious. Public vows make a tremendous dif-. ference, but if no one knows about them, what difference do they make? If, indeed, intercommunity living can make one more of a member of one’s religious family, how does one determine what is special about the religious family? What determines that public witness?

Sister Marita: The question of how one belongs or experiences that relationship is like that of a normal family where someone has to move to a distance for a time for some reason. The person is no less a member of that family, and the bonds are perhaps even strengthened, but they certainly make a choice to stay connected. It is more the unity of mind and heart than just physical presence that is of the essence, because you could all live together and still not be a community.

Regarding witness, and what people see: It certainly might help people if they could visually see something, but I think it is the body of our lives that they have to see, that makes them say “they love one another.” In the early Christian community there was not necessarily an external, visual sign; it was the quality of their lives that best grouped people. That is of the essence. We may want to know, and it is easy to see some external forms, but that is not of the essence because there has to be something much deeper than the habit or whatever visual form that people see and say, ah, they love one another, see how they love one another.

Dr. Zagano: Clearly, women religious through public vows have consecrated themselves to the service of the Church in ways that other people quite frankly cannot, because of the exigencies of time and space. Yet one would expect that this century would be no different from the last, and the one before that; institutions will break up and fail, religious congregations will die out and their houses be taken over by diocesan authority to be handed over to new congregations which have greater numbers and greater need. All of these things are provided for in the Canon Law. To return to Sister Joan Chittester, who writes: “Some institutions at the breakdown stage, on the other hand, opt for minimal survival. They go through the motions of change but stop short of renewal. They play an old gospel game called new-wine-in-old-wineskins. They wear new clothes and take new jobs and say new words and form new committees. They’re sincere and open. But they become sites instead of centers. Nobody knows exactly what he or she stands for as a group, nor do they. They may last but they will not lead; the prophetic character of religious life has passed them by.” She later argues that it is precisely community life, specifically community prayer life, which keeps the religious community from either imploding or exploding.

Sister Morita: I think that for a Benedictine that is particularly true, but I would like to focus more on the prophetic dimension of religious life so related here to the witness we have been discussing. Remember, a prophet was always a pain in the neck, but not every pain in the neck was a prophet. I think women religious are prophets and, therefore, witnesses, and should be on that edge of calling us to the values that true Christians should carry and bear and live out. The hope would be that the witness of our lives on every level would be such that it would perhaps make us uncomfortable. It would make all of us uncomfortable today, because not only religious women are living it. This is the ideal. Something that I think we are struggling with and striving for, but certainly have not yet attained, is the prophetic dimension of our lives — giving that overt witness, more than simply doing it because it is right. Now, the degree to which we do it is another question, but I think that is what she is calling for, not just cosmetic or superficial changes. It is the renewal, which really changes our lives, which makes us true prophets. A prophet, if one is a prophet, speaks the truth for someone whom we say is the Lord speaking through our lives. But sometimes we can also be as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals; it takes a lot of discernment to know when to speak the truth. If there is confusion in the way the world views us, then that is good. We are not looking to make sense just to the world. That is not what prophets do.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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