This past January superiors of women’s religious congregations in the United States received a letter from Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, announcing a canonical visitation of institutes of women religious in the United States.

Varied responses to this announcement clearly demonstrate what Pope Benedict XVI has defined as two conflicting interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, as well as differing interpretations of the nature of the Church and definitions of religious life.

In a meeting with the Roman Curia in December 2005, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the difficulties the Church has faced since the Second Vatican Council and proposed two different interpretations or hermeneutics of the council documents which developed in the post-conciliar period:

“On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.’ On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.”

Speaking last September at a symposium on religious life since Vatican II, Cardinal Rodé applied Pope Benedict’s distinction specifically to religious life, stating that reform of religious life must include a “right hermeneutic.” The cardinal added Pope John XXIII’s description of the “true spirit of the council,” which sought “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion. Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us.”

In this context, consider two responses to the visitation. The first is an e-mail from Sandra Schneiders of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary that was published in the Feb. 27 National Catholic Reporter. It was titled: “We’ve given birth to a new form of religious life.”

In the text, Schneiders explains that the “new form” of religious life is “as different from ‘apostolic religious congregations’ ... as the mendicants were from the Benedictine monks.”

She states that religious congregations, “the kind represented by the LCWR [Leadership Conference of Women Religious] in this country,” are “really no longer congregations dedicated to works of the apostolate.”

The “new form” of “ministerial religious,” according to Schneiders, identifies its vocation in a ministry founded in baptism, and which “may be in Church institutions but often is not.” Its members practice a corporate but not “common life.”

A second response is the March 9 “Canonical Reflection” published by the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, which refers in a similar fashion to previous paradigm shifts in religious life where “women moved forward outside the established categories and official structures of the Church.”

This, the reflection argues, occurred because such religious recognized the “nature of apostolic religious life as service, not only within the Church, but also as service to all God’s creation.”

Living on the “cusp of the future,” such religious respond to challenges and changes “often ahead of the Church leadership in leading the way into the new reality.”

Careful reading of these two responses indicates that the issue addressed is not merely one of the canonical visitation, but rather the question of the identity of religious life and its relationship to the Church.


What the Council Said

The dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, begins by defining the Church as established by Christ in the nature of “a sacrament or as a sign and instrument” to bring salvation to “the whole human race.”

Lumen Gentium No. 44 then clearly states that religious life belongs “undeniably” to the Church’s “life and holiness.”

How, then, is it possible for religious to move forward “outside the established categories and official structures of the Church”?

While the responses above cite historical founders as examples of similar “paradigm shifts,” these examples include Sts. Dominic, Francis, Angela Merici and others who, while definitely instrumental in promoting and creating new forms of religious life, did so in collaboration with rather than outside of the structures of the Church.

In spite of obstacles, religious founders and foundresses of the past understood the intricate relationship existing between religious life, the hierarchy and the sacramental life, as articulated in the 1978 post-conciliar document Mutual Relations, written collaboratively by the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes.

They recognized the impossibility of “religious life” existing apart from the bishops’ threefold office of governing, sanctifying and teaching, whereby the bishop serves as “the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God and the sanctifier of his flock” (MR, 7). Christ’s intention in establishing the Church in the nature of a sacrament, as the sole means of salvation, necessarily includes a critical link existing between the sanctifying role of the episcopacy and the “unquestionable bond of religious with the life and holiness of the Church” (MR 8).

This bond calls for a reconsideration of the words of Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the 1994 Synod on Religious Life. This document references the impossibility of adequately perceiving the Church’s “mystery, communion and mission” without an understanding of the consecrated life, just as a complete understanding and living of the consecrated life is impossible unless “rooted in the Church’s mystery, communion and mission.”

A proper hermeneutic would also include a rereading of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, with its unhesitating dependency upon the conciliar and post-conciliar documents of the Second Vatican Council. The document opens by establishing religious life not only within a Christological but also a Trinitarian foundation in the heart of the Church: “The consecrated life, deeply rooted in the example and teaching of Christ the Lord, is a gift of the Father to his Church through the Holy Spirit” (VC, 1).

This confessio Trinitatis continues throughout the entire document, describing consecrated life as a “stable point of reference” founded upon Trinitarian love (VC, 88). The concluding trinitarian prayer refers to religious who bear “the characteristic features of Jesus — the chaste, poor and obedient one” and make these features “constantly ‘visible’ in the midst of the world.”

Here again, Vita Consecrata reiterates the divine origins and ecclesial nature of this life as professed by the Second Vatican Council. Vita Consecrata further declares religious life to be constantly visible “at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission.”

The canonical visitation offers opportunities not only to those directly involved, but to the entire Church.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity is also the greatest challenge: A deeper understanding of religious life provides all of the Church’s members clergy, religious and laity with an opportunity to grow in an understanding of the Church’s mystery. At the same time, a deeper understanding of the Church provides religious the opportunity to grow in an understanding of their life in the heart of the Church.

Sister Catherine Joseph Droste, O.P.,

is a professor of theology at

Aquinas College, Nashville, Tennessee.