When Reverend Mothers Cease Being Motherly

Is the Vatican Attacking Nuns?

Reading most press accounts of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, one would think that the Vatican is attacking all of the world’s nuns.

A more correct read of the situation, however, is that the Vatican hasn’t attacked all of the Church’s nuns, but rather it has disciplined a select group of them in the U.S., and it has done so out of love for the Truth. For the past 40 years, some leaders within certain female religious communities - such as some Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans - have wandered increasingly further away from Christ’s Church and her teachings.

The assessment revealed what it described as “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life. … On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a ‘constant and lively sense of the Church’ among some Religious.”

Recently, Washington Post writer Lisa Miller brought the Virgin Mary into the discussion. While that is a correct approach, Miller did so in a peculiar way. Miller paints Mary as a kind of primal radical feminist.

Miller compares the imagined fury of the men of Galilee with a young, unmarried, pregnant Mary to that of the ordained men of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issuing the doctrinal assessment and calling for reform.

“Mary was a poor girl from nowhere, living in a culture in which men made all the rules and owned all the property and women had nothing,” writes Miller. “For more than a thousand years, women like Mary have entered religious life hoping to find a safe place where they might receive an education and protection from the oppression of marriage and the dangers of child-bearing.”

Miller demonstrates an utter lack of understanding about the role of religious women and Marian femininity. Most religious women enter religious life not out of some fear of marriage or child-bearing. Rather, they sacrifice physical marriage to become the spouse of Christ. They forgo natural children to become spiritual mothers to many.

Miller further says that the Church’s contemporary view of women is that “they are equal, but inferior.”

Let’s examine how the Church views, esteems, and even exalts women, particularly through the example of the woman par excellence — Mary.

Marian Femininity vs. Radical Feminism

For all of the rhetoric about the Church being against women, in reality, the Church is the only institution that truly advances the dogma that there is no “glass ceiling” for women.

In 1854, Blessed Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine that Mary alone among all men and women was conceived without original sin. Nearly 100 years later, Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption, that Mary was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven.

The Church is the only institution that recognizes, teaches, and advances these truths about Mary’s place among humanity. These doctrines emphasize what God did for Mary. One safeguards her from the corruption of original sin; the other preserves her from the corruption of death.

Is there any human being whom the Church esteems more than Mary? She, as a woman, is the pinnacle of humanity. She is “blessed among women.” She is “full of grace.” She is the prototypical Christian, a model for us all.

What is it that Mary models through her actions?

She models perfect humility, perfect obedience, receptivity, and a profound “Yes” to the will of God.

What of Marian femininity is found in nuns who do not abide the Church’s teachings, but advance other doctrines?

Where radical feminism reigns, Mary is degraded and dethroned.

Some female religious orders proudly proclaim that they’ve been founded in “rebellion.” What in Mary’s actions speaks rebellion?

Hearing female demands to be ordained, one is reminded of the story of Korah’s rebellion in the Book of Numbers. Korah and his men grumble against Moses because only select Levites are chosen from the 12 tribes to be priests. Korah and his men could not serve in the Tabernacle as priests. In response to their rebellion, God opens the earth to swallow them and all of their possessions.

Would Mary, like Dominican Sister Laurie Brink, say that she was "moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus?”

Would Mary, like billionaire foundation co-chair Melinda Gates, suggest as so many religious sisters apparently did to her, that she should question “received teaching?”

Unlike Zechariah, when Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a Son, she answers with belief.

Mary is the daughter of the Father, the Mother of the Son, and the spouse of the Holy Spirit. How is it that Mary has the three highest positions achievable in the faith? Mary did so through her complete submission to God and what He asked of her. It is for this reason that she is both hated and opposed by Satan and radical feminists.

“Let it be done unto me according to your word,” she responds, not “Let it be done unto me according to my word.”

A Trust Betrayed

As the doctrinal assessment noted, the Church is grateful and thankful for the myriad contributions of thousands of religious sisters. Many have profoundly given of themselves sacrificially, laying down their lives for their students, the sick and those in need. Many people have been touched by many faithful sisters.

Still, others have gone astray in their teaching, their service, and their way of life.

Pope Paul VI said following the Second Vatican Council, “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”

That smoke has been manifested in a variety of ways, including: bishops and priests who not only publicly dissented from the Church’s teachings, but also abandoned their vows and abused others; formerly Catholic powerhouse institutions of learning, higher education, hospitals, and charitable organizations caving into secularism; lay men and women who neither know the faith, nor teach it and pass it along to their children; and men’s and women’s religious orders that have lost their charism and ceased to be life-giving.

Witnessing the damage done to the Church and religious orders over the past 40 years, one cannot help but wonder if radical feminism wasn’t part of that “smoke.”

The CDF’s call for reform is the kind of correction that is most needed at this time.

Too many good religious women have been betrayed.

I recall a now-deceased older nun — a friend of our family — who belonged to an order that had discarded the habit. She, however, continued to wear it. I cannot forget the time she lovingly shared with us how she felt exiled, bullied even, by others in her community for her decision to live out her vows of poverty, chastity, and yes … obedience.

Or another older sister who was dismayed that her order’s religious shop was selling “holy” cards depicting secular “saints,” “sacred snakes,” sorcery, and New Age imagery.

A Benedictine order in Wisconsin reconstituted itself as an ecumenical community outside of the Church, while retaining the property and institution they had acquired over the years as members of the Church.

There has been a generational hijacking. How many dying religious orders continue to hang on to the property and money obtained through previous social capital while betraying the charism of their founders?

While fomenting dissent, many continue to hang on to the property and institutions paid for by previous generations, and they are provided prominent platforms from which to speak.

Many female orders have lost their charism. They are neither motherly, nor fruitful. They do not attract novices. They are not attracting young women because they do not offer something significantly different from what the secular world offers.

Clearly, corrective discipline, performed in love, is in order.  That is the purpose of the doctrinal assessment and the call for reform.

Pope Benedict XVI, in Light of the World recalls that after the mid-1960s ecclesiastical penal law was no longer applied.

“The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist,” said the Pope in his 2010 interview.

“Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.”

The world is in search of the Truth. Christ said, “I am the way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to Father except through me.” Instead of being a bride of Christ, those individuals that divorce themselves from Christ, “moving beyond Jesus” himself, cannot possibly lead His people to the Truth.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)