Here’s a story that could have been written pretty much at any point in Western history from the tenth or eleventh century on*: According to the Toledo Blade, Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair’s investigation “will look at adherence to Catholic doctrine by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization based in Silver Springs, Md., with 1,500 nuns in leadership positions representing 95 percent of the nation’s 67,000 Catholic sisters.” The inquiry will focus on three areas of concern: “promoting the ordination of women, salvation through Christ alone, and ‘the problem of homosexuality.’” Amazonianism! Antinomianism! Unnatural disobedience! (What, no investigation of Holocaust denial among women religious? Thanks to plugged-in, Toledo Blade-reading, Ursuline-educated reader ”Mother of ALL” for the tip.) By the way–S.N.A.P. (Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests) doesn’t like or trust Bishop Blair because of what they see as his “terrible track record on child sex abuse and cover-up.”
The National Catholic Reporter story on which this article seems to be based says that this investigation appears to be related to another investigation of the apostolic women’s orders: “The Visitation, which will collect and assimilate data and observations about religious life, will be limited to apostolic institutes, those actively engaged in service to Church and society. Cloistered, contemplative sisters, who have distinctly different lifestyles, are excluded from the study.” (Emphasis mine.)
Women religious, no matter how poor or small in numbers, just can’t be trusted! They must be brought to heel and put more directly under a Bishop’s control! We’ve been saying this for at least a full millennium now–but this time we’ll make it stick. Unfortunately, I fear that moves like this could be the final nails in the coffin for Catholic women’s communities in North America and Europe. (Or is predicting the end of women religious just as short-sighted and futile as Papal and Diocesan efforts to control nuns? After all, the nuns have persisted, just as they’ve been continuously innovative in finding ways of doing whatever it is they want to do, regardless of what Popes or Bishops have said.) Modern affluent societies offer women so many options now that joining a religious order isn’t our only choice outside of marriage, motherhood, and/or prostitution. I think the youngest sisters in the convent where I’ve been doing research for the past few years are in their 70s, and the girls’ school there has only lay teachers now. Within a few years, my guess is that it will become another Quebec heritage site–after nearly 400 years, it will likely cease to be a living religious community. (Then again, environmental collapse or global disaster on an unprecedented scale could potentially return survivors to the safety of walled cities and claustration–so I should look on the bright side, right?)
*a modern historian’s ballpark guess–maybe Another Damned Medievalist or another early medievalist will correct me and point out that it could have been written as early as the eighth century?