The USA’s NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER is currently publishing a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Sandra Schneiders, Professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at Berkeley’s Jesuit School of Theology. Part of the context of this essay, entitled “Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form”, is the Vatican’s controversial three-year scrutiny of women religious congregations in the US.
Asked in an interview with NCR editor Thomas C. Fox why she had written this essay, and why now, she responded that the current investigation had created a crisis, in the sense of both danger and opportunity. She sees three types of danger here. Firstly, religious do not know what is to happen to the information collected, and some fear that the conclusions may have been reached before the investigation even began. Secondly, she sees a danger that some religious may be so disheartened by this questioning of their integrity and authenticity, and by the expectation that they “get back ‘in the box’ that defined their pre-conciliar lives”, that they may abandon religious life or even the institutional Church. Thirdly, she fears that young women who feel called to follow Jesus in today’s forms of religious life may be put off spending their lives and energy “struggling with a patriarchal institution which denies their full human and Christian personhood”.
Sister Sandra hopes her essay will counteract these dangers by encouraging religious to seize the opportunity of re-examining the meaning of religious life as a participation in that to which Jesus himself felt called. She sees the possibility of deepening solidarity among religious and fostering “courage in the face of misunderstanding and persecution”.
In the interview, she suggests that the investigation has two levels, like the opposition to Jesus that led to his being rejected by the religious authorities in his time. On one level, these authorities saw Jesus as “upsetting the fragile religious status quo within which their power was guaranteed”. On an unconscious level, they were opposing Jesus’ reinterpretation of “God’s absolutely inclusive love and unconditional mercy to the unclean, the sinners and the outcasts”. She believes that religious are similarly being viewed as a threat to the Church’s current status quo, and seen as promoting hope in a salvation that “comes not through blind submission … or helpless dependence” but “through humble acceptance of the power and desire of an all-loving God to save even those who are ‘hopeless’”.
The tension between religious and the institutional Church, which the latter call ‘disobedience’, she sees as “part of our commitment to true obedience to God not men”. Her essay is written to encourage articulating and claiming this prophetic stance by religious, and “willingly living (not just being passively overwhelmed by) whatever suffering that may involve”.
The five-part essay may be read on www.ncronline.org under Women Religious, dated 4-8 January 2010. The interview was published in the same spot on 29 December 2009.