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Historical tensions visit women and the Church

  • 18 June 2009
Visitations are usually awe-inspiring and terrifying. They go with thunderbolts, particularly when conducted by Head Office. So the news that the Vatican will conduct a visitation of United States female religious congregations was naturally received with some anxiety by many of its beneficiaries.

But in this case the style of visitation seems disarming. It follows a recent Vatican visitation of United States seminaries which passed equably.

It is to be conducted, not by Bishops, but by two religious sisters. Its terms of reference are broad and not loaded. The visitors are to look at the life of different religious congregations, examine their contribution to the church and society, and reflect on their future service of the church. The visitation website invites comments.

The questions posed, too, are of interest to the wider church, given the huge contribution made by religious women in the United States. In the last half century the number of religious sisters has declined greatly, the average age of the members has risen, and the future of many congregations is not assured.

None of these things, however, will completely allay anxiety. In their relations with the men who have authority in their local parishes or dioceses, sisters have always needed to defend their proper autonomy.

In parish convents the tension was handled ceremoniously. When Father came to celebrate morning Mass, he was invited to breakfast in the parlour. The place, the doilies, casters, saucers, plates, butter pats and thinly sliced toast were both a sign of welcome and a reminder that he was a guest whose writ did not run over the life of the community.

In their early years, too, many congregations struggled with local bishops over the limits of autonomy. Some founders, like Mary MacKillop (pictured), were even excommunicated. It is not surprising that ancestral antennae sense danger when male church leaders decide on visitation.

This visitation also takes place in a climate of lively conversation about the place of women in church and society and about the scope of the Second Vatican Council.

Discussion of the place of women often focuses on feminism. Catholics are divided between those whose instinct is to praise feminism for its unflinching advocacy of equality and freedom, and those who associate feminism with the extension of the demand for freedom to sexual morality and the transmission of life, and associate equality with the denial of difference. The latter point has consequences for the priestly ordination of