His droll voice mail for those Spanish Carmelites got all the ink, but Papa Francesco’s most important New Year’s message for nuns is to be found in La Civiltà Cattolica’s report on what he told the male heads of religious orders at their annual meeting in late November.
According to editor Antonio Spadaro (who conducted the big Jesuit interview with His Holiness back in August), the pope was asked to comment on “the activities of religious communities in the context of local Churches and about their relationship with bishops.” His answer was to say that bishops need a better appreciation of the specific “charisms” of the various orders and to call for a revision of Mutuae Relationes, the document that has governed relations between bishops and religious orders since 1978. It was, he said “useful at the time but is now outdated.”
We bishops need to understand that consecrated persons are not functionaries but gifts that enrich dioceses. The involvement of religious communities in dioceses is important. Dialog between the bishop and religious must be rescued so that, due to a lack of understanding of their charisms, bishops do not view religious simply as useful instruments.”
These words recall the famous conflict between the nuns of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who staffed Los Angeles’ parochial schools, and the city’s archbishop, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre. As pointed out by Boston College’s Mark Massa in The American Catholic Revolution, the IMHs were inspired by the Second Vatican Council to recover the inspiration of their 19th-century Spanish founder, who established the order for women to live a life of service to the poor. McIntyre wanted fully habited diocesan functionaries. He appointed a commission to scrutinize the IMHs and in 1968 kicked them out of his schools.
Promulgated a decade later, Mutuae Relationes represents one of the John Paul II era’s efforts to restore hierarchical control in the wake of Vatican II. It made clear that religious orders were part of the local church — “the diocesan family” — and that their “right to autonomy” was subordinate to it. “Great harm is done to the faithful by the fact that too much tolerance is granted to certain unsound initiatives or to certain accomplished facts which are ambiguous,” the document warned.
It’s no stretch to relate Pope Francis’ comments to the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) ginned up by the Catholic right four years ago and currently in the hands of the Vatican’s doctrinal office. Now again there are hierarchs who want nuns simply to be obedient to diocesan authority and who are hot and bothered by “unsound initiatives” and “ambiguous” facts.
In the spirit of Vatican II, which is very much his own, Francis is telling the bishops to give greater deference to the religious orders and what inspires them. The LCWR ought to be breathing a little easier.