By Hilary White

ROME, March 6, 2009 ( – A self-proclaimed feminist religious sister has urged her fellows in the feminist Catholic movement to “non-violent” resistance against an upcoming Vatican-mandated visitation into the lives and works of American religious orders. Vatican visitors to the convent, wrote Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders, should be received “politely and kindly,” but not welcomed, honored or cooperated with.

Sr. Schneiders, a member of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and a professor of New Testament studies and Christian spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, wrote a thousand-word email, published Friday in the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, in which she urged other members of the feminist religious orders not to “panic.”

“We cannot, of course, keep them from investigating. But we can receive them, politely and kindly, for what they are, uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house. When people ask questions they shouldn’t ask, the questions should be answered accordingly,” Sr. Schneiders wrote. 

In January, when the Vatican announced it would be conducting a “visitation” of some women’s religious orders in the US, many faithful Catholics expressed their appreciation that serious attention was to be paid to what they see as a major crisis in the US Church, that of the virtual dissolution of the active religious life.

In the last four decades, many of the active religious orders have become leaders in the radical feminist movement, with full support for abortion, divorce, contraception and homosexuality, and systematic opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of life and marriage. In the meantime, these communities have been reduced to a numeric shadow of their former selves. With thousands of sisters leaving convents in the 1960s and ‘70s, and scarce recruits since, many communities are merging and even shutting down operations, and the average age of US active sisters now hovers around 70.

In her email, Sr. Schneiders urged her confreres in the feminist religious orders to “be honest but reserved, supply no ammunition that can be aimed at us, be non-violent even in the face of violence … Non-violent resistance is what finally works as we’ve found out in so many arenas.”

Accusing the recent Vatican visitators in US seminaries of being “aggressive and dishonest,” Sr. Schneider called the Visitation a “hostile move” intended to quash the work of a “renewal of Religious Life” undertaken by feminist sisters over the last forty years. It is, she said, a “fake war being stirred up by the Vatican at the instigation of the frightened.”

She concludes, “The institutional Church has always resisted the new in Religious Life, especially among women. But the new will continue to happen. At this moment in history, we are it.”

Sr. Schneiders’ email is making the rounds amongst Catholic commentators, who have commented widely that, in their opinion, Sr. Schneiders’ view is representative of a dying and outdated movement in the US Church.

Elizabeth Scalia, writing for the online edition of the influential First Things magazine, said that far from being “the new,” the feminist and heavily secularized religious orders are yesterday’s news. “In truth, Sr. Schneiders was ‘it’ in 1972,” Scalia wrote. “Religious Life for women in the United States will be defined in the next few decades by those orders that manage to thrive in a world where the values of chastity, humility, and obedience are misunderstood.”

The US spokesman for the Apostolic Visitation, Sister Eva Maria Ackerman, told that the Visitation is intended only as a means of bolstering the works and life of American religious sisters. She rejected the accusation that the Visitation is an attack on a certain kind of religious order.

Sr. Ackerman told LSN that there was nothing to say in response to Sr. Schneiders’ email, because for purposes of their work, her opinion is “irrelevant.” The Visitation, said Sr. Ackerman, is an attempt by the Church to gauge the “vitality of religious life in the US Church.” Four hundred communities, she said, are involved in the various phases and many superiors of religious communities are already preparing to work closely with the visitors.

“The Church esteems the religious life,” she said. “Religious in this country continue even with fewer sisters and older members to serve the Church in a variety of ways.” The purpose of the Visitation then, she said, is to see where the strengths lie and to help bolster them and prepare for the future.

While the communities of sisters represented by the feminist organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are generally aging and shrinking, new communities are arising who have consciously rejected the “progressivist” hostility towards the Catholic Church and retained the traditions of the religious life. These communities, together with some existing orders who refused to follow the progressivist trend, are represented by the more recently founded Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, and are burgeoning with eager young recruits. The new orders are invariably staunchly pro-life and pro-family, with many being founded especially to do pro-life work.

These vibrant new communities also tend to be keenly aware of the value of the internet to reach out to potential new recruits. With this in mind, Sr. Ackerman’s office has set up a website for those interested in following the progress of the Visitation and has even started a group on the internet social networking site Facebook.

Mother Clare Millea, the sister appointed by Rome to coordinate the Visitation, wrote on the group’s webpage, “I am coming to a new appreciation for the great advantage of modern technology for getting out the ‘good news’ about the Apostolic Visitation. I appreciate also how this communications and networking tool is bringing people like you and your Friends together for the common good – the prayerful support of religious life in our country.”

“There’s a great deal of hope,” said Sr. Ackerman, “that there will be strengthening where it needs to be strengthened.”

“We have great hope that some very good strong things will come out of it.”

To visit the Apostolic Visitation Facebook page:

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