home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted June 21, 2011

Ferment in religious life, a new American leader,
and 'Vatican Insider'

By John L Allen Jr
National Catholic Reporter

Absolutely no zone of church life these days is immune to hard questions about Catholic identity, reflecting the mega-trend I’ve dubbed “Evangelical Catholicism,” premised on a robust assertion of traditional Catholic thought, speech and practice. This politics of identity is the scarlet thread that runs through a wide range of upheavals, from the Latin Mass to the new Roman Missal, from debates over the ecclesial character of Catholic hospitals and charities to theology and seminary formation.

The ferment is certainly clear in religious life. It’s the basis, for instance, of a Vatican-sponsored Apostolic Visitation of women’s communities in the United States. It’s also why top officials of the Roman Curia this week devoted one of their rare joint meetings to a discussion of religious life, focusing mostly on matters of authority.

In the notoriously compartmentalized world of the Vatican, communication among the various departments, technically known as “dicasteries,” tends to be the exception rather than the rule. One of the few formal channels comes in an “inter-dicasterial” assembly, when all the heads of the departments meet with the pope to discuss topics of special concern. The last time that happened was in November 2010, to ponder the role of the new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

On Monday, Benedict XVI convened the first inter-dicasterial session of 2011. Although the Vatican did not release details of the meeting, sources told NCR that the subject was religious life, including discussion of three points:

The distinction between male and female orders, which some observers say is clear in canon law but sometimes less so in the actual practice of community life.

The distinction between religious life and the lay state, including insistence that laity who are in charge of a movement or association may not exercise formal jurisdiction over priests and religious. Movements which include clergy and religious, such as Focolare or Sant’Egidio, must have a priest responsible for those members. That point was stressed both by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, President of the Pontifical Council for Laity.

The danger of emphasizing obedience to the founder of a religious order over obedience to the wider church and its teaching authority.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, addressed the third point. A key element of the subtext was the Legionaries of Christ, and what some saw as a cult of personality over the years around the order’s founder, the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. Since the Legionaries have been forced to acknowledge that Maciel was guilty of a wide range of offenses, including sexual abuse, one unavoidable question is whether an exaggerated notion of personal obedience to Maciel helped allow that misconduct to go unchallenged for so long.

Bertone is a Salesian, and thus himself a product of religious life. According to sources in the meeting, Bertone stressed that religious communities should defend their own identity, but not at the expense of accountability to the church as whole.

What might come of these discussions in terms of new policy initiatives, or measures directed at specific communities, remains to be seen. If nothing else, this week’s inter-dicasterial meeting offers another indication that identity concerns vis-à-vis religious life, as in every other zone of the church, are here to stay.