Citizenship and religious vows

by Eloise Rosenblatt


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In recent years I have engaged in a form of lectio divina on July 4. On the morning of U.S. Independence Day, I re-read the United States' Declaration of Independence.

Last year, I reflected on the reference to "merciless Indian Savages." This year, I noticed that well over half the document is a complaint listing specific acts of oppression by the king of England. The ill treatment of persons and elected bodies justifies the signers' declaration that the connection between the colonies and England is dissolved and the colonies are now free and independent states.

The energy of this declaration is explosive. I felt its power of protest and assertion of human dignity. This is a living document, still an inspiration to many peoples of the world. Is there a connection between these sentiments from 1776 and what women religious are doing as public, assertive actions in 2018?

I notice how many women religious are involved in protests against ill-treatment of vulnerable groups, such as people who are undocumented asylum seekers, trafficked, living in poverty, targeted for exclusion, ethnic minorities, or displaced by war, resource extraction, pollution, deforestation …

In my community (Sisters of Mercy), this social activism has grown over several decades. I remember the first sister who landed in jail in the 1970s after her arrest for protesting on behalf of farm workers in Delano, California, in a march led by Cesar Chavez. Her participation in the march was acceptable, but still "borderline" and embarrassing to the community. For a sister to land in jail — who could ever imagine that?

Decades later, sisters can count on the support of leadership for training in non-violent protest tactics. Now, it's not one sister, but cohorts of them carrying placards and making a public show of their solidarity with the politically oppressed and vulnerable.

"Nuns on the Bus," a tour of women religious across the United States, was one dramatic public expression of a common commitment of women religious to social and political change.

As a theologian, I wonder where that energy is coming from. Is it the natural outcome of reading and living Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from 1965? Or was that document itself inspired by the post-World War II United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948?

I sense the present climate of efforts at systemic change, directed at our political society, have arisen from some vital, internal source that's not simply an articulation of our Gospel values.

We are not simply doing something we didn't do before. We are acting as the persons we understand ourselves to be. I think the social activism of women religious is more than a spiritual movement reflecting the clarification of our congregational charisms after Vatican II; it's a connection of ministerial imperatives with our citizenship.

What are the roots of this evolution in our self-understanding? For some years, I have been thinking about the integration of our religious life with our citizenship — wondering how our understanding of the vows is being informed by the fact that we are citizens.

Citizenship and vows — what's the inter-relation? Or do I live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience without any reference to the public events screaming at me in the news every day?

I am a note-taker and a note-saver. I occasionally review my novitiate conference notes and mark the margins with a "Yes" or a "No." My two years of novitiate notes, from just after Vatican II, reflect a healthy spirituality and Catholic theology, updated for religious life in tune with Vatican II. The foundational principles in my notes, that have seen us all through these last decades of political and ecclesial turmoil, still ring like Waterford crystal.

I did not have this perspective then. The novitiate was not my favorite time in religious life. I was incredulous to hear a sister say she loved her novitiate because she had time for prayer — but she finally admitted that she was always afraid she'd be told to go home.

It does not surprise me that my novitiate conference notes make no reference to political action, or to systemic change. "The law" was the Code of Canon Law, 1917 version, and the review of this subject came during the retreat before final vows — when we heard the grounds for getting dismissed from religious life even after final vows (like getting married, having an abortion, killing someone) which all seemed rather remote at the time.

Now, as an academic and lawyer, I remember we had no actual text — odd, but typical of the time. No one thought "the law" for women required that we read anything, discuss anything or ask questions. It was enough that we were told what the law of the church was.

But back to the concept of citizenship in relation to civil law. A fundamental act of citizenship is the right to vote in state and federal elections. Voting in elections didn't come up in any novitiate conference and doesn't appear in my notes. But in the common life of the Sisters of Mercy, I presumed we all voted.

I never thought that some members might not be citizens. Voting was a side issue, a silent aspect of our life, taken for granted, but not included on any community agenda. There was just a reference to public law at our annual assembly regarding "the minutes of the meeting of the board of trustees of the Sisters of Mercy, a non-profit corporation."

The presumption that we would vote in federal elections was affirmation of our right of citizenship, even though we'd "left the world." One of my interim duties was to sort the novices' letters from the general mail. Voter mailings came addressed to sisters according to their legal names, not their names in religion. The clue to their identity was their last name.

What a delicious discovery as a novice, when you were cut off from relationships with the professed. I uncovered the legal names of several professed sisters, thanks to the California Secretary of State. I knew who they really were underneath the veil — how they were known as citizens.

Silly me. If I'd only waited for their renewal of vows, I would have discovered their baptismal/legal names, which they recited before saying "called in religion …" Sisters announced their baptismal, legal, citizen names along with their religious names at profession of vows. They acknowledged their identity both as a citizen and as a religious when they made or renewed their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

For some readers, this may be ancient history. If it is puzzling, find a sister who entered before 1980 to explain the period in which sisters changed their religious names back to their baptismal or citizen name and the reasons for that choice.

Having introduced the idea of citizenship in relation to vows, let me leave readers with this association of ideas. I would like to reflect on this connection in future columns.

[Eloise Rosenblatt is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas from California. For 10 years, she has practiced family law as a civil attorney in private practice, serving both paying and pro bono clients, mostly women.]