The Sisters of Mercy aren’t McDonald’s


Religious congregations are not franchises of the Vatican “central office.” More like families than corporations, sisters have different missions, needs, and styles of life.

When the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious is discussed, two questions are asked repeatedly:

1) If religious have nothing to hide, why would they object to being investigated by the Vatican?

2) Why should religious congregations be any more immune to surprise checks by the Vatican on their quality of life than a fast-food franchise is to a surprise check by the main office on the quality of its operations and products?

Though these questions are generally asked rhetorically, they deserve to be answered.


First, comparing religious congregations to fast-food franchises is like saying all undergraduate institutions of higher education in the U.S. are franchises of the Department of Education. The massive University of California system; a small, rural liberal arts college for women; the military academy at West Point; and a local community college should, by this analogy, all be as uniform as a small order of McDonald’s french fries in Peoria is to one in Boston.

Should not the franchises (schools) supplying this product (a bachelor’s degree) all follow the same recipes (required courses) and use the same measurements (identical exams)? And does not the central office have a right to make surprise inspections to be sure that this uniformity is maintained?

Obviously, this line of questioning is silly. To express the multiple purposes of education itself, schools offer vastly different programs to diverse students with varying objectives.

As the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the adaptation and renewal of religious life, Perfectae Caritatis, notes, “In keeping with the divine purpose, a wonderful variety of religious communities” has arisen in the church. Although there are deep similarities among religious orders and certain criteria apply to all-for example, fidelity to the vows-a cookie-cutter uniformity measured by a universally applied questionnaire to evaluate all orders is neither reasonable nor desirable.

Orders differ widely in their charisms, ministries, prayer life, community life, and government. Except for celibacy, which is identical for all, virtually every aspect of religious life has legitimately been interpreted and lived differently in different communities.


Also, contrary to some people’s misconceptions-and unlike diocesan clergy-religious congregations receive no financial support from the institutional church. Furthermore, religious do not “make vows to the pope” or the hierarchy. Religious make their vows to God according to the approved constitutions of their own congregations.

In short, religious are not financially, juridically, or organizationally branch offices, much less “franchises” of the Vatican or the chancery office.

If the fast food franchise analogy is absurd, is there a better one? I would suggest matrimony.

Catholic couples make the free decision to begin a family by getting married. They then ask the church, through its minister, to witness and record their conferring of the sacrament of Matrimony on each other. The church’s minister does not select the partners, decree the marriage, nor confer the sacrament.

The church does have certain requirements if the marriage is to be sacramental-for instance, that both parties be free to marry and freely choose marriage to this partner, that they undergo some education about the church’s understanding of Matrimony, and that they commit themselves to a monogamous union.

The church does not tell them where to live, what to wear, how many children to have, where to send them to school, how to handle their finances, or what parish to join. The couple’s life is not subject to minute regulation, and it is not an agent of the institutional church.

Religious orders are not founded by the institutional church. Believers, often under the influence of one or more founders, freely come together to commit themselves to an intense form of Christian discipleship and ministry. If the order stabilizes, the members write a constitution, or “rule,” and ask the church to approve it.

Just as it does for married couples, the church also has requirements for religious congregations-for instance, the freedom of those who enter, adequate formation, perpetual vows, always including consecrated celibacy.


Once approved, the congregation and its members are “public persons” in the church but not, like the ordained, agents of the institution, official teachers, or enforcers of church policy. Religious are not part of the hierarchical structure of the church any more than married people are.

Once formed, a religious order is a quasi-family. Although its members are not related by blood but by faith, it is a multigenerational community whose members are committed to each other for life.

The community is born of a particular “charism,” develops a distinctive spirit, and generates a tradition. It has its own practices, symbols, saints-canonized or not-and ways of communicating and celebrating.

Like a blood family it can make mistakes, and it has its problems, conflicts, and challenges. But it also has ways of dealing with these. It has moments of triumph and success, influential leaders, and a history of change and development. Above all, each congregation, like each family, is unique.

Why would a congregation resist an imposed investigation into its life? Like any healthy family, congregations willingly share their lives with others, but to be suddenly and unilaterally subjected, for no offense, to a detailed investigation of virtually every aspect and detail of its internal life causes the kind of reaction any family experiences when its home is burglarized.

Much more serious than any loss of valuables is the fact that a stranger is handling the photos of their children, entering their marital bedroom, rifling through family papers and financial documents. It is experienced as a violation of privacy, the crossing of boundaries that should be crossed only by invitation.

The resistance that victims feel has nothing to do with secrecy, with having something to hide, with shame about their family life. It has to do with self-respect, the need and right to maintain a sense of integrity and self-determination.

The purpose of violating privacy is the destruction of this sense of self by rendering the victim defenseless before overwhelming power. Whether the violation is physical (as in burglary) or spiritual (as in invasion of conscience), the goal is domination by intimidation.

There are, of course, times when a group forfeits its right to privacy. Then boundary-crossing, even by force, is legitimate and necessary, as when a family home is a front for drug-dealing, when a bishop is facilitating sexual abuse of children by priests, or when a religious congregation, like the Legionaries of Christ, is a place of institutionalized immorality. But when there are no credible allegations of serious crimes, as there are not in the current case of the Vatican investigation of women religious, forced boundary-crossing is a violation of privacy.

Religious congregations are not branch offices or “franchises” of the Vatican. They have a right guaranteed by canon law to the integrity and autonomy of their internal community lives and government, their privacy. Objecting to its violation is not a matter of secrecy, disobedience, or pride. It is an expression of corporate and personal self-respect arising from their humanity and their Baptism.

This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75. No. 1, pages 18-19).

Image: Scott Thigpen

About the author

Sandra Schneiders

Sister Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M is a professor of New Testament studies and Christian spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, California.

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