Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How to Leave the Church AND Keep the Deed

In 2006, two long-serving Benedictine Sisters from Wisconsin renounced their vows and left their order. The Vatican concurred in releasing them.

Nothing surprising there - Religious leave their orders all the time. What is unique about this case is that the two women figured out how to take all of their former order’s assets with them. In October, a group of leaders from men’s and women’s religious orders will learn how to do the same.

Here’s the background. In 2007, Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink gave the keynote address at the annual convention of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious held in Kansas City. Titled, "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century"(pdf), her talk looked at different ways various communities of women religious were dealing with decline and evolving. One possible way was to be a “sojourner”:

Sojourners have left the religious home of their fathers and mothers and are traveling in a foreign land, mapping their way as they go. They are courageous women among us. And very well may provide a glimpse into the new thing that God is bringing about in our midst. Who’s to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God? A movement the ecclesiastical system would not recognize. A wholly new way of being holy that is integrative, non-dominating, and inclusive. But a whole new way that is also not Catholic Religious Life. The Benedictine Women of Madison are the most current example I can name. Their commitment to ecumenism lead them beyond the exclusivity of the Catholic Church into a new inclusivity, where all manner of seeking God is welcomed. They are certainly religious women, but they are no longer women religious as it is defined by the Roman Catholic Church. They choose as a congregation to step outside the Church in order to step into a greater sense of holiness.

One problem with sojourning “beyond Christ” in a way “the ecclesiastical system would not recognize” is that you have to leave behind the good will of being a Catholic religious sister and begin anew. When you leave the Church, you also leave behind the trappings of the Church – the monastery, the land, the endowment. All of these things were entrusted for an ecclesial purpose and you have chosen to no longer serve that purpose. If you quit the convent, you have to find a new roof.

But the two Benedictine sisters in Wisconsin who wanted to leave their order were in a unique position. They were the last two active members of their community. They had no one to return the keys to. So they took them.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Benedictine Sisters Mary David Walgenbach and Joanne Kollasch started thinking about leaving the Catholic religious life and starting a way of life the Church would not recognize in 1992. In 2006, they were officially released from their vows.

Between 1992 and 2006, they had a lot of work to do. According to public records, in 1998, they set up a Non-Stock Corporation headed by themselves called the Benedictine Women of Madison, Inc. The new corporation was non-canonical, ie., not connected to or bound by any of the laws of the Church.

In late 2000, the two sisters signed over the deeds for the various parcels of land belonging to their canonical, ecclesial religious order to the non-ecclesial corporation run by themselves. A separate, non-ecclesial foundation was also set up for the benefit of the new Benedictine Women of Madison, Inc.

When the two sisters finally were released from their vows in 2006, they had already transferred the ecclesial property of their order essentially to themselves. They took new vows to their non-Church related order and now run the Holy Wisdom Monastery on the property of their old order’s former high school.

Holy Wisdom Monastery has one other professed member, a Presbyterian minister. They are open to accepting “sisters” of other faiths, but so far no takers. Madison Bishop Robert Morlino has forbidden priests from offering Mass at the monastery, but in late August, they began “sharing the Bread of Life around a common table” at a weekly, inclusive, ecumenical Eucharist at their just-constructed $8 million eco-friendly monastery.

Are there any other religious orders contemplating quitting the Church and taking the Church’s patrimony with them? The Resource Center for Religious Institutes must think so.

RCRI is an organization formed by the merger of two religious resource groups sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. At their National Conference on October 23, participating religious leaders will have the opportunity to attend a workshop called “Going Non-Canonical”. It will be led by the former sister from Wisconsin, Mary David Walgenbach, and Benedictine Father Dan Ward, the canon lawyer who helped the Benedictines of Madison quit the Church. Here’s the description, my emphases:

The story of a small Benedictine community’s journey of becoming non-canonical. The content includes their ecumenical ministry, visioning process, development of an ecumenical board, relationship with the Federation of St. Gertrude and canonical and civil procedures for the transfer of assets.

Why would any leader of a religious community need to learn that?