An academic look at the Apostolic Visitiation

When Sr. Jean Bartunek, a professor of organizational theory at Boston College, was asked to contribute to an academic volume on religion and organizational theory, it didn’t take long for her to land on the perfect topic.

It was 2011 and Mother Mary Clare Millea, accompanied by a cohort of visitation teams, had just wrapped up their rounds of on-site audits of U.S. women religious on behalf of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. While the Congregation defines an Apostolic Visitation as nothing more than an opportunity for members of a religious community to comment on their lives, many around the world saw the visitation as an indictment of U.S. sisters and a thinly veiled attempt to corral them back under the wings of patriarchy.

Bartunek got in touch with Simona Giorgi, a colleague in the college of management and organization, and Sr. Margaret Guider, a Boston College theology professor who, at the time, was also serving as vice president of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate. The trio decided to tackle the effect of the Apostolic Visitation through the lens of organizational theory – the study of organizational structures.

“Basically, from an academic perspective, I thought this would be a fascinating opportunity to explore some of the issues that were very real from a personal perspective,” said Bartunek, a Religious of Sacred Heart. “It felt like, ‘I’m an academic. This is one way I can do something that’s sort of useful to the situation: write about it and document it for a larger audience.’”

The result – published in March as a chapter in a special edition of the academic series Research in the Sociology of Organizations – was an in-depth look at how women religious in the U.S. harnessed the power of what organizational scholars call “productive resistance.”

Essentially, the report says, instead of being admonished, the sisters used the visitation to rediscover their identity as “gospel women,” and to increase their sense of solidarity not only with each other, but also with the women religious who made up the visitation teams.

“It’s a fascinating piece of work,” said Paul Tracey, one of the editors of Research in the Sociology of Organizations and an organizational scholar at the University of Cambridge. “I think one of the most interesting parts of the chapter is its analysis of how moral, and indeed, spiritual authority need not be connected to formal power.”

Unlike the colloquial use of the term, Bartunek said “resistance,” as defined in organizational theory describes a nuanced reaction to change that is more than a mere refusal to change. Instead, it refers to a situation in which those with less power are active and engaged in the process of change demanded by those with more power.

Productive resistance, in the case of the U.S. sisters, meant that rather than to blindly comply with demands for change or – conversely – to respond with anger and indignation, they engaged with the visitation process. Furthermore, with prayerful contemplation and robust communication, they were able to manage negative emotions and ultimately, according to the report,  “[subvert] in some ways the initial goals of the Visitation, altering its course and moving beyond the motives of those who originally set it in motion.”

“I think what the leaders of the women’s congregations have done is basically give a model that can be helpful for a lot of people when somebody with a lot of power is telling you that you have to do something that doesn’t feel right,” Bartunek said. “And that is something that is pertinent way beyond just women’s religious congregations.”

Paolo Parigi, who teaches organizational theory at Stanford University and has also studied the Catholic church agrees that the church has universal lessons to teach about institutions and change.

“If you think of the history of the Western world, the church as an organization has been there forever – probably the longest lasting organization in the entire Western world,” he said. “There is a lot to learn from how the church finds energies inside the organization to renovate itself.” However, Parigi emphasizes that renovation in the church, while illustrative, is anything but quick. In fact, he said, it may take decades before a change is noticed.

“It’s never been a quick process,” he said, “but [the church] maintains some capacity to change. And then people who have been in the church a long time can tell you how different the doctrine felt 50 years ago or 60 years go.”

In Parigi’s opinion, future generations will consider the American sisters and their response to the Apostolic Visitation as part of a paradigm shift in the church – one in which productive resistance from the less powerful is valued.

“The church is in kind of a vulnerable position right now, so they may be more willing to listen to concerns that are coming from the bottom up,” he said, attributing the church’s current vulnerability to both scandals and the fact that European churches that are hemorrhaging parishioners. “I think [the Vatican and the sisters] will be able to establish a dialogue. I anticipate that that will happen.”

In the meantime, Bartunek said the sisters’ prayerful contemplation during the visitation will continue to serve them well, noting that, in her opinion, it was this prayerful attitude that helped them to use productive resistance as effectively as they did.

“They gave themselves time to think out what was really important,” she said, “which contributed to what I believe is a faithful response that developed the notion of what fidelity means in a way that went beyond what some people were seeing it as. And that, at least temporarily, led to not making the situation worse, but better.”

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is a staff writer for GSR.]

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