A well-researched study of the negative dynamic that developed between the Catholic hierarchy and women religious in the United States in the decades following the Second Vatican Council has appeared as Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns (Doubleday), by Kenneth A. Briggs, former religion editor of The New York Times. Briggs’s central thesis, suggested by his subtitle, is that the church hierarchy precipitated the dramatic decline in numbers of Catholic sisters in the United States by mandating the renewal of women’s communities at the Second Vatican Council and then balking when unexpected results developed. He credits the sisters with taking seriously the directive to return to the spirit of their founders and bring their congregations into harmony with the modern world.
Almost immediately, Briggs asserts, as the sisters began to simplify their manner of dress, democratize governance structures and liberalize convent lifestyle, church authorities got nervous about where renewal would lead. Spooked by the sisters’ modernization, feminization and readiness to move away from subservience to male authority figures, the bishops, with a few notable exceptions, clamped down, repudiated renewal and publicly chastised women religious for “secularizing” and becoming “radical feminists.”
From Where I Stand
Much of what Mr. Briggs writes rings true to my experience. I entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1955, just before Pope John XXIII “threw open the windows” of the church by convoking the Second Vatican Council. Twenty-five novices, all of us between 18 and 22 years old, embarked on a novitiate influenced by the sister formation movement, which gave high priority to education, including good theology programs. We made perpetual vows in 1961, fully aware of things stirring for change within the community and, we thought, within the church. Liturgical renewal, concepts of collegiality, new theological insights—these challenges added zest to what was then, essentially, a traditional pattern of ecclesial monastic life.
I remember the day when we were celebrating some major community feast and I, still a novice, was to have my first experience in the newly permitted role of lector for the Mass. The bishop was presiding. We shared a microphone (those were the days before everyone had the little lapel mikes), I outside the altar railing, of course, and he in the pulpit just inside it. After Mass the bishop, obviously displeased throughout the ceremony with this sharing arrangement, said to me: “Tell me, Sister, what does it do for you to be allowed to read the Scriptures at Mass?” I was floored by this question, both the tone of it and the very posing of it. Here was I, totally thrilled to participate in a liturgical celebration, suddenly brought to the realization that he perceived me as an interloper.
From 1982 to 2000 I served in community leadership, both on the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy administrative team and the general government of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, based in Silver Spring, Md. That tenure included a term as chair of one region of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and two years on the national board of L.C.W.R. I served on the executive committee of the national board during the crisis (described in detail by Mr. Briggs) that developed after nearly 100 religious sisters and priests signed an advertisement in The New York Times that proclaimed “a diversity of opinion regarding abortion” existed among Catholics.
As the Pittsburgh Mercy leadership team, we struggled to support the administration of our sister community in Detroit in the Agnes Mansour case. We participated directly in the Quinn Commission study of American religious life and the Nygren-Ukeritis research project on religious orders in the United States.
Not the Full Story
Despite these parallels between Kenneth Briggs’s chronicle and my own lived experience, the book leaves me unsettled. It is only part of the story of how communities of women religious arrived where we are now. Briggs describes accurately and well the authoritarian reaction of a significant number of bishops and some priests to the rapid, dramatic change in sisters’ lives in the post-Vatican II period. He indicates that renewal produced tension and anxiety within the congregations of sisters, too, and he portrays the growing diminishment of members with alarming clarity. Nonetheless, there are questions Briggs does not address that nag at me.
What responsibility do we sisters bear for our current crisis of membership? Was the hierarchy’s response to our renewal coming from deeper currents of cultural transformation than even they were aware? To what degree were the same currents of cultural transformation having an impact on us sisters? How can we find our way back to the center of ecclesial life from which we seem to have drifted? Can we help the hierarchy to find its way out of the 19th-century box in which it seems to have enclosed itself? Perhaps most important, how can we name this complex dilemma in a way that will actually liberate us to address it? Doing so has implications not only for us, but for the whole church.
Powerful currents of transformation moved through Western culture in the 19th and 20th centuries: (1) the widespread growth of general education, (2) the impact of participatory democracy on human institutions, (3) a movement beyond the false absolutes of religious fundamentalism, (4) a new emphasis on personalism and (5) a new awareness of women and women’s participation in society. These currents swept through the church as well, catching all of us in the swirl. It was as if both the hierarchy and the sisters were white-water rafting without any memory of having gotten into the boats. Accustomed to being in control in the old order, the hierarchy experienced the trip as a bumpy ride, unsettling and, perhaps, life-threatening. Established within a more charismatic framework, the sisters experienced the rapid waters as scary but exhilarating, full of new possibilities. By the time of the Second Vatican Council, the path for a collision course was well set, only to grow more complicated.
A Complicated Renewal Process
Briggs’s thesis—that our potential demise (if the downward trend continues) is the result of being double-crossed by the hierarchy—does not take into account this complexity. He situates sisters simply as victims. Granted the entrenchment of clericalism in the 19th-century church, granted the authoritarianism in the aftermath of the First Vatican Council and the Modernist controversy, it nonetheless does not ring true historically that the hierarchy’s resistance to sisters’ renewal in the 20th century was an intentional deception meant to exclude us from church life. In fact, the dialogue between nuns and bishops has perennially been fraught with some tension. The founding stories of women’s communities down through the ages are full of such tales, usually around issues of internal strife relative to where authority rests. That tension did not impede our growth; it seems often to have assured it.
What is different in the 20th-century confrontations is the rapidity of cultural transformation, which the sisters experienced, perhaps sometimes uncritically, as reshaping religious life in constructive and liberating ways. The bishops’ reactions were sometimes fear-based, sometimes a result of genuine perplexity in the midst of cultural transformation, sometimes chauvinist and sometimes simply stupid. At times in the confrontations that ensued, we sisters reacted more like Martin Luther, when St. Catherine of Siena’s approach might better have served both the church and us. Imagine the contrast: Luther, the clearly inspired, often accurate observer of church ills, who in his “Letter to the German Nobility” in 1520 called the pope the anti-Christ and the papacy the “Roman See of Avarice and Robbery,” and Catherine, equally inspired and accurate, of the more feminine, negotiable “Dear Holy Father” letters.
As we analyze our current situation and try to imagine and build our future, this differentiation between status as victim or as responsible agents is critically important for women religious. We are not victims. The current crisis of diminishing membership in our congregations did not just happen to us. Nor did the hierarchy cause it. After NPR’s “Morning Edition” news program aired an interview with Briggs about his book on Jujy 9, a Catholic listener wrote in to ask, “Since the nuns went so far out in left field after Vatican II, how could he blame the hierarchy for their demise?”
No, it did not just happen to us, nor did the hierarchy cause it, as Briggs suggests. Nor did we simply do in ourselves, as the NPR listener implied. When isolated, each of these assessments is too simplistic, omitting as each does the phenomenon of cultural transformation with its implications for theology, ecclesiology, spirituality and human dynamics, all of which are bedrock to ecclesial community life.
On to the Future
Kenneth Briggs’s study of religious sisters in the United States during the post-Vatican II era is helpful, especially in its pulling together so many disparate parts of the story of those years. It is important, though, that neither the church in America nor women religious get stuck in the “double-crossed” thesis. In order to move into the future with high energy and renewed commitment, we sisters need to reflect on substantive questions emerging from the transformation since Vatican Council II:
• Who do we sisters perceive ourselves to be in 2006?
• How do members of the clergy, both the hierarchy and others, and the laity perceive us?
• Who do we want to be in and with the church as we move into the future?
• Can we clearly articulate the theological, ecclesiological and spiritual grounding that animates us in the 21st century?
• Can we admit to the dark side of liberalism, feminism and individualism as well as recognize the wonderfully energizing effect that the positive side of these elements has played in our lives and growth?
• Do we have clarity ourselves about our ecclesial identity?
In the very fact of our diminishment, the Holy Spirit appears to be preparing the church for new modes of religious community life. We continue to be a seedbed for that new growth. This will demand of us some honest and at times painful evaluation of the past half-century as well as the re-imagining and restructuring in which women’s communities are currently engaged.
A major flaw of the council document Perfectae Caritatis (1965), which offered guidelines for renewal, was that it attempted to define religious life for women without involving sisters in its compilation. We are beyond the time when such a methodology could even be considered, if anyone expected the result to be taken seriously. We sisters are key players in defining how core elements of religious community life could be expressed in new ways. It is our challenge to ensure that we do not make the reverse mistake of trying to shape our future without any input from the broader church. If we are not more than highly competent women who render important social services as administrators, teachers, social workers and health care professionals, then neither our continuance as religious communities nor the quality of our conversation with the church hierarchy matters greatly. If, however, we are and want to be those same competent women, but in ecclesial communities of sisters who, animated by faith, collaborate with our brothers and sisters in service of the Gospel of Jesus, then our continuance as communities and our efforts to be in dialogue with the hierarchy and the whole church matter immensely.