Review: Sisters in Crisis, Revisted
by Gail Deibler Finke
Turns out, those nuns have been on the bus for a long, long time.
The most startling thing about the updated edition of Ann Carey’s well-known book about what happened in American women’s religious congregations after Vatican II is how quickly it happened and how little was ever done to stop it.
“It” is the fundamental transformation of religious life from a prayer-based communal life based on centuries of Catholic teachings to a social work-based life, often lived in small groups or individually, based on an invented definition of Christianity.
This transformation wasn’t uniform, but it was and is widespread: about 80% of women’s congregations adopted what Carey calls a “change-oriented” approach to religious life. The rest, appalled, eventually asked for and were granted their own council for religious superiors (the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious — CMSWR) and went their own way, largely unheralded and unexamined. The larger group headed by what eventually became known as the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) did all the talking. And what a lot they’ve had to say.
The new way of life championed by the LCWR didn’t “evolve” over time, it sprang from the inspiration of certain women almost full-grown, like Venus from the forehead of Zeus. Whether it caused the decimation of women’s religious congregations or was a consequence of a decimation that would have happened anyway because of social changes remains hard to say. It may not be possible to see the precise connections between what the LCWR did and what else happened in the Church and in the West clearly for decades, if ever. What is clear is that changes in religious life and the emptying of the convents happened at the same time, for related reasons. What will survive of that transformation remains to be seen.
Carey’s book traces, in detail and without sensationalization, what happened in change-oriented congregations following the Vatican II directive to “experiment” with religious life — by which, it seems clear, Rome meant to replace weird and outdated customs (of which there were many in both men’s and women’s religious congregations) with ones more suited to the days of electricity, mass transit, new educational methods and expectations, and modern hygiene.
Immediately, some women took this directive to extremes: discarding (not modernizing) habits and schedules, sending sisters off to live by themselves and find their own jobs, and — in the reverse of what the great reforming religious saints have always done — choosing their own definition of Christianity to promote.
Benedict, Francis, Catherine, Theresa, Dominic, Ignatius: These and the many other great monastic or mendicant saints have always called the Church back to Christ. Religious-based reform has always been about recommitting to the teachings of Christ and to the Church He founded.
But reform among American sisters, Carey’s book makes abundantly clear, has been all about the new. New understandings of religious life, new understandings of the Gospel, new definitions of everything from “community” to “poverty.” In the heady days after Vatican II, they must have all seemed to be possible ways to return to a better, purer way of following Christ. But in the intervening years they have proved anything but that — except to the sisters themselves, who have turned to more and more creative ways of explaining themselves and what they want, and who increasingly see themselves as beacons of “creative dissent” from a Church that is too backwards and hidebound to see the future they way they do.
The same names crop up over and over again in Carey’s book. The same ideas return year after year. The same people preside over the dismantling of the schools, hospitals, and other institutions religious women built over many decades of toil and prayer — and they do it with glee, sometimes even selling off their own convents and land so as not to be property owning oppressors (and sometimes, conversely, keeping their land so they can be enlightened promotors of environmental justice). Far from being ground under the heels of the “all-male hierarchy,” they seem to have been given the free reign they demanded, and to have exercised it with a vengeance. The few protests that ever arose from bishops, and even from Rome, were feeble and ignored.
There is a sort of horrifying fascination to following the history of these women as their ideas become more fanciful and less related to anything to do with the real world, even as their numbers plummet. Poverty doesn’t mean actually being poor, it means not being tied to possessions. Chastity doesn’t necessarily mean being chaste, it means being free to love everyone — so everyone can be part of a religious “community,” vows or no vows. “Following the Spirit” doesn’t necessarily result in a thriving and prayerful community, it can mean presiding over a steep decline or even descending into a life of bitterness and rage, a life in which women can’t bear to attend Mass because it is too “painful” to be “excluded” from priesthood.
If you’re not going to Mass, you’re not Catholic — much less a Catholic sister. Yet the mythology of “new forms of religious life” make it possible to reject Mass and still consider oneself not just a Catholic sister, but an exemplary one.
And no one can argue otherwise, because nothing counts except “women’s lived experience.” If that sounds uncomfortably close to the feminist arguments for abortion — ie, no one has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body, not even the baby inside her body — it’s interesting to note that most change-oriented women’s congregations are silent on abortion, although many of them are passionate and vocal about the poor and “marginalized.” Being “marginalized” means a great deal to them. Solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed has become central to their lives.
Yet the women represented by the LCWR, especially the superiors themselves, are the most educated group of women in the history of the world. In many ways, they lead privileged lives. Though poor in some material ways, they have advantages few other people have: opportunities for regular long breaks and retreats that working people can never have, endless opportunities to return to school and to change careers, an expectation that their needs will be taken care of even in old age, and few responsibilities for other people — actual other people, such as children and relatives, as opposed to people they work with or teach.
So we see the strange spectacle of “Nuns on the Bus,” a pretend protest in which privileged religious sisters pretend to ride around the country on a specially decorated bus (only two actually made the entire trip), funded by wealthy people as they make vague pronouncements and utopian promises on behalf of “the poor.”
And we see the strange spectacle of LCWR officers pretending to be shocked, shocked! when they are investigated by Rome after decades of complaints and pleas from sisters disenfranchised by their leadership’s insistence on changing every aspect of religious life — and Rome says they have to go to Mass, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and live in community.
Their feelings are hurt. They need to “discern” what to do, they need to explain to European men what “creative dissent” means, they need to “dialogue” with Rome — as if decades of dialogue isn’t how they got here in the first place.
In their defense, they’ve been doing these things for a long, long time. If inviting New Age gurus to be keynote speakers at their annual meetings and holding their own priestless “Eucharistic liturgies” hasn’t gotten the the LCWR in trouble before, they have little reason to think it should now. But Carey’s chapter on the Doctrinal Assessment from Rome is perhaps the most depressing in the whole book. It’s not historical, it’s now, and the LCWR is so far refusing to make any changes — and Rome is so far doing nothing, at least in public.
The 2013 LCWR annual assembly begins Tuesday. This year the group is not publicizing anything about its speakers or events, but wrote this for its summer newsletter:
As the season of Advent 2012 began, the LCWR officers wrote to the members about the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They noted that they found themselves “in the praxis of advent, waiting for the word to come to us from God as we enter into listening and conversing.”
It’s hard to see that the group of women who have presided over the catastrophic decline of women’s religious life in this country have done any listening, although they’ve done a lot of conversing and implemented an astonishing amount of “systemic change.” If you can’t figure out how they came to say what they say, or if you think fondly of American sisters based on what you know of them from 50 years ago, this is the book for you.
Gail Deibler Finke is Senior Editor of The Catholic Beat.
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