Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal

Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal September 4, 2013

Having admired the reporting and coverage provided by Ann Carey regarding women in religious life in the United States I had been interested in reading her book “Sisters in Crisis.” Considering this book was first published in 1997 I had wished for an updated version especially considering recent history. So I was delighted to see Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal which exactly fulfilled my desire.

There was a lot of information I wanted to see regarding the history of women religious in the United States from mostly the sixties forward. Exactly how did we come to the current situation and exactly who were the people that had a fundamental influence on this is something I am very interested in. As a convert I am always seeking to fill in my lack of knowledge regarding the Church in the United States.

A book of this type can become easily polemical and just come down to “religious habits good”, “pant suits bad” along with various stereotypes.

Finally, I am uncomfortable with using the terms liberal and conservative for religious orders because of the political connotations of the terms and also because they carry negatie images for many people. Therefore, I follow the example of sociologist Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh by using the term change-oriented to describe sisters of religious institutes inclined to seek a new definition of religious life by expanding the boundaries usually associated with the religious state. I use the term traditional to describe sisters or institues that adhere to the traditional understanding of religious life as contained in Vatican II documents and other Church teachings. Neither term should be construed as inherently negative.

I thinks this was a good decision as I have also dropped using terms like liberal, conservative, progressive etc when describing Catholics as much as possible. Even if I might quibble with the term change-oriented, I find it useful here.

In 2009 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced a formal doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR and then later the Doctrinal Assessment itself I remember the news being reported as if this was something totally out of left-field and such a surprise. This books shows that if anything it was decades later then it could have been. Still the CDF acts slowly and deliberately and there are many good reasons for this.

This is quite a comprehensive history detailing both all of the personalities involved and the sequences of events. Over and over again I was impressed just how much research was involved. Even more I was impressed by the writing style that lays out all the information without becoming just a dry regurgitation of facts. Mostly the author just lets the facts of the actual history tell the story with minimal editorial content. Ann Carey’s own comments and opinions are short and to the point and nicely punctuate the history. Basically they are snark-free, although you can note the authors astonishment at times regarding the history she is putting forth.

There was just so much I learned from this book that really helped me fill in the gaps. As much as I enjoyed it the book does not exactly make for joyful reading. The author describes how much of this came about as a “perfect storm” that took place among the cultural storm of the sixties and the false narrative of how Vatican II was going to change everything. The fact that religious life really needed a renewal is something easy to forget. There were many aspects of religious life that needed updating or a second look at. The education of women in religious life had been deficient and was only just starting to be addressed. The high numbers of those in religious life in the early sixties partly hid the fact that the healthiness of these religious orders was not all that it should have been.

Really it seems that not only did the baby get thrown out with the bathwater, but that the bath was thrown out also. The term change-oriented is accurate in that it seems change-for-change sake was the order of the day. The Vatican’s call for updating and experimentation was mostly met with a giddy-excitement of the possibilities for new ways of living religious life. What later became knows as “The spirit of Vatican II” seems to be quite evident in this early thinking. Unfortunately it seems the majority of women religious did not actually get to see the documents of Vatican II or were treated with some early translations that were not as accurate as they could have been. Word at the time that Canon Law was also going to be rewritten caused even more turmoil and the false expectation of the changes to be made and the false assumption regarding the applicability of the current Canon Law and other Church documents.

There were so many parts of this history that were very frustrating to read. It was not that tens of thousands of those in religious life decided that everything was now in flux and acceptable. Mostly it seems to me that there were a dedicated core of women who came to believe in a totally different view regarding how religious life is to be lived that often had much more of a political identity and a push towards some specific social justice issues. Over and over you see the names of many of these individuals repeated as part of different groups and efforts. Ann Carey describe how some of this happened as a coup and that seems rather accurate. The transition of the US Conference of Major Superiors of Women’s Institutes (CMSR) to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is rather an amazing story.

What surprised me was just how much dissent, equivocations, and disdain for the so-called institutional Church there was at the start of these events. Documents and guidance from the Church were often met by a very negative response. Any intervention from bishops and the Vatican was sometimes described as violence. If they were not consulted they considered it violent even as they took actions without consulting others in their orders. Some of the behavior I have noticed from the LCWR is quite evident in its history. For example dialogue meaning we are willing to enter into dialogue with you as a delay tactic or until you just give in. How the LCWR came about and its very name is an example of this. This book provides tons of documentary evidence regarding the adversarial relationship these leaders showed to the Church and the tactics used that seemed more akin to dirty politics than to religious life. One piece of information I found in the book I thought to be an excellent example of what went wrong. A building was constructed for retired and infirmed nuns that included a beauty shop but no chapel.

Again it should be emphasized that so often those who became leaders in this change-oriented movement were not necessarily representative of those they were suppose to represent. This is also evident by the fact that the Vatican approved the CMSWR (Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious) a group of traditional-minded women in religious life that broke away from the LCWR. At the time the Vatican had never approved two different organizations representing women religious in the same country.

I really could go on and on with this review since there was just so much information that fascinates me and so many episodes of this history that grabbed my attention. Again I was impressed with how Ann Carey wrote on this topic steering clear of demonizing people and being quite balanced in the telling of this history.

While this book totally satisfied me in regards to a specific history of women religious associated with the LCWR, women’s ordination movements, and other associated groups there are other aspects I would like to learn more about. For example I would love this author or another one to chronicle a history for example of women religious associated with the CMSWR. Mother Angelica’s story has been told already in book form, but I bet there are tons of other interesting stories involving other women’s religious institutes and the paths they took that took a divergent path from the LCWR. Mother Dolores Hart in her book [The Ear of the Heart][heart] also chronicles to some extent adaptations after Vatican II at Regina Laudis which were much more aligned with the intent of what Vatican II called for.

There are references to men in religious life along with priests, especially those who inspired or were sympathetic with the change-oriented orders. There is probably a closely paralleled history regarding them along with some major differences. Plus the other context I would like to see are the currents worldwide in religious life in how they compared and diverged from what happened here.

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