Press Watch — Women Religious: Quo Vadis?

What did I do over the Christmas holidays? One thing I did was read a series of articles about American nuns in the Washington Post, by Carol Krucoff. The overall message of these articles, which started on the front page of four successive issues of the Washington Post, and proceeded to cover five full pages inside the paper (including a page of photographs), was that “America’s 120,000 religious have come of age.” And the clock, I don’t have to tell you, “can’t be turned back,” even though that might not be such a bad idea when you consider that there were 180,000 women religious in 1965. So their numbers have declined by one-third at a time when the Catholic Church itself has continued to grow. The changes do not seem to have been attractive to new recruits. Perhaps when the reporter says the nuns have “come of age” she is slyly referring to their average age, now up to about 60.

Interestingly, the series belied the oft-heard news- media’s favorite description of itself as performing an “adversary role” in society. If there was one peep of criticism, ventriloquized or implied, of the modernized sisters I failed to detect it. Instead the reader was led to suppose that the “new sisterhood” is a wonderful affair, struggling valiantly with the centuries-old forces of reaction, sexism and “docility.” Reading between the lines, the alert reader might have been able to fathom that some of the activist orders in the U.S. now face a grave crisis which is unlikely to be resolved to their adherents’ satisfaction. But it was certainly not the function of these articles to alert anyone to this impending crisis, and the author herself to this day may not be aware of it.

Post readers were told that among the “new nuns” there is a growing fear that the “reforms” of the past 20 years may be “in jeopardy.” In accordance with the alleged wishes of Pope John XXIII, the sisters became more “relevant,” only to find that the current Pope seems to want, yes, to do the impossible: turn back the clock. Thus there is a “confrontation,” which the hardliners in the Vatican will no doubt live to regret. The Pope, authoritarian traditionalist that he is, has ordered up an ominous-sounding study of religious life and he may even want to get the liberated ones back onto their old habits. All very retrograde, don’t you know.

Meanwhile, the sisters have been forging ahead on their own, breaking down barriers and exploring new horizons. According to the gushing Krucoff they are: living in townhouses; lawyering on Capitol Hill; midwifing on Indian reservations; running consulting firms; getting arrested for civil disobedience; jogging, clarifying their values; watching Dan Rather and consequently praying for an end to acid rain; rushing off to work in the morning; eating chicken-and-broccoli casserole; achieving and overachieving; spending evenings jammed with meetings and volunteer work; sporting buttons that read “Boycott Nestle” and “I Am An ERA Catholic;” being diverse; recognizing their own humanity; abandoning their old habits; discovering themselves as persons; getting into new definitions of things, like obedience, which is no longer “blind;” and generally going about changing, challenging, confronting, exploring new options and raising their consciousness in to-day’s more complex world.

Now, all of this may sound wonderful to some people but it obviously isn’t working out very well, as was vividly indicated by some of the statistics provided by the enthusiastic reporter. Two orders she looked at in some detail were the Oblate Sisters of Providence (founded in 1829), and the now highly controversial Sisters of Mercy of the Union (founded in 1831).

Here are the figures for the Sisters of Mercy: Member-ship peak (1949): 7200. Current membership: 4394. Novices: 20. Median Age: 63. For the Oblate Sisters of Providence: Membership peak (1967): 330. Current membership: 184. Novices in the U.S.: 0. Median age: 62.

I talked to Charlotte Hays, who has recently written a number of interesting articles about the strange antics of some American nuns for the National Catholic Register. I asked her what she thought about the Krucoff series. Right off she mentioned that Krucoff had used the word “docile” in the first sentence to describe the former state of mind of U.S. nuns. “If she had used the word ‘obedient’ it would have given an entirely different tone to the article,” Charlotte said.

“Another thing, all of the stories were upbeat,” Charlotte Hays added. “Whenever I met the sisters, I detected a tremendous unhappiness. They want to talk about their anger all the time. On the other hand, when you talk to the contemplative nuns, the orders still in habits, you find this great happiness. Krucoff treated the story as though what we were seeing was a serious attempt to implement the reforms of Vatican II, whereas it’s really very zany — something a comic novelist should deal with. Can you imagine what fun Evelyn Waugh would have had with it? Instead, the articles were written in the same tone as a story about Weinberger or Kissinger. The real story is that there is this tremendous uprising of nuns who may be dispensed from their vows.”

I suppose Krucoff may have vaguely thought she was advancing the progressive cause or in some way lending a helping hand to the newly autonomous sisterhood by writing about them non – adversarially. In fact, the reverse is likely to be the case. It is clear that unless there is some dramatic change, and soon, such orders as the Sisters of Mercy are facing complete disintegration in the none-too-distant- future. Other orders that continue to respect papal authority, and practice obedience to it, will gradually supplant the apostate sisterhood. Upbeat articles in the Washington Post hardly constitute the shot across the bow that some of the disintegrating orders need to encourage a change in course.

It may be, however, that renegade religious who move in the direction of autonomy and away from obedience, and encounter no resistance or check from their bishops, as American nuns have not (indeed they have encountered encouragement), must soon develop an unstoppable momentum which can end only in chaos, destruction and tragedy. The search for autonomy by those who formerly abided by a code of submission to higher authority will soon turn into full-scale rebellion against the principles that once guided the order, and then into full-scale rebellion against God’s own law.

That the Sisters of Mercy may have reached this point was suggested by a comment by Sister Betty Barrett described as a “63-year-old Ph.D. chemist-turned activist sister who has been arrested twice in non-violent demonstrations.” Barrett was quoted as saying: “What we did was take the system and break it open … Religious women in the United States took their lives as it had been defined and said, ‘It does not recognize the dignity of the individual. We’ve got to change that system.’ I think we’ve done it. It’s messy — before, everything had a place, in it’s place — but for the most part it is making us capable of recognizing the dignity of the other, as well as our own dignity.”

You know when you hear the word ‘dignity’ these days that some indignity is probably being perpetrated — either abortion or euthanasia, or the smashing up of a religious order. Carol Krucoff comments in the next paragraph: “This revolutionary spirit is strong among the five sisters of Hanover House — their name for the four-bedroom home they call a convent. ’We are sisters,’ says Barrett, ‘and we live here. That makes it a convent.’ ”

That’s the sort of thing these people mean when they talk about “new meanings and new definitions.” But rebellion cannot for too long be obscured by soothing labels, as we shall no doubt soon find out.


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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