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Where Have All the Sisters Gone?

The dismaying drop in numbers experienced by many women’s religious communities in the last forty years has been one of the worst calamities along the rocky road traveled by American Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council. Men’s religious orders and the diocesan priesthood have been hard hit, too, but their woes are eclipsed by the sheer magnitude of the sisters’ numerical decline. It’s been a disastrous collapse—for them and for the rest of the Church.

In 1965, there were over 180,000 Catholic religious women in the United States. By 2006, there were 67,000 left, 2,000 fewer than the previous year. But numbers only scratch the surface of the story. The falloff in sisters is a grave blow—to church-related institutions and programs, especially schools and hospitals; to their patrons, now denied the ministrations of dedicated religious women such as those who served American Catholics in the past; and to those who entered religious life with high hopes five or six decades ago only to see their hopes dashed as their orders changed beyond all recognition.

At their general meeting in Los Angeles in June 2006, U.S. bishops voted to continue the Church’s annual national collection for retired women religious. In asking for the extension, Archbishop Jerome Hanus, O.S.B., of Dubuque, chairman of the bishops’ committee on consecrated life, called the Retirement Fund for Religious Appeal “the most successful collection in the history of the Church in the United States.” Since its inception in 1988, it has raised nearly $500 million. Clearly the sisters’ plight has “touched the hearts of our laity,” the archbishop said.

In fact, everyone is touched by the situation of these elderly women, whose retirement needs were badly underfunded for years in the belief that there’d always be enough newcomers to support the older sisters. Many now find themselves in religious communities that seem headed for extinction, with few or nonexistent newcomers and a median age in the seventies.

Many people wonder how this situation came about. Why such a disastrous turnaround in so short a time? Who’s to blame?

There are two competing explanations, summed up in two books by experienced journalists: Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns (Doubleday, 2006) by Kenneth A. Briggs, a former religion editor of the New York Times, and Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities (Our Sunday Visitor, 1997) by Ann Carey, a veteran writer in the Catholic press. Their subtitles indicate the huge gulf between them.

Betrayal or tragedy—or both?


Briggs places the blame squarely on the Vatican and the American bishops—a reactionary, all-male hierarchy determined to keep women in their place. In this tale, the leaders of women’s religious institutes are cast in the role of innocent victims whose only fault was to try to renew religious life according to the prescriptions of Vatican II. It is said that, in its 1965 decree on the renewal of religious life (Perfectae Caritatis), the Council gave nuns a mandate for sweeping change. The women religious of America sought to comply under the guidance of progressive and farsighted leaders. But instead of encouraging and supporting them, the Vatican and the bishops, frightened by what Vatican II had wrought, threw obstacles in their way. This betrayal led to the sad consequences we now confront. Briggs writes:

Sisters with their newfound burst of freedom ran headlong into clerics facing the unwelcome prospect of losing power. Not long into the renewal, the Vatican got into the act by raising objections to some actions taken by American nuns, and blocking others. Eventually it seemed that Rome had changed its mind and wanted to turn back the whole process, leaving only a few outward changes. To put the matter indelicately, the sisters had been double-crossed.

Briggs tries hard to be fair, but his analysis is questionable. Indeed, he gives the game away in admitting, a few lines later, that if the women religious had been given their way, “the decline in their numbers might not have been so steep or so fast.” In other words, even if the Vatican and the bishops had acted differently, the decline might not have been so bad, but it would have happened just the same. This is a flimsy basis on which to base the charge that a double cross by the hierarchy was responsible for a two-thirds drop in the number of American nuns over the past forty years.

There are other problems with Briggs’s thesis. He writes:

In the decade after the Vatican Council, as the banners of feminism coincidentally unfurled, the exodus from the convent gushed; tens of thousands of sisters went out into the world (more than 4,300 left in 1970 alone).

That is to say: Vatican II had barely ended when nuns began streaming out of religious life. In that case, the “exodus” clearly got started far too early to be blamed on the hierarchy’s alleged opposition to the renewal of religious life. And what is one to make of the observation that the rise of secular feminism “coincidentally” coincided with the emptying of the convents? For many people, it’s a self-evident fact that feminism was a central cause of what happened, not a fringe event.

And the bishops? As information director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for eighteen years from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, I repeatedly observed a nervous, hands-off mentality among the bishops, not a will to obstruct. Despite a certain amount of grumbling on the part of some, the change-oriented heads of women’s religious orders were pretty much left alone to do whatever they pleased. If an objective observer were to fault the bishops for anything, it would be for not standing up to the heads of religious institutes bent on radical change at a point when standing up to them might have prevented, or at least mitigated, the worst consequences of their bad judgment.

Go to the Source

A key question in this discussion is what Vatican II actually said. Did the Council really call for radical change in women’s religious life? The following passages from Perfectae Caritatis suggest its general tone and approach:

The up-to-date renewal of the religious life comprises both a constant return to the sources of the whole of the Christian life and to the primitive inspiration of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time. . . . The spirit and aims of each founder should be faithfully accepted and retained, as indeed should each institute’s sound traditions. . . . Before all else, religious life is ordered to the following of Christ by its members and to their becoming united with God by the profession of the evangelical counsels. . . . Religious, as members of Christ, should live together. . . . The religious habit, as a symbol of consecration, must be simple and modest, at once poor and becoming. . . . suited to the times and place and to the needs of the apostolate. (PC 2ff.)

There’s a lot more like that. None of it adds up to a mandate for top-to-bottom change that many leading figures in women’s religious institutes professed to find there. Renewal in continuity with the essentials of religious life, the spirit of each institute’s founder, and the institute’s traditions, yes. Radical change, no.

Nevertheless, radical change is what many communities got in short order. Set aside as unnecessary or undesirable were living and praying in community, engaging in corporate apostolates such as staffing Catholic schools and hospitals, obeying superiors, and wearing the religious habit. In their place came individual living arrangements, praying on one’s own schedule in one’s own manner, and lay garb.

In fact, thousands of sisters adopted essentially secular lifestyles and jobs. Briggs tells of being with a group of nuns whose occupations included bereavement counselor in a hospice, school nurse, distance-learning advisor to the state, director of a tutoring center, political activist and secretary at a Lutheran church, and lawyer. “Each had switched ministries several times,” he wrote. No doubt. These women religious had evidently become freelancers who sought to engage in good works congenial to them, in the manner of committed lay people.

The incident verifies Carey’s remark that, in the name of renewing themselves, most women’s orders “fashioned a new definition of religious life . . . more descriptive of a secular institute than a religious institute.” It’s as if someone had set out to reform football by decreeing that it be played on a court with an elevated basket at each end and two teams of five players each trying to throw a round, inflated leather-covered ball into their opponents’ basket. The result might be entertaining, but it wouldn’t be football. Freelancers who do secular jobs that happen to suit their personal tastes are not acting as members of a religious community in any recognizable sense.

Anatomy of a Crisis

Carey’s Sisters in Crisis takes a profoundly different view of the collapse of the women’s orders. Her carefully documented book incorporates original research drawn from material in the University of Notre Dame archives, including the records of two liberal groups (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the National Assembly of Women Religious) and a conservative one (the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis). While Briggs blames the Vatican and the bishops, Carey blames the change-oriented leaders of most women’s orders, who misinterpreted Vatican II and, in doing so, plunged their institutes into a downward spiral from which many may not recover.

Carey is under no illusions about the pre-Council weaknesses of women’s religious life in the United States. The numbers of women religious were impressive, but the lifestyle often was not. Nuns frequently were exploited and “very seldom consulted about their own needs and ideas.” Many clung to customs no longer suited to their work. The “authoritarian” structure of convent life tended to produce “overworked and over-stressed sisters” who were inadequately prepared for their jobs and “treated like children by superiors and clerics.” In such circumstances, authentic renewal and reform of religious life were badly needed. But not the version of renewal and reform that women religious often got.

Carey writes:

Sisters did not always get accurate information about Church teaching on religious life. . . . Some sisters who were eager for change and determined to discard an authoritarian lifestyle gave an overly broad interpretation to the documents [of Vatican II], resulting in deviations from the renewal set forth in Church directives. . . . The Vatican tried repeatedly to get renewal of the sisters back on track, but too many sisters in positions of authority were determined to define renewal of religious life in their own terms.

The author generally speaks well of the Vatican, but she is less than complimentary to the U.S. bishops. She notes that in 1983, Pope John Paul II directed the American hierarchy to undertake a serious study of what was happening in—and to—religious life. Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco (now retired) was put in charge. “Many change-oriented religious used the Quinn Commission study as an opportunity to instruct Rome on how American religious were creating their own democratic version of religious life.” The chief practical result of the study was to increase the polarization within religious life.

Carey is similarly hard on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the national umbrella group of women’s religious superiors, which she accuses of laboring to “distance itself from the authority structures of the Church” while taking up “causes that were more socio-political than religious.” Dissatisfaction with LCWR among tradition-minded nuns led to the creation, under Vatican auspices, of an “alternate” superiors’ organization called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

According to Carey, the nuns who’ve suffered most from polarization among and within women’s communities have been the elderly members of change-oriented orders:

A sizable number . . . did not approve of the style of renewal that their institutes took, and they have struggled to live their vows in congregations that are not supportive of Church teachings about religious life—or about other areas of life as well.

Paint It Black and White

One of the few instances, and the most highly publicized, in which an American bishop stood up to nuns bent on change occurred soon after Vatican II in Los Angeles. James Francis Cardinal McIntyre and the Immaculate Heart of Mary community went head-to-head in the spotlight afforded by secular and church-related journalists.

In their 1967 chapter decrees, the IHMs declared that each sister could choose her own kind of work (their order had been established years before for the apostolate of Catholic education) and adopt her own preferred style of dress. Each convent was given wide latitude in governance and community prayer. Religious obedience was creatively redefined as “cooperative interaction with other members of the community.”

Supported by the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious, Cardinal McIntyre objected. When the sisters refused to conform to the requirements of canon law, he concluded that they could no longer teach in Catholic schools. The conflict ended only when the IHMs split into two groups: 315 who announced that they would seek dispensation from their vows and become a lay organization, and approximately fifty who accepted Church discipline and remained canonical religious. (More than a hundred others quit religious life while the fight was going on.) This episode, and its highly colored treatment in the press, went far to shape the story of women’s religious life in the United States for the next several decades.

Cardinal McIntyre was a deeply conservative churchman with little sympathy for developments in Church life after the Council. Throughout his conflict with the IHMs, the national media sided with the nuns while regularly excoriating him as a hopeless reactionary. Although the media depicted the IHMs as blameless innocents who were only trying to do what the Council had asked of them, it was a naïve and distorted view of reality. But this trashing proved an effective deterrent to other bishops who might have shared similar views about the right and wrong way to renew religious life but were too intimidated by what happened to the archbishop of Los Angeles to speak up.

Trapped in Transition

In the end, though, it would be a mistake to lay all the blame for the great unraveling at the door of change-oriented leaders of religious institutes or timid bishops. Granted many human errors, about Vatican II and much else, the fundamental source of what happened was this: The project of adapting women’s religious life after the Council occurred at the very time that a different, far more radical transition was taking place—a paradigm shift in the understanding of committed Christian life in the world.

Today it’s clear that ill-advised experiments in updating religious life were attempts to adjust to this new reality without truly understanding it. Carey is right: Whether they knew it or not, the model embraced by the change-oriented leaders of many women’s religious communities was that of a secular institute, not a religious one.

But the paradigm shift went further than that. The idea that someone who wants to live a life of Christian commitment must either become a priest or belong to an institute of consecrated life gave way to the realization that these two choices don’t exhaust the possibilities. Other forms of Christian commitment are available, suited to the needs of people who remain ordinary laity in the world. These include older groups such as Opus Dei and Focolare and new movements such as Communion and Liberation and the Neo-Catechumenate.

Religious life in its traditional form remains a valid, valuable option for living a committed Christian life. But it’s an option that exists alongside other, newer ones. The validity and value of religious life, and its very survival, depend on its being a faithful expression of its own great tradition, intelligently adapted to the present day yet in living continuity with its origins. Despite the collapse of many institutes, some women’s religious orders like this still exist in the United States.

The dramatic decline of women’s religious life in the United States in the last four decades is an institutional disaster and a human tragedy. But it isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot.

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