Negotiating Authority: Sisters and Nuns in the News

Since April and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s (CDF) Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), I have followed the commentary from those within and without the world of women religious.  There are varying degrees of being “in” and “out” of this world, from professed members of religious congregations to random, vaguely informed news outlets.  I am not an insider, but neither am I an outsider because I am a historian of American women religious.  Having the privilege of studying a religious community from the inside, I have come closer to understanding the possible and varied response to the CDF’s assessment.

As a historian, I, however, am uncomfortable commenting or making any statement as to what all this means.  I would prefer to gather information, digest it, and then come to a reasoned conclusion.  I am not a theologian or a sociologist and April to now hardly feels like enough time.  I look at long-term events, developments, and people within movements from a distance and attempt to piece together a narrative of the past.  That does not mean that I do not make assessments or propose possible meaning.  It also does not mean that I cannot make suppositions as to future developments.   I just do it with caution and not to mention a degree of trepidation.

All this is to say (and despite my discipline-related squeamishness) that what has developed since April has been fascinating, heart-breaking, and leaves me with wonder as to what will happen next.  The cynic in me says: Nothing.  Nothing will happen.  The optimist in me says that this could be the beginning of change within the Church.  The laity and religious will cooperate to lay the ground work for a revitalized Church.    My fear is that the Church will narrow further as to what it means to be a Faithful Catholic.  I hardly know that now, but I still believe I belong within it.  How does a woman remain faithful to a Church that does not respect women who move beyond the few, confining, subservient boxes?

Since the release of the Assessment, a new website (among many) sprung up to provide links to news about women religious. is a good source for what has developed.  Other sources are America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter.  All these outlets arguably speak with liberal voices, but still worthwhile.  This recent piece by Nancy Sylvester in America is particularly thoughtful and gives a nice overview of the history of women religious.  Mainstream media like New York Times has even picked up the story.  Margaret Susan Thompson has also provided a reasoned commentary on the developing situation here and here in the Tablet in the United Kingdom.  The blog, Religion in American History, has provided a couple thoughtful posts about women religious here and here.

The first of these two posts from  Religion in American History is by Kathleen Sprows Cummings.  Cummings writes:

The institutional church has never quite known what to do with women who step out of traditionally female roles, and there is no question that by becoming collectively more professional, more educated, and more likely to challenge those in positions of power in both church and state, the majority of sisters in this country have grown progressively less “feminine” over the past four decades. Though they are often accused of moving away from the Church, sisters who have chosen this version of religious life actually believe that it represents a more authentic one: In choosing to stand with those on the margins of society, and in witnessing to Christianity at its most radical, they understand themselves to be returning to the founding charisms of their congregations as mandated by the Second Vatican Council.

Here, I believe Cummings goes right to the crux of the problem.  Historically, the majority of congregations of women religious have had to negotiate with male church authority to advance their ministries and further their communities.  They have had the support of priests, bishops, and laymen and women as well as the opposition from all three groups.  All three saw the value in the largely unpaid labor force who assumed the role of the “good sisters.”  As women, they were not threatening with their bodies hidden in habits and their “convent manners,” but they wielded power and held positions of authority.   In the United States, women religious in the nineteenth and early twentieth century are held up as saints on earth for courageously entering contagious sick wards, establishing schools, and providing material aid to countless numbers of Catholic and non-Catholic Americans.  When we enter the mid-twentieth century, our collective memories start to play tricks on us.  We share stories of abusive ruler-wielding nuns who are both the savior of American  Catholic youth (who wouldn’t have gotten their knuckles rapped if they didn’t deserve it) and neurotic tyrants in over-crowded classrooms.  Then all heck breaks loose with Vatican II and women religious are once again saints on earth if you agree with their politics and destroyers of the faith and should just leave the Church.  Cummings again puts things nicely when she identifies that these “radical” sisters chose “to stand with those on the margins of society.”  If we look at the long history of women religious in the United States we see that they are doing what their foundresses, their fore-sisters in community, and (as they discern it) God calls them to do.  We outsiders (even those from within the Vatican) might not recognized the continuity of their religious life.

If you care to read the CDF’s assessment, here is a copy.