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A Warped Study to Justify Modern Nuns

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
My friend Jan asked me about a new study on American Sisters: "Understanding U.S. Catholic Sisters Today." To her, it seemed an expensive project undertaken to justify the new Vatican II lifestyle for sisters, generally gray haired, feminist and committed to a whole gamut of works of social justice and climate control. After reading the report, I agreed wholeheartedly with Jan. This is a weak whitewash on rotten wood that will only fool those who want to be duped.

This report tries to give an explanation for a simple and brutal fact that no one can deny: By the early 1960s the number of American nuns had risen to about 200,000; after Vatican II this number dropped vertiginously to today’s 50,000.

Every objective Catholic sees that this drop was caused by Vatican II reforms; this report tries to dodge this obvious conclusion by looking for other reasons. It does not correspond to reality. Let me analyze it.

straw houses

Modern 'sisters' building an ecology-approved straw-bale convent - straw houses for a broken institution ...

To open "the conversation," the report notes that there is approximately the same number of Catholic sisters in the United States as there were a century ago – just under 50,000. This is to give the impression that there has been no disastrous turn in religious life since Vatican II.

No, the abnormality occurs during the first 60 years of the 1900s when the number of women religious surged. This period of vibrant life, for the report, "represents an anomaly in the history of U.S. religious life rather than a standard to which sisters could or should return." Today, the situation has simply returned to normal. What a curious rabbit the progressivists are pulling out of their black magic top hat.

Then, we are told that we are witnessing a "transformation," a marvelous one inspired by Vatican Council II. How strange, since the report admits the number of sisters has decreased 72.5 % in the last 50 years. Further, more than nine in ten of the professed women are age 60 and over. This sounds like a transformation from convent to geriatric ward, hardly something to celebrate.

We are informed, however, we cannot take "a gloom and doom spirit in regard to these statistics." Why? Because numbers are not an end in and of itself. Indeed, as Pope Francis exhorted religious in opening the Year of Consecrated Life, “Do not yield to the temptation to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency,” but rather "embrace the future with all hope."

Empty and vain words we quickly see, since the rest of the report purports to examine how to raise the interest of young women precisely in order to increase the numbers of the waning communities.

Sister Assisium vs. the modern sister

To understand sisters today, the report singles out the life of Sister Assisium McEnvoy, a Sister of St. Joseph in Philadelphia, who lived from 1843 to 1939, and compares it with the present reality of post-Vatican II sisters.

An Irish immigrant, Sister Assisium entered the novitiate at age 15, received her higher education in the Congregation and remained in it as an educator in parochial schools and, later, director of sisters' studies forming new teachers until she died there in 1939.

sister assium

Sister Assisium surrounded by girls who admire and emulate her; below a group of her sisters with the fruits of their labor

flourishing schools catholic
The report strains hard to connect Sister Assisium's concerns with those of present day religious. It stresses that, like today, there was a "vocations crisis" – not enough laborers to bring in the harvest. “From every school there comes a cry for help,” Sister lamented in 1911, “and there are no sisters to send."

The heavy work load also raised a concern. "You cannot be admirable Marthas unless you are first ardent Marys," she told future sister-teachers. This would supposedly be the same problem modern nuns are facing because their service to others leaves no time for community prayer.

When we consider the facts the comparison falls flat on its face. Between 1900 and 1960 the number of U.S. nuns increased by 265%. Why? Because of the selfless example these nuns offered in the classroom, inspiring young girls to emulate them and embrace the religious life.

Sister Assisium, for example, "operated under a cloak of mystery and invisibility," the report tells us. Even the textbook she wrote was published anonymously. Today, however, the Sisters "are recognized for their leadership in the Church and society." Ironically the report interprets this change to mean that Catholics express a deeper appreciation for the modern sister's communities.

How does the report explain the remarkable increase in sisters during the first half of the 19th century? Quite superficially: appealing to natural causes. The rise in vocations would be due to pragmatic, cultural factors: Religious life was presented as a higher and holier vocation; immigrant children saw sisterhood as a chance for education and higher social standing, etc.

What the report does not mention is that those women were motivated by love of God and a desire to give Him glory. There is nary a word about the call to heroism and self-sacrifice that attracted so many girls in response to seeing the active example in classroom and hospitals of those "anonymous" nuns – who did not even answer to their real names, the report laments.

The role of Vatican II

Actually, there is a point with which I would wholeheartedly agree in the spurious report. It gives to Vatican II full credit for the drastic change in the transformation of women religious. I would, however, call it blame, not credit.

Sister of Mercy

Sr. Anne O'Connor, above, a UN spokesman, leads a demonstration against fracking; below, pacifist Sr. Megan Rice protests the US funds spent on the military

megan rice
It was Catholic nuns, the reports notes, who took the lead in embracing "the Council's three-pronged agenda": ressourcement (return to the sources); development (real change in substantive community); and aggiornamento (adaptation to the modern world).

Perfectae Caritatis
, the Council’s Decree on the Adaptation of Religious Life, explicitly mentions the three categories.

But, the most important change came from Lumen Gentium, the work emphasizes. Religious life could no longer be understood as "an elite vocation to a life of perfection that made its members superior to other Christians." Sisters were invited to enter the world and choose "new forms of ministry" and move toward a "commitment to social justice."

We know the results, which this study applauds: Sisters left off their traditional habits "that were based on modes of women's dress from the founding period"; they abandoned the "strict rules" and rewrote constitutions and rules to make egalitarian "structural changes."

What is implied is that Sister Assisium would have agreed with all this, because she was a woman of intelligence who was facing the cultural challenges of her time, primarily anti-Catholicism in American culture.

On the other hand, the American sisters had to face the different cultural challenges of the 1960s: The rise in feminism, the civil rights movement and anti-war and other social issues, challenges they also faced head-on by entering into them, following the aggiornamento of Vatican II.

Sadly, the results were much different than the surge in vocations that Sister Assisium saw. Rather, U.S. religious nuns saw a loss of identity, a drop in vocations, internal division among the sisters – who split into two groups, one progressivist and the other a little more conservative – and a loss of veneration and visibility in American society.

student degts vocations

Pretending student debt is a major hindrance for vocations....

The report admits these consequences, but twists the dire facts and statistics to make it appear that they are, in fact, benefits and new challenges that will redefine an emerging U.S. sisterhood in a coming egalitarian Church. Some propositions for achieving this goal are offered, all pragmatic. For example, student loan debts are standing between some would-be sisters and their vocations, so donors are needed to wipe out the debts.

It ends with an urgent call for more expensive, broader research studies in history and sociology and an official organ to coordinate this research, so that the "creative rearticulation" of American religious can be properly understood and appreciated. In short, the best solution the report can offer is to create another bureaucratic institution to study why the number of progressivist sisters does not increase…

Using Sister Assisium as a foil, the purpose of "Understanding U.S. Catholic Sisters Today" is to justify the modern post-Vatican II nun and a failing institution, an aim at which it ultimately fails.


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Posted December 14, 2015

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