The Origins of the “New Nun”

Sister Dolores Liptak, a scholar of American Catholic Church
history, reflects on the crisis in women’s religious orders.

Interview by CWR Staff

Sister of Mercy of the Americas, Sister Dolores Liptak, Ph.D., is a well-respected scholar of American Catholic Church history. The author of five books and editor of several more on topics involving US immigrants and women religious, she has also been called upon to lecture, contribute to edited works, and write articles about minorities within the Church.

In the late 1980s, Sister Liptak helped organize the Archivists for Congregations of Women Religious, and served as its first president, editor of its newsletter, and board member for many years. She was also one of the originators of the History of Women Religious Network. Sister Liptak consults with religious congregations widely and is an adjunct professor of Church history at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. She answered questions from CWR about the historical background to the crisis in women religious orders.

How can history help us understand what is happening in the Church today?

Sister Liptak: History helps us to see “more clearly now.” Unfortunately, too many pre- and post-Vatican II theologians have seriously undervalued Church history as a means of understanding the present moment. Church history should be seen as a handmaid to theology. It is, in fact, inductive theology, seeing the Church as a “dynamic phenomenon,” to quote Joseph Ratzinger long before he became Benedict XVI. Church history sees the Church as something “still underway,” a pilgrim, not yet “at the goal.”

Thus, I believe that recourse to history should not be accidental, but a constitutive element in any discussion of theology, certainly with respect to the gift that religious life is to the Church.

What does history tell us about the alienation of some women religious from the Catholic Church today?

Sister Liptak: The actual history of women religious within the US Catholic Church—a study that has blossomed since the 1980s—repeatedly tells a story of pioneering greatness, inventive and self-sacrificing development, and continuing achievement since the formation of religious communities in the American republic. After the Second Vatican Council, however, the study has also emphasized other aspects of that story, one being the struggles of some congregations to re-create themselves as co-workers in the Church— that is, to redefine their classic purpose and scope, and, especially, to perceive themselves as commissioned to “speak up” within both Church and society, without “interference.”

Clearly, history confirms that this new perspective and the spirit of reform it engendered originally emanated from the encouragement of Pope Pius XII and his successors. Moreover, national and world events that intervened since 1965 also had profound implications on the redirection of women religious toward “speaking out” and on the meaning of reform within their congregations. Those who have studied the post-60s era have, unfortunately, tended often to be selective in their telling of that story and have avoided emphasizing the potential it had to influence the spirit of renewal among contemporary sisters.

More precisely, especially after Vatican II as new theologies developed, some women religious, especially those who received credentials in theological studies, have promoted a version of the past that primarily emphasized the conflicts between Church officials and sisters. Further, they have repeatedly pointed to the failures of Church leaders to understand the aims of religious without giving consideration to mistakes of their own making. This view was especially guided by the many highly educated women religious who taught in the nation’s Catholic colleges or served in their congregations’ leadership. Unfortunately, this uncritical perspective only accelerated in the post- Vatican II world. I believe the biases on the part of some of these women vastly complicated the service they had done historically or were presently performing in a justice-oriented 1960s society.

In other words, as the “new nun” championing the cause of oppressed minorities began to appear, so too did the new image of a self-sufficient, professional sister appear. This meant that the new sister was no longer seen as the pioneering woman religious whose desire to follow Christ in his compassion was the primary purpose of her religious life.

Perhaps the first recasting of the history of women religious was more strongly influenced by several dramatic changes within the world of academia than we have hitherto realized. While sisters were being seriously asked to “return to their charism” by the Vatican, for example, some women religious looked toward the novel approaches within the fields of theology, psychology, and social sciences as these emanated from all major universities and colleges. While some administrators and scholars worried that secular values were eroding Catholic higher education, still more, it appeared, took the modern approach that sought greater accord with the contemporary world.

A major result [of this approach] within Catholic circles was the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement (signed by 26 prominent Catholic college educators representing 10 institutions of Catholic higher education), which argued that the Catholic university must have “a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Did this view not mean that women religious were encouraged to be freer in their managing of their own identity? After all, had not history taught them that they had been major contributors to the building of the American Catholic Church? The advancement of such arguments prompted further alienation among women religious. From the mid-1960s forward, certain women religious continually pointed to examples of their being overlooked with respect to their previous accomplishments and, more importantly, their being prevented from becoming actual co-partners—decision makers—within Church structures.

How did this impact the orders of women religious?

Sister Liptak: This cry for proper recognition, coupled with the announced conviction by certain academics that autonomy or “academic freedom” was their right, laid the foundation for what I would consider a flawed view of the role of women religious that only accelerated as new theologies became popular within Catholic campuses. The most damaging result was a growing misunderstanding about the nature of ecclesiastical authority and its appeal to reason as eloquently clarified during Vatican II and by succeeding popes. Highly influenced by new trends in American theological study, some sister presidents of women’s Catholic colleges and certain faculty members encouraged the novel “liberation theologies,” especially the “hermeneutic of suspicion” thinking advanced by “feminist theologians.”

Didn’t the Vatican try to restore a more positive relationship between US women, as well as women religious, and the Church sometime in the 1980s?

Sister Liptak: I believe that was the intention of the Vatican as well as the American bishops. Yet it soon became evident that women religious would not be receptive to what was considered “outside interference,” “suspicion,” and “implied correction” from Church officials. Despite this, the Vatican’s office for religious did issue one document in particular that, in part, enumerated what were considered to be the classic, essential elements for religious life. This document received scant attention from some major leadership groups, and no positive response was forthcoming from official leadership groups of women religious.

A few years later, moreover, a broader proposal was initiated by US bishops, this time in the form of a pastoral letter that was to address the concerns of all women in the Church. Nine years of drafts led to a vote in which the entire body of bishops decided not to adopt its conclusions or continue its study. What complicated both attempts was the emergence of a more serious debate within the Church—the continuing call for the ordination of women. Given some famous “skirmishes” that had already hurt relationships between the hierarchy and religious congregations, it appeared that a Rubicon had now been crossed. Lack of mutual understanding was becoming increasingly apparent.

The desire for dialogue languished. True, a minority of sisters continued to side with the official Church; by the 1990s they were permitted to form their own organization. But the leaders of women religious who represented the larger number of women religious continued to believe that it was their obligation to stand firm in their convictions that the forays into social justice that they had been choosing, on behalf of their membership, were the right ones. In particular, spokeswomen for this latter group argued that they considered the unilateral approach of the official Church to their initiatives to be both intrusive and undemocratic. No wonder, too, that in 2009 these congregations clearly manifested resistance to the announcement of an apostolic visitation of US women religious.

As a historian, what do you say are the most significant causes of the persistent alienation of some sisters from the Church?

Sister Liptak: As I have suggested, I believe that the major cause of the present resistance to cooperative action by sisters is primarily an intellectual and spiritual one. In particular, I believe, disregard for the great historical tradition, scant attention to the documents about religious life that were produced in the post-Vatican II world, and insufficient attention to the treasured studies of the masters of the spiritual life greatly undermined the clarity of the intellectual pursuit that women religious historically had followed. Through the years, a certain preoccupation with present concerns, ambition to obtain professional goals, and a tendency to ignore Church teaching has not helped leaders and members to perceive the richness of the Church in its full potential, nor has it [helped] religious breathe “new life” among those who have become weakened by the modern assaults of secular thinking. Instead, more recently, Vatican and American episcopal attempts to broker continuing crises have not been taken seriously. Feminist theologies have dominated the formation of sisters. Sadly, no notice has been taken by many congregations that younger aspirants to religious life are rejecting the very forms of religious life that they propose.

On their part, Church officials have sometimes failed to appreciate what sisters can offer; more, they seemed to have abandoned attempts to dialogue with sisters who have suggested that they “know best” about matters of political policy and social justice. As a result, leadership structures authorized by chapters that once touted participatory democracy speak with impunity for entire congregations. Sometimes these chapters find ways to find the Church wanting, and there is no way for sisters who disagree with the views of leaders to advance an alternative. The predominance of suspicion and accusations of implied correction as attributed to Church authorities are allowed to prevail. There is no way, except for public correction, for Church officials to question decisions. Freedom has taken on the meaning that each sister has the right to dissent from Church officials. It no longer means that sisters have the opportunity to imitate Christ more closely through the practice of the evangelical counsels.

Unfortunately, a selective and superficial approach to history continues to predominate. Thus, negative or partial views of the overall reality have blurred the actual experience of sisters and the purpose of religious life. What would Saints Elizabeth Seton, Theodore Guerin, Philippine Duchesne, Frances Cabrini, or Katharine Drexel say to such a corporate rejection of Church history and theology? The continuing formation of nuns has thus suffered tremendously from a narrow-minded insistence that sisters know best. In the meantime, little is done, among some groups, to advance any solid religious education. Few conferences regarding the in-depth study of the liturgy and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, have been organized. Discussions of the primary role of Mary in the life of the Church or study of the significance of the Trinity as the heart of the Mystical Body of Christ remain nonexistent. Instead, workshops on the latest psychological trend or on the latest Eastern or Native American spiritualities continue. Few of the younger sisters are required to study the great theological or spiritual writers, much less the papal documents on religious life.

Worst, a mentality that every sister should approach Church pronouncements or activities from a “hermeneutic of suspicion” has not only deprived sisters of a rich reservoir of learning but has prompted an almost universal view that the Church is willing to “bully” or “deprive” sisters of their rights. In the meantime, the emphasis on action has destroyed the precarious balance that once gave meaning to the rhythmic interaction that must exist between prayer and service to God’s beloved people. The end result seems to have been a rewriting of the vocation to religious life, especially the classical understanding of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It has led entire religious congregations to reevaluate themselves as apostolic religious, united to the Church.

But what about the suffering of sisters? There are, after all, many examples of sisters being unappreciated and Church authorities treating women religious unfairly, sometimes in very demeaning ways.

Sister Liptak: Yes, this is most assuredly true. My own founder suffered such indignities. Many other sisters have suffered the same. There have been difficult bishops, quarrels over ownership of property, etc. But wouldn’t the number of sisters have dropped with every decade of the 20th century—if not before that—if repression and obstruction and bullying were the commanding strategy of the American Church or the Vatican? Instead, the opposite remained true until 1965. Sisters in this country increased from four cloistered nuns who arrived in Maryland in 1790 to some 40,000 sisters just 100 years later, and then to at least 180,000 by the 1960s. Would that have been possible if sisters were so badly misused by the Church? No, there is much evidence that sisters are appreciated and cared for by most clergy, in fact, prized for their religious vocations and seen as coworkers, co-builders, co partners with the clergy, even—as one Sister of Mercy put it—“co-adjutors with their bishop” in creating the Church we know today.

These accomplishments of women religious are well documented in archives and the subject of countless books. The field of historical investigation is presently filled with a growing number of dedicated, well-trained scholars ready to tell this amazing story. The accomplishments of sisters will not be lost even as the negative aspects of power struggles will always make for good stories. There is just too much evidence that the sisters saw the good they were doing and rejoiced that they had been part of the great enterprise of “the salvation of souls.”

Sisters sometimes deflect any criticism of their activities today by pointing to this impressive history.

Sister Liptak: Yes. When the discussion of “questioning” the sisters comes up, their history seems to be viewed as an argument to top inquiries about present concerns of loss of numbers. This is a diversionary tactic. Traveling exhibits on the accomplishments of nuns are always a good idea and beautiful proof indeed of what good and heroic sisters have done and still are doing. But they beg the question. Of course, sisters should be honored for their heroic contributions. More should be done on this subject.

Still, I do not see how this approach addresses the essential questions about one reality that was, indeed, a major factor in the proposal to conduct an apostolic visitation. In fact, one of the purposes of the visitation has been to honor this record. The apostolic visitation was conducted to study the quality of the present life. One question was more obvious than other considerations, namely, “Why do so few women enter communities with histories like this and with great women as models?” The visitors are here to see and hear how this original conviction of being witnesses to God is being continued, to verify that the dynamic phenomenon which was the amazing story of women religious is still going on, and to verify the classic definition of what it means to be a religious—the love of God and of his people.

History is one way to answer this. But, as I said at the beginning, history teaches a more important lesson: that the story of redemption should be a work in progress, a journey, a pilgrimage—“ not yet there.” The woman religious looks to the past, true, but does so only to look forward. Every era must be addressed and engaged, always with reference to the persons who have remained faithful to the ancient traditions and have continued down through the ages of crises, reform, and renaissance. American religious view their tradition amid the sanctity that developed since the establishment of their congregations. Today the Vatican, through the apostolic visitation, has asked and is asking only one thing: What is that quality of life today? Do sisters still recall their purpose, their role in the salvation of souls? Do the sisters believe that they can live daily the promises and hopes they entered for? Do they want to encourage young women to do the same?

Some sisters say they simply are following the directives of Vatican II to renew themselves.

Sister Liptak: Yes, Vatican II directed sisters to examine themselves and the signs of the times, and especially their charisms. One can ask if this is what they did, in fact, accomplish after they sought to renew. Or was it, instead, the attempt to follow the prescription written out for them by certain sisters bent on reinventing, not renewing, themselves? If we are to be prophetic witnesses, for example, must it not be as witnesses to Jesus and for the salvation he made possible?

I am personally concerned that some sisters would want to find renewal by redefining that which I have tried (however poorly) to live these 50-plus years. Religious life is some 2,000 years old; it has had ups and downs, and reformation was needed from age to age. Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena surely are prime examples of the willingness to question clergy and bishops in order to renew religious life and reform the Church. For all that, such efforts must always be from within. When accomplished, it is something that the Church lauds, since new life has been breathed into something “dead.”

And so I ask: Is the renewal of religious life advanced by redefining religious life as “ministerial,” rather than “apostolic,” service? If so, where is one’s essential need to pay loving allegiance to Christ and the Church he created? Or, conversely: Is returning to the pre-1960s world the better approach to renewal? Those of us who remember the over-exaggerated devotion to rules and regulations that encouraged immaturity and dependence would disagree. The freedom of the “holy people of world” must lead every Christian, whether lay or religious, to a full-hearted and individual drive to do God’s work. The fundamental, essential elements of religious life, eloquently addressed since Paul XI’s decree, Perfectae Caritatis, is the charter with such a new approach. Women religious must stand in solidarity with the promise it presented, as apostles, disciples, co-partners in the redemption of the world. Each congregation must examine the ways in which this can be made possible within their institutes. This aim, I am convinced, has been the rationale for the apostolic visitation. I hope, in time, that this desire for a solid future for all US women religious will be fulfilled.

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