Women Religious in the U.S.: The Past Fifty Years

The author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited discusses the past, present, and future of sisters in the States

Ann Carey has written extensively about Catholic women religious for many years, publishing articles on the subject in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Crisis, and Catholic World Report. She has received Catholic Press Association awards for news and feature writing and for investigative reporting. The second, updated edition of her book Sisters in Crisis is now available from Ignatius Press, and discusses at length the on-going controversy surrounding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the group’s clashes with the Vatican. The book also examines the dramatic changes in the lives of women religious in the United States in the years since Vatican II, as well as the increasingly hopeful signs of genuine renewal cropping up in religious communities across the country.

Carey recently discussed Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal with CWR managing editor Catherine Harmon.

CWR: The first edition of this book was published in 1997. Since then, we’ve seen the launch of the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of US women religious communities as well as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious. Is the “crisis” faced by today’s women religious the same one they faced in 1997? Would you say their overall situation has improved or worsened since that time?

Ann Carey: I would have to divide my response into two categories of orders of women religious. The first category I call “change-oriented” because the leaders of these orders want to change the nature of religious life. These orders have about 80 percent of the sisters in the United States, and their leaders tend to belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—the LCWR.

These change-oriented orders claim to be “birthing new forms” of religious life with a sociological rather than ecclesial focus. Many of them profess a mission of liberating oppressed people and caring for the earth. Most of these orders have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church in terms of relations with the hierarchy, liturgical practices, and even on some theological/doctrinal matters.

The orders of sisters in this category are in worse shape than in 1997 because their ties to the Church have become strained and fragile, and their identity has become blurred. In many cases, community life is nonexistent except in retirement homes, and prayer often is an individual practice. Many change-oriented orders also have severe financial problems, for their median age is well into the 70s, so they have far fewer working sisters than retired sisters. With a large elderly population, their numbers are dropping rapidly, and the few new vocations they do get tend to be middle-aged women.

The second category I call “classic” religious orders because they live that classic definition of vowed, total, permanent commitment to Christ and his Church, and they share a common life with regular common prayer. These orders have about 20 percent of US sisters, and their leaders tend to belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the other group of sister leaders.

These classic orders are in a stronger condition than 1997, for they have maintained their identity through close ties with the Church, a corporate apostolate, and life and prayer in community. Many of them have grown in the last 16 years. Consequently, they have a lower median age due to their success in attracting young women to join them, so many of them have more sisters working than retired. Recent studies prove that young people are more attracted to the classic orders because of their orthodoxy, distinctive religious lifestyle, and the quality of their prayer life, which usually includes practices such as chanted office and regular hours of Eucharistic adoration.

CWR: How does this second, updated edition of your book differ from the first edition?

Carey: I have filled in the history of the past 16 years throughout the book and have added two new chapters, one on the apostolic visitation and one on the doctrinal assessment. I also changed my concluding chapter considerably to reflect the success and growth of the classic orders and to report on what Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had to say about renewal of religious orders based on sound interpretation of Vatican II documents.

Throughout the new edition are updates to point out various situations that would be referred to in the LCWR doctrinal assessment and in the working paper for the apostolic visitation. This helps the reader gain a much better understanding of why the Vatican launched the apostolic visitation and issued the LCWR doctrinal assessment. The new edition of my book now offers a history of US women religious over the past 50 years, and it is a fascinating story indeed.

CWR: In your reporting and research for Sisters in Crisis you spoke with many women religious about the transformations their communities have undergone since the 1960s; to what extent do the sisters prominent in the media today—most notably those of the LCWR—represent the attitudes of the average American sister?

Carey: I know many sisters—even in LCWR orders—who are ashamed of prominent sisters who publicly criticize the Vatican and the hierarchy and dispute Church authority or teachings. I do not believe that most US sisters embrace what the CDF mandate called LCWR’s “policies of corporate dissent” on Church teaching about issues like women’s ordination and human sexuality. The CDF also noted that some LCWR presentations “undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture,” but I do not believe that most sisters would ascribe to such rejection of non-negotiable tenets of the Catholic faith, though many sisters certainly have been confused by LCWR materials and speakers and some do support that agenda.

It’s important to stress that the CDF was very clear that the doctrinal assessment was directed only to the LCWR and its 1,370 members, not to the other 50,000-plus sisters in the US. The CDF made the point that the work of sisters is greatly appreciated, but the Vatican has a duty to address confusion about Church teaching in the LCWR.

Nevertheless, LCWR leaders sometimes claim the support of most sisters and claim to speak for grassroots sisters when indeed they do not. For example, in 2010, the president of the LCWR and several leadership teams of women’s orders signed a public letter to Congress composed by Network, a sisters’ lobbying group. Their letter urged passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), even though the US bishops had warned that version of the bill would fund abortions and lacked sufficient conscience protection, which indeed proved to be true. The sisters’ letter claimed that the 55 individuals or leadership teams signing the letter “represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States.”

I have heard from many women religious who asked me to make it clear in my writing that such sisters do not represent them, and those prominent sisters have no right to speak for all sisters. Those prominent sisters, by the way, make headlines not because they are accomplishing all the great works of their predecessors who built and sustained Catholic institutions, but rather because they are engage in disputes with the Vatican and/or the hierarchy.

CWR: How did a comparatively small cadre of sisters effect such an enormous change in women’s religious communities in a very short period of time?

Carey: The LCWR played a huge role in transforming most of the women’s religious orders in the US, and it continues to have a strong influence, even internationally, in spreading what the CDF called doctrinal errors and corporate dissent. As the Second Vatican Council was drawing to a close in 1965, some sisters put their own interpretation on Vatican II documents and subsequent Vatican teachings on the renewal of religious orders.

I describe in my book how change-oriented sisters worked their way into positions of authority in the LCWR and changed membership requirements from one superior to teams or entire councils being LCWR members. This allowed the change-oriented orders to have several voting members per order, maybe 8-12, compared to the classic orders that had maintained the one-superior model and thus had only one vote. So, it was easy for the change-oriented sisters to impose their own agenda on the LCWR, and through that organization, onto many orders of sisters. I write about how this caused a split in the LCWR, leading to establishment of the other superior’s conference, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

Sisters have told me that similar voting irregularities occur in their own orders, often with the vote of the elderly diluted, or by intimidation or deception. Usually, sisters vote for their leaders and on policies through delegates to their “chapter” meetings. However, delegates are now allowed to be self-appointed, thus allowing for a large group of change-oriented sisters to be a part of decision making in the chapter.

CWR: One thing that doesn’t seem to be disputed by anyone—by the LCWR or the Vatican or anyone else—is that the Vatican and the sisters of the LCWR have very different views of the Church and of the role of religious in the Church. Given this divergence, what kind of outcome can be expected from the on-going “dialogue” between the Holy See—and the bishops representing it—and the sisters of the LCWR?

Carey: Both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the LCWR have been very tight-lipped about their “dialogue.” The CDF mandate was for the three bishops overseeing the reform of the LCWR to finish their work in five years; it was not to wait five years to start reform. However, there is no evidence that any of the changes mandated in the CDF doctrinal assessment have taken place. For example, the assessment directed that the LCWR publication “Systems Thinking Handbook” be withdrawn from circulation, but it is still available for download on the LCWR website.

The 2012 mandate also directed the LCWR to clear all of its speakers and programs with the three bishops appointed as apostolic delegates to oversee the reform. Yet the theme for the 2013 LCWR August 13-17 annual assembly is “Leadership Evolving: Graced, Grounded & Free,” with the keynoter, Sister Ilia Delio, OSF, speaking on “Religious Life on the Edge of the Universe.” Somehow, this does not sound as if the apostolic delegates had any say in the program.

If the LCWR does not accept the changes mandated in the assessment, the Vatican has no choice but to withdraw the LCWR canonical status as an official superiors’ conference. The LCWR could continue as a secular, professional organization. However, without Church recognition, its influence and status certainly would decline, and I wonder if many orders could justify continuing to pay the dues that help support the LCWR’s $1.5 million annual budget.

It is important to say that if the LCWR loses its canonical recognition, it would affect only the LCWR and would not impact the canonical status of any of the women’s religious orders or the individual sisters themselves. However, some sisters have used that confusion as a scare tactic to garner support for the LCWR.

CWR: You discuss the “graying” of women’s religious communities in the US. According to a recent study, today more than 90 percent of American sisters are over 60, with the largest group of sisters falling between the ages of 70 and 79. Yet you quote in your book several leaders of women’s religious communities who seem more or less unconcerned by the lack of new vocations—some even seem to think that the religious life as it is currently understood may have outlasted its usefulness to the Church. How widespread is this attitude among women’s religious leaders? Among ordinary sisters?

Carey: I’ve noticed the same attitude among some leaders, and it is puzzling that these sisters are very quick to point with pride to all the accomplishments of their predecessors, but seem unconcerned that the orders those sisters built up with their dedication and fidelity will just pass away. I think one explanation is that many of the change-oriented leaders are in denial and just can’t accept that they made mistakes that are causing their orders to disappear. Instead, the leaders are trying to build up lay associate groups, which they contend will carry on the work of the sisters. Now, many lay people are very devout and dedicated, but they do not give the same witness as a vowed religious whose entire life is dedicated to God and building up the Church.

I know many sisters who grieve the demise of their once-thriving orders, which they love intensely. And they do not accept the conclusion of some leaders that religious life is no longer a viable vocation. Indeed, the classic orders that are thriving are proof that some people will always be drawn to the special life of dedication of a vowed religious. Also, the laity who encounter these sisters express deep appreciation for their witness and service.

CWR: In the last chapter of Sisters in Crisis, you write, “Now there is greater hope for the revitalization of religious life than at any time since the Second Vatican Council closed in 1965.” Does this hope rest exclusively in the flourishing of newer, more classic religious communities, or will older orders—particularly those that embraced the movements for “change” and “experimentation” in religious life—have a part to play in this revitalization?

Carey: First of all, it is not just the newer, classic orders that are thriving. Some of the older orders that navigated the renewal process moderately are doing quite well, too. Take for example the 153-year-old Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, commonly called the “Nashville Dominicans.” That teaching order recently had to add on to the motherhouse to accommodate the large numbers of young women who are entering, and their sisters now teach in 18 US dioceses and four foreign countries.

Likewise, some of the new orders are quite successful in attracting young people who long for community and a meaningful way to serve the Church. What the successful new and established orders have in common is that they embrace the classic model of religious life. That is not to say that they have returned to a pre-Vatican II model, but rather that they have modernized their practices and attitudes while still living that classic model in community with a vibrant prayer life and with strong fidelity to Church teachings and the magisterium.

Some of the change-oriented orders that let experimentation get out of hand may be able to reverse their decline or at least stabilize if they would strengthen ties to the Church and enthusiastically embrace that classic model of religious life. However, some sisters in these orders have let loyalty to their leadership cloud their thinking, while others who would like to live the classic model have been so marginalized by their orders that their voices are merely cries in the wilderness. Sadly, many of the change-oriented orders have high percentages of elderly, so for them I’m afraid there is little chance of survival, and that indeed is a tragedy.

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.