A religious sister I know who is principal of an inner-city Catholic high school likes to joke that a nun’s retirement begins five minutes after the start of her wake. She exaggerates, of course, but she’s right that retirement is a rare luxury for most women religious. Many sisters continue to work, often full-time, well after the average American has retired. As a result, American Catholics have yet to feel the full impact of what will likely be the almost complete disappearance of American religious women from the daily life of the church. From a high of almost one hundred eighty thousand in the mid-1960s, the ranks of sisters have thinned to less than seventy thousand. If that statistic isn’t startling enough, the next should be: There are more sisters over the age of ninety than under the age of thirty.
How did this happen? As late as the mid-1960s, many congregations of women religious were still expanding. Why did so many women leave the convent in the days after the Second Vatican Council, and why have so few entered since? In Double Crossed, Kenneth Briggs, former religion editor of the New York Times, seeks to answer these questions. Using personal interviews with dozens of nuns, including women who served as leaders of congregations during the council (such as the late Mary Luke Tobin, SL), Briggs weaves a compelling narrative of women’s religious life since Vatican II—although his analysis of why so many women left the convent (and so few have taken their place) is sometimes dubious.
Arguably no group within the American Catholic Church changed more as a result of Vatican II than women religious. Briggs notes that at the start of the council virtually all American sisters led tightly ordered lives. Everything from what they read to the people they spoke to was strictly regulated. Almost overnight, many of these rules were relaxed, if not done away with altogether. The catalyst was Perfectae caritatis, a council document that called on religious women and men to return to the “original inspiration” of their communities and to “adjust to the changed conditions of our time.” Briggs rightly argues that no group took this call more seriously than American sisters.
Still, it’s a mistake to think that prior to Vatican II nuns were living in an idyllic world where no change had been contemplated (pace The Bells of St. Mary’s). Briggs points out that as early as the 1950s there was a growing sense of the need for reform, especially in the areas of education and formation. Founded in 1954, the Sister Formation Conference was an effort by a few forward-seeing sisters to improve the spiritual, intellectual, and professional training of women religious. The group published the Sister Formation Bulletin, a widely circulated newsletter that addressed some of these issues. Although not “feminist” in the contemporary sense, the conference began looking at women and their role in the church in a whole new way.
The Nun in the World by Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens also proved to be quite influential. Writing in 1962, the Belgian cardinal called for sweeping reforms to women’s religious life, including changes in dress and living arrangements. The document received strong criticism from conservatives, but it planted a seed. When the council released Perfectae caritatis, more than a few sisters were already thinking about the need for change and were ready to get to work.
After carefully reviewing the period before the council, Briggs surveys how women religious in the United States responded to the calls for reform, focusing on three communities: the Ursulines of Paola, Kansas; the Daughters of Charity of Los Altos, California; and the Benedictines of Grove City, Indiana. He details how the changes were received by the wider Catholic community, including priests, bishops, and laity. Not surprisingly, he also recounts some of the rows between prelates and sisters, including the infamous (and sad) battle between Cardinal James McIntyre and the IHM Sisters of Los Angeles.
The book begins to limp when Briggs argues that the “huge drop in numbers [of sisters] was, in part, a reflection of the low morale from years of infighting between conservatives and liberals” and that “Rome’s continued opposition proved to be the most costly deterrent in the effort by the congregations to complete renewal and restore vitality.” In short, Briggs tries to make the case that if Rome and the U.S. bishops had lent their full support to the reforms proposed by women’s congregations, fewer women would have left the convent and more would have entered. This is a difficult position to defend. In general, congregations that received the support of their local bishop faced the same problems as congregations that had to deal with conservative prelates. By the 1980s, almost every order had jettisoned the last vestiges of the old ways, and most bishops had grown tired of—or uninterested in—trying to stop them. By that point vocations had slowed almost to a trickle. Outside forces such as the sexual revolution, in addition to disagreements over the role of women in the church, had a much greater impact on why so many women left the convent.
As part of my doctoral dissertation on the history of a small congregation in New York, I spoke with more than a dozen women religious. Most believed that the majority of the women who left the congregation in the 1960s and ’70s decided in favor of something (for example, marriage), rather than against something (for example, ecclesiastical constraints). Unfortunately, this kind of nuanced thesis is not as controversial or sexy as Briggs’s, nor is it likely to sell many books at a time when the public is well primed for stories of power—hungry ecclesiastics willing to do anything to suppress women who challenge the status quo. (See also The Da Vinci Code.) Briggs’s thesis is also weakened by his consistent portrayal of U.S. bishops and the Roman authorities as the bad guys, with the U.S. sisters on the side of justice and light. Briggs never entertains the possibility that there might have been some wisdom to the bishops’ counsel; he never asks whether some sisters moved too quickly in doing away with past customs.