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Voices Online Edition
Summer 1997 : Volume XII, No. 2

Review - Sisters in Crisis:

The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities
by Ann Carey.

Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1996. Pp. 371.

Review by Albert DiIanni, SM
erious observers from the whole political spectrum are responding with alarm to the decline in vocations and to the advanced average age (in the seventies) of major United States religious congregations of women. Though they understand that we live in a radically changed world, they wonder whether religious themselves must not take partial responsibility for the severity of the decline. They question whether some congregations have not interpreted the documents of Vatican Council II too broadly and identified too strongly with certain sociopolitical and psychological ideologies of modern society.

Ann Carey, a laywoman and journalist, herself educated by religious sisters, now adds her voice to the call for a reform of the renewal. She has long been interested in the renewal of religious congregations of women and has published on this topic. Sisters in Crisis is a major work in investigative religious journalism. It gives evidence of many hours spent poring over the records of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, and the National Assembly of Women Religious, records presently housed in the archives of the University of Notre Dame. The result is a fascinating volume that will have one reading late into the night.

It is full of the sense that something is unwell in contemporary religious life and that religious can no longer fend off criticism of the present state of religious life as "romantic nostalgia" or as a "numbers game".

This book traces in minute detail the history of women's religious communities, from the Sister's Formation Movement of the 1950s to the IHM dispute in Los Angeles and the birth of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1971, from the dispute over "Essential Elements in the Church's Teaching on Religious Life" (1983) and the "Quinn Report" on religious communities (1986), through Rome's approval of a second and more traditional conference of U.S. women religious in 1992. [The Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) Ed.]

The author avoids labels like "liberal" and "conservative" in favor of the less charged distinction between "change-oriented" religious and "traditional" religious. She realizes that renewal was long overdue, especially in women's apostolic congregations. They were operating according to 19th-century models badly in need of updating. She describes the efforts of Pius XII and the Congregation for Religious in urging modernization, and the resistance they met. It was not until Vatican II and the social upheaval of the 1960s that significant change occurred, some necessary and some not salutary.

From her minute analysis of the historical documents, the author concludes that not all congregations responded in the same way to the call to renewal. A few congregations actually resisted legitimate change, others undertook the moderate and balanced changes envisaged by Vatican II, but the majority of U.S. women's religious congregations went beyond the directives of the Council. They actually discarded most of their significant traditions and fashioned a new definition of religious life that left them resembling secular institutes more than the religious congregations envisioned by their founders.

The book documents the sometimes manipulative means used by certain members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to redefine religious life radically. These include election maneuvering and the use of the 1967 Sisters' Survey as a kind of indoctrination tool. The book leaves little doubt that much of what went on under the name of "renewal" was ruled more by women's recent "lived experience" than by the expressed desires of Vatican II. The author concludes that for a large number of women religious this "lived experience" became a theological reference point more important than the official voices of the Magisterium of the Church. The results have been disastrous in terms of vocations, service to the Church in community apostolates, witness to the transcendent, and polarization within sisters' communities.

Similar conclusions have been arrived at by a number of observers in recent years. What is new here, however, is that the conclusions are documented by a great deal of research into primary sources, some of which were never brought to light and publicly commented on before. The conclusions of this book are not based on mere surmise or superficial impressions. They have been formed in an objective reading of data ferreted out of archives for the first time.

This book leaves one saddened for the plight of the elderly religious who were not in agreement with the kinds of changes brought about, but who were either obedient or powerless to resist them. It leaves one heartened, however, that, as religious and lay Catholics, we are finally having the courage to practice the same degree of self-criticism that we often urge upon others.

Father DiIanni is from Boston. This review appeared in Review for Religious, and is reprinted with permission.

Ann Carey addressed the 1997 WFF Conference.

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