The crisis of women religious not confined to the United States

The crisis of women religious not confined to the United States

Sr Kathleen Dalton

Ann Carey, a respected journalist in the Catholic press for fifteen years, was charged with the task of answering the questions "who, what, why, when and how" of the crisis confronting American Catholic sisters. The results of her research are charitably and truthfully recorded in her new book, Sisters in Crisis.

She admits that the answers to these questions are complex, and that the facts presented will inevitably be interpreted in different ways, since some sisters, clergy, hierarchy and laity continue to deny that a crisis exists.

The author states, however, that the purpose of this book is not to point fingers or to place blame, but to report the facts so that the answers to these questions can be used to help address the crisis in women's religious communities.


Whether they will do so or not rests on the consciences of the religious themselves for, as Sister Miriam Ukerites CSF states, after she and Father David Nygren CM made their comprehensive study of the beliefs, attitudes and practices of men and women religious: "There is a persistence on the part of many people not to see the crisis we're in and what a crisis we are facing."

Ann Carey has diligently studied in the archives of the University of Notre Dame the records of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the National Assembly of Religious Women, and Consortium Perfectae Caritatis. Much of the material gathered, such as correspondence and meeting minutes, is published in the book for the first time.

She states that the calamity of the breakdown of religious life has affected not only every Catholic American but the entire Catholic Church. The upheaval began generally in the 1950s, when some religious institutes were employing lay consultants to give workshops for religious to prepare them for renewal.

So began basic encounter groups or sensitivity-training, based on the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and William Coulson, which in essence, as Rogers admitted, was a training in revolutionary measures and subversion. In hindsight, Coulson, the only Catholic among the group, confesses to the irreparable harm done by all the organisational development specialists. He admits, "He persuaded a whole raft of Catholic communities to try openness, and the predictable thing happened; they fell apart."

Rogers and Coulson found the unfortunate result of this psychological workshopping has been that many Catholic religious have "suffered great pain, distress, frustration, anger, loneliness, self-depreciation and lack of trust."

Coulson states that "we now have Catholic organisations, religious communities, which seem dedicated to seeding the whole American Church with such negative experiences of community for no rational reason, except that it remains politically correct ... The net effect of too much psychology." Coulson adds that "some religious persist in the folly for the sake of revenge. Rather than admitting they have made mistakes, they persist because they want company in their misery."

Further, Coulson said that it was politically correct in the 1960s to say that pre-Vatican II ways were overly structured and authoritarian. But he now believes it was not necessarily the case. "The human spirit calls for containment," he said. "No life is possible except under authority." He adds that "young men and women are not attracted to the structureless life that has evolved in many religious communities." However, Coulson adds the encouraging note that "there are plenty of models of religious life still around, and it would make no sense to say religious life is dying. What is dying is the American experiment with the 60s ... There is no call for keeping the 60s alive; it's over."

Nevertheless, the radical feminists in religious life seem bent on keeping them alive. It is sad to read such irrefutable statements as: "Women religious, who were once revered as models of deep spirituality and Christian virtue, now have a reputation as the most rebellious group within the Church. The names of Sisters are prominent in organisations which challenge the Church on issues such as abortion rights, women's ordination and internal authority structures of the Church.


"In many orders of women religious, Sisters no longer live together, pray together, or work together. Sisters, who once were the backbone of Catholic institutions, have left those institutions in growing numbers to pursue 'ministries' in the secular sphere that have little to do with the Church or the vows they profess as consecrated women."

As a result, numerous Catholic institutions have closed because of lack of personnel, even as the Catholic population has grown. Over 100,000 Sisters taught in Catholic Schools in 1965 in America, compared to fewer than 13,000 in 1995. During that time nearly half of all Catholic grade and high schools closed, and many health care institutes were secularised, or forced to close. Also, from 1965-1995, the number of Sisters declined by half, and many of the communities of women religious have unravelled to the point that their survival is questionable. The median age in many orders has soared into the 70s because "young women are not attracted to the Sisters' new self-styled way of life." In the process, many elderly religious have suffered great injustices while the congregations that have given up the work for which their Orders were founded, purport to have done so in order to work for 'justice'.

The call of Vatican II to religious communities was first and foremost for renewal and then adaptation. But by dint of sophisticated political manoeuvering and questionable constitutional manipulation, the 'activist' Sisters in the various congregations managed, not only to effect their desired outcome in the post-Vatican Il Congregational Chapters, but also set in place the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as a new entity asserting independence from Rome, and openly challenging the Church in many areas.

Instead of renewal, the John Dewey philosophy of change for change's sake became the order of the day.

Sad results

The sad results are recorded, particularly in the stories of the IRM's and School Sisters of Notre Dame (Chapter II), both flourishing and respected congregations before falling under the influences of humanistic psychology and rebellious leadership.

Statistics and Sisters' personal accounts prove that the majority do not subscribe to the present lifestyles of their congregations, nor do they wish to use as an excuse for laxity, the suppression - true or otherwise - under the past structures.

While not mitigating some of the past dehumanising practices, which all religious were happy to vote out of existence, nevertheless, they were a challenge to really follow Christ by not choosing to bypass Calvary. No-one can gainsay that there was much more joy and laughter in religious communities in the so-called hard regimes than is evident now. The best the individual Sister can do now, who wants to continue to live out her commitment as she understood it when she made her vows, is to "go it alone" when necessary.

What is so puzzling is why religious congregations outside of the United States did not choose to profit by the mistakes made there.

Sisters in Crisis may be painful reading, but those who care about the future of religious life would do well to read and discuss it.

'Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unravelling of Religious Communities' by Ann Carey, Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1997, 367pp. Direct inquiries to John XXIII Co-op Bookshop, tel (03) 9578-2706. This review by Sister Kathleen Dalton SC first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic'.

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