Nun Attack—Nothing New
By Marian Ronan
A person might conclude from recent media coverage of Roman Catholic officials cracking down on US Catholic Sisters that this sort of thing is unheard of. I’m thinking particularly of the Vatican’s condemnation earlier this month of a book by Mercy Sister Margaret Farley and the negative “doctrinal assessment” in April by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the national umbrella organization for US Catholic Sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The New York Times actually published an editorial refuting the attack on the LCWR.
For those raised watching Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or even Sisters marching in the civil rights movement, this can all seem pretty bizarre. But the truth is, bishops, popes, and even parish priests have been giving Catholic Sisters and other groups of celibate Christian women trouble throughout the history of the church. Already by the fourth century male leaders were denying Christian virgins their previous autonomy by forcing them to take vows. This continued in the Middle Ages, with bishops demanding that active orders of Sisters, for example, St. Clare of Assisi’s Franciscans, to remain in their convents under cloister. And in the nineteenth century, groups of American Sisters fled, time and again, from one diocese to another to escape the repressive control of an authoritarian bishop.
Irish and Irish American Catholic Sisters were by no means immune from such crackdowns. This is so, in part at least, because, since the Great Famine, Irish and Irish American women have comprised a large percentage of US Catholic women’s religious congregations. Between 1860 and 1920, US bishops and women superiors traveled regularly to Ireland to bring back Irish Sisters and aspirants to staff burgeoning parochial schools. In 1900, more than half of the 46,000 Catholic Sisters working in the US were Irish.
Not surprisingly, a significant number of these Irish –American Catholic Sisters became leaders in their respective congregations, and so experienced the authoritarianism of the American bishops first-hand. In the 1840s, Archbishop John Hughes forced the Sisters of Charity of New York to separate from their motherhouse in Emmitsburg, MD, then drove their superior general, Mother Elizabeth Boyle, out of office. Later in the century, hostile treatment by the highly conservative Archbishop Of New York, Michael Corrigan, drove the Irish foundress of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, Margaret Anna Cusack, out of the archdiocese and eventually out of religious life.
Since World War II, Irish Catholic Sisters have also played significant leadership roles in the national umbrella organization currently under Vatican censure, the LCWR. At first called the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW), the LCWR was founded in 1956 under Vatican mandate. CMSW national chair Sister of Loretto Mary Luke Tobin was one of a very few women observers at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). She herself was not Irish, but many of her successors have been. Sister Rose Emmanuella Brennan, a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, was the first full-time executive director of the Conference.
In its early years, relations between the CMSW and the institutional church were relatively congenial. But much of that changed with Vatican II. US Sisters undertook the renewal the Council demanded with more enthusiasm than any other group in the church, something a good number of American bishops did not appreciate. Already in 1968 Cardinal McIntyre prevented the Los Angeles Immaculate Heart Sisters from implementing measures passed at their Council-mandated General Chapter. In 1971, the Vatican tried to prevent the CMSW from changing its name to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; they believed that women are, by their very nature, followers. In 1972, LCWR president Sister of the Immaculate Heart Margaret Brennan and executive director Sister of Notre Dame Mary Daniel Turner, both Irish-Americans, were devastated when, during their annual meeting with the Vatican Congregation for Religious, the head of the Congregation vilified their much-loved predecessor, Mercy Sister Elizabeth Carroll. And after LCWR president Sister Theresa Kane, the daughter of Irish immigrants, urged Pope John Paul II to welcome women into all the ministries of the church as part of her public greeting to him in 1979, he never spoke to her again.
In the ensuing decades, relations between the majority of US Catholic Sisters and the Vatican have not improved. I believe some of this is a result of the Vatican’s ordering US Sisters, before and during Vatican II, to become better educated; the better-educated women get, the more they think for themselves.
But I also suspect that the Irish identity of many Catholic Sisters throughout the twentieth century contributed a good deal to their roles as leaders and models of justice in the US church. There’s nothing like 750 years of colonization followed, finally, by independence, to provide Catholic Sisters, and the rest of us, with inspiration.
Marian Ronan is Research Professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary. She grew up in Delaware County and earned a B.A. (1970) and a Ph.D. (2000) from Temple University. She blogs at http://marianronan.wordpress.com.