American Women Religious and Ministry: New Challenge, Traditional Response
Joan Chittister, O.S.B.
From Winds of Change: Women Challenge Church, Sheed & Ward 1986, pp.123-129; reprinted on www.womenpriests.org with the necessary permissions.
The renewal of Roman Catholic religious life for women has taken many turns in the last twenty years. The lifestyle, governance models, prayer forms, formation criteria and theology of the vows which directed the life of women religious in this century have all been scrutinized in an attempt to make the life both relevant to today’s needs and faithful to the original inspiration of religious orders. Changes have been widespread and critical. But it is not in these isolated pieces that the effects of renewal come into focus. It is in the ministries that now flow from religious life that the quality of renewal is most clear.
Nineteenth century religious life was a common life of regulated behaviors and work that functioned to maintain the institution but not necessarily to bring each woman to fullness of human growth and potential. Nevertheless, at the same time that nuns were being taught their functionalism, they were also getting a clear, if unconscious, awareness of their effectiveness as well. Almost the entire social-service network of the Catholic Church in the United States was owned and/or operated by communities of women religious for over 150 years, accountable to the Church but most often operationally independent of it. With their own money and with their own personnel, religious built and staffed most of the Catholic colleges, academies, hospitals, orphanages, and special-care facilities in the country. The self-understanding that emerged from these experiences was in direct contradiction to the values and standards imbued in their formation programs. As administrators they were designing programs worth thousands of dollars; in their convents they were asking permission to read the newspaper. In their personal lives they were treated as children; in their apostolic activities they needed initiative, vision, a sense of risk, competence, confidence, assertiveness, independence, and community corroboration. Moreover, they needed, and got, high-level professional educations. It was to these experiences of achievement, selfdirection, and mutual support as well as to the fundamental theology of religious life and the histories of their Orders that women religious turned eventually for renewal and redefinition.
Just as frmly as they moved to eliminate authoritarianism, depersonalization, and conformity from their lives, American women religious began to question their works as well. Most religious communities had been called to this country by American bishops to minister to Catholic immigrant populations under the auspices of a given diocese. They were expected to be self-supporting but at the service of the local Church and under its authority. Out of this system had arisen the entire Catholic institutional system.
By the 1960s the effects of common works, control and economic pressure had begun to take a heavy toll. The specialization of all areas of ministry – education, health care, and social service work – made it increasingly difficult to treat women religious as a collection of interchangeable parts. Being put into positions for which they were not prepared or for which they had little talent or interest was beginning to affect women’s very commitment to the religious life. Of those who left convents at this time, many said that it was because they could not be themselves. What is more, the stipends provided women religious were far below the national minimum wage. In 1966, the average sister’s stipend in the parochial school system was $100 per month, without benefit of health insurance or retirement monies. Many are barely above that even now. Nevetheless, women religious provided their own food, shelter, health care, and education with the exception of local convents provided for Sisters working in the parishes. Consequently, as transportation, insurance, and professional education costs became compulsory and increasingly higher, religious women could actually no longer afford to restrict themselves to parochial ministry. Finally, the whole philosophical question of justice and the role of women in society became a critical one.
Over three-quarters of the 1500 respondents from 23 communities who participated in a 1978 Ministry Survey argued that since the religious community reflects the Church, it must therefore be outgoing and open to the secular, and that furthermore, non-institutional ministries provide a dynamic way to respond to the needs of the times. What may be even more important is the fact that over 90 percent of the respondents rejected the traditional concept that the best work a religious community can do will take the form of an institutional corporate apostolate under the guidance of the hierarchy. Finally, this group argued that their community leaders should enable the development of new community ministries and themselves speak out on social issues. This confluence of circumstances, social change, and a new theology of church brought women religious to decisions that altered the structures but not the direction of their lives. More than that, it altered their modes of service in contemporary society.
Having said all that about the history, culture, and circumstances that surround the ministries of women religious in this country, the fact remains that basically little has changed where the works of religious are concerned. The work of American women religious has historically been devoted to the needs of the oppressed and the poor. Today, American religious are simply turning once again to the needs of the new poor.
Women religious came to this country to minister to the needs of a large, basically poor, Catholic population in a then largely Protestant country. Language was a major barrier to both employment, advancement,and enculturation. Education appeared to be the answer and parochial schools the way to maintain religious beliefs and practices and to eventually insert Catholic citizens into the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture around them. By the time John F. Kennedy took the presidential oath of office in this country, that task had been largely accomplished, at least for that population. The schools were established, and generations of the laity had been prepared to staff and direct the schools as well as to value them. The Catholic population as a whole had been assimilated into mainstream America and, like it, had moved to the suburbs. The question now became: Who would care for those left behind and how?
It was the late 1960s: The Vietnam War raged; blacks staged sit-ins at lunch counters in the South; Watts burned; public politicians lied and cheated; new classes of immigrants began to pour into the United States; the Women’s Movement exposed the discrimination that came with being born female; the United States pursued militarism with a vengeance. In the midst of all this, Vatican Council II called for the renewal of religious life according to “the charism of the order, the intentions of the founder, and the signs of the times.” Business-as-usual simply wasn’t working anymore. Women religious began to move from classrooms to soup kitchens, to neighborhood action centers, to public welfare programs, to legal aid offices, to pastoral teams in parishes, to diocesan peace and justice offices, to safe-houses for battered women. At the same time, it is important to remember, many did not move out of classrooms at all. They stayed in education but changed textbooks and curricula to deal with the problems of the time or they became involved on a spare-time basis with advocacy groups that were themselves organized to address these issues. Whole communities adopted corporate commitments to specific social questions – housing, nuclear disarmament, poverty, justice – and pledged themselves to promote these questions wherever each of them might be: in education, in health care institutions, in office work, in either the private or parochial sector. Some Sisters deliberately sought full-salaried, high-paying positions so that other members of the community could work directly with and for people or organizations who could not afford to pay for services at all.
Sisters who were being blamed, in other words, for abandoning the Catholic school system were simply doing what had always been done in the best tradition of religious life and in the immediate history of their own communities: they were bringing the Gospel to bear on the issues of the time; they were standing with and for the new poor; they were standing between two cultures with one foot firmly planted in each. They were now, however, as intent on removing the obstacles to justice as they were to doing charity.
Nevertheless, real pressures and obstructions exist. The transition has been no easier for the religious of this century than it was for the pioneers of the last. Many communities owned buildings that housed previous ministries but were yet unpaid for; most religious had standard educational degrees and had to be prepared in whole new fields; many communities themselves were situated far away from the new problems and the new poor; community schedules and living patterns were strained in the attempts to respond; the structures unique to apostolic religious life for women – companions, community life, hours of work – had to be questioned; the mortgages and populations and facilities of times past were with them still while new needs arose on every side.
The price of transition is external as well. Identification with the middle class makes identification with the poor difficult for religious, too. Most of today’s religious were formed in middle class houses, with middle-class lives and middle-class expectations of education and hot water and cars and full meals. It is not always possible to make the adjustment to a ghetto lifestyle. Knowing this, however, many religious women who cannot live with the poor live for the poor as advocates, as researchers, as activists, as a social conscience and voice for the voiceless.
The residual theology of pre-Vatican II religious life, the notion that the function of religious life is to transcend the world, to be outside of it, to withdraw from it, is still a force in the Church, in society, and in some religious themselves. The “witness” mythology of separation, designed to ground the religious spiritually and to enable the religious to avoid chaotic activism, has too often led religious to opt for empty symbolism or fabricated pieties instead of the real thing. It is not enough to say the Stations of the Cross when the oppressed in our own towns have no one to go before the judges for them. The function of religious ministry today is to move again from subjective signs of personal commitment to objective transformation of the society by bringing the Good News to our own times. The function of religious life is to transform the world and to bring the foolish standards of the Gospel to the issues of the age.
The definition of religious life by task, as teachers or nurses, rather than as disciples sent to proclaim, reduces the prophetic function of religious life, domesticates it, institutionalizes it, muzzles it. It leads people to ask seriously, “But should a religious be in a public demonstration? Should a religious be lobbying? Should a religious be involved in political issues?” We have so sanctified the separation of church and state that it has become an evil in this society for a Christian to call the conscience of the king.
Women religious of this period have borne all of these burdens of transition with hope. They go on using their existing institutions for both new and old ministries; they have become a Christian presence in other ones; they have chosen to be leaven as well as labor force. They have become centers of community, consciousness, influence, relinquishment, and critical clarity to call and to question.
There are some who say that the aging of communities of women religious is a sure sign of their death, but I am not convinced. Where life and commitment converge, age is no factor. The scripture reads that when the angel-guests who had yielded to their insistent hospitality told Abraham and old Sarah she would bear a child. Sarah laughed. Yet from her came the beginning of a whole new people. Perfectae caritatis, the Vatican II decree on the renewal of religious life, reads: “A life consecrated by a profession of the counsels is of surpassing value and has a necessary role to play in the circumstances of the present age.” Our challenge is to minister insistently in hope and beyond hope, knowing that in and through the most impossible circumstances God will work God’s will.
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