Friday, August 25, 2006

Interesting book review

The Tidings, the Los Angeles Archdiocesan newspaper, has printed the following review of Kenneth Briggs Doubleday book, Doublecrossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. The reviewer is Anita Caspary, IHM, former Mother General of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and founding President of the Immaculate Heart Community. She writes:

"Readers of books about nuns may be startled by the title "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns" as more typical of a murder mystery than of the saga surrounding the disappearance of American sisterhoods. The purpose of Kenneth Briggs is to uncover the betrayal of nuns by the time of renewal after Vatican II by some members of the U.S. hierarchy.

The Introduction lays out the startling figures: "In 1965 sisters numbered 185,000 in more than 500 orders." By 2005, the total had dropped by more than half, to 68,963, and of those fewer than 6,000 were under 50. Anyone even slightly interested in nuns' stories must question the meaning of this drop in the population of convents as well as the succeeding changes in ministries, especially in education in elementary and secondary schools and in the broad fields of nursing and hospital administration.

Briggs traces the problem of the dramatic drop in the number of nuns to the process of renewal initiated by the Second Vatican Council followed by the opposition of some members of the U.S. hierarchy to this process. Abandonment of habits, changes of prayer schedule, more flexibility in the understanding of obedience --- these and other new factors of religious life were looked upon as dangerous and life threatening to the sisters: This was the fear of some bishops, priests and lay Catholics as well as some of the sisters themselves.

All this is clear and fairly well known by readers of post-Vatican II literature on U.S. sisterhoods. Are these changes the cause of the dramatic drop in the number of religious women or are there deeper more complex hidden causes? There are no doubt further studies to be done on this subject, hopefully by the sisters themselves who lived through the period.

Meantime, Briggs is to be thanked for recounting the service the Sister Formation Conference (SFC) gave to the education of U.S. Roman Catholic sisters. The tragic circumstances surrounding the demise of the SFC is accurately written. Such names as Sister Emily Penet, Sister Ritamary Bradley and Sister Annette Walters are credited for their frontier and struggling work.

The phenomenal study of the Sisters' Survey headed by Sister Marie Augusta O'Neill is recalled as well as the continuing work of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. All of these programs met with opposition from some of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy who wished to control women's lives as they had before the Second Vatican Council.

Yet Briggs does not include the more obvious cultural and sociological issues prevalent at this time --- for example, the women's movement and the civil rights confrontation. As a former religion editor of the New York Times, Briggs fails to include a more nuanced and researched analysis of the period to supplement his account of the renewal.

And what about the Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles? Briggs' account of the IHM efforts of renewal and Cardinal McIntyre's defense of the status quo is succinct but inadequately researched. The ultimate choice of the IHM's status as non-canonical is explained by Briggs as an alternative community, a middle way born of "strife, grit and integrity" (p. 116). A more extensive record of this unique part of American Catholic history would provide an accurate account for the reader.

Briggs' book is not an outstanding rendition of the post-Vatican II exodus of sisters from the convent. However, its readable style and the interest generated by the central thesis will contribute to the ongoing discussion of this period of U.S. religious life."

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