Histories of Nuns and the Church Hierarchy

By Carol Faulkner

Amidst the public attention to the relationship between the Vatican and American nuns, I do not want this recent clash between the Catholic hierarchy and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to go unnoticed on RiAH (see Kathleen Cummings on the last one here). Since this is not my area of research, I’ve decided to assemble some references on the history of this crisis, as well as the activism of American sisters. I hope RiAH readers and bloggers will add to this list.
Commentators who have addressed this crisis from a historical perspective include Gary Wills here, Mary Hunt here, historian Anne Butler here, and my wonderful colleague Margaret Susan Thompson here and here.
Even a brief look at the history of American sisters suggests that such conflicts over power and doctrine have been part of Catholicism in the U.S. for a long time. In 1810, for example, Mother Elizabeth Seton wrote to Archbishop John Carroll as she battled with the priest appointed to supervise her Sisters of Charity (the italics are Seton's):
“Sincerely I promised you and really I have endeavored to do everything in my power to bend myself to meet the last appointed Superior in every way but after continual reflection on the necessity of absolute conformity with him, and constant prayer to our Lord to help me, yet the heart is closed and when the pen should freely give him the necessary detail and information he requires it stops, and he remains now as uninformed in the essential points as if he had nothing to do with us, an unconquerable reluctance and diffidence takes place of those dispositions which ought to influence every action and with every desire to serve God and these excellent beings who surround me I remain motionless and inactive” (Quoted in Faulkner, Women in American History to 1880, 78-79).
Anne Boylan skillfully weaves the history of Seton and other Catholic women into her The Origins of Women’s Activism. As Boylan writes of Seton’s experience, “Their religious superior, as well as the presiding diocesan bishop, could demand obedience from the sisters, recruit applicants for the order, assign members to new posts, and request services for other Catholic institutions. At the same time, as the community’s founder and leader, Seton exercised inviolable authority in many areas of daily life.” Boylan argues that the “key difference” between the activism of Catholic and Protestant women was that “nuns living in religious orders performed the bulk of charitable labor within the church. They, not laywomen, gained the kind of experience acquired from creating a permanent institution, raising endowment funds, attaining corporate status, and behaving as legal entities.”
Other historians have written the important history of nuns’ involvement in social welfare, and its implications for their spiritual and temporal authority. These include Emily Clark’s Masterless Mistresses (reviewed by Tracey Fessenden here), Katheen Sprows Cummings’s New Women of the Old Faith, and Maureen Fitzgerald’s Habits of Compassion.
For the period during and after Vatican II, Mary Henold's book examines the intertwined history of American feminism and Catholicism. To incorporate this history into your courses, I highly recommend Henold’s document project, including an introductory essay and primary sources, on Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 (requires library subscription), titled “How Did Catholic Women Participate in the Rebirth of American Feminism?” Henold’s document project includes “The Declaration of Independence for Women” from the National Coalition of American Nuns in 1972. Among other demands, the sisters included:
Full and equal status of women in churches, including ordination to the ministry and elected proportional representation in church voting bodies. Just as today we are appalled that organized religion once approved slavery, so within a few years will the present oppression of women in churches be recognized as immoral. Imagine how ludicrous that Roman Catholic bishops meeting in their Synod had the theme of justice when not one woman had a vote.


Broad-based research programs in human sexuality. We request organized religion to address contemporary issues related to human sexuality, such as homosexuality, "alternate forms of marriage," abortion, etc., and to do research before making judgments. Judgments which include empirical data will help dispel current myths and fables which tyrannize decisions and behavior of the human family today.

Clearly, as Mary Hunt writes, “Roman Catholic Church history is unfolding before our eyes."


Edward J. Blum said…
thanks so much for putting this together.
Tom Van Dyke said…
The "history unfolding before our eyes" may be more a forensic sociology. Think the Shakers.

In 1975, the United States had more than 135,000 nuns. Now, there are fewer than 56,000.

In recent years, some religious orders have reported a recruiting uptick. But young novices are flocking not to the fiercely independent religious orders that so irk the Vatican but to more traditional orders - those that wear habits, live together in a convent, devote themselves to teaching, nursing and prayer, Georgetown researchers found.

Given that the younger nuns tend to be more traditional, church historian Shaw said he did not think the Vatican should expend too much effort reining in the older generation.

"Look at their median age," Shaw said. "This is an issue that is going to be settled by actuarial tables, not theologians or canon lawyers."

annie mitchell said…
I would recommend the book "Sisters in Crisis" by Ann Carey. While much of the news coverage has made the LCWR look like heroines valiantly fighting an oppressive regime, the real story is they abandoned the way of life that their founders established. I think Mother Seton and others are rolling in their graves to see what their orders have become. http://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Crisis-Unraveling-Religious-Communities/dp/0879736550
Unknown said…
Good stuff. Despite Catholicism's reputation for obedience and deference, I think there is a history especially in American Catholicism of emboldened citizens. Seton, as pointed out, but also hairstylist Pierre Toussaint and the black Oblate Sisters of Providence, all of whom had some sort of public presence.

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