Books explore sisters in crisis, in transition and in film
March 5th, 2014
By Allan F. Wright
“Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal” by Ann Carey. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2013). 422 pp., $24.95.
“Religious Life at the Crossroads: A School for Mystics and Prophets” by Amy Hereford, CSJ. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2013) 206 pp., $20.
“Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film” by Maureen Sabine. Fordham University Press (New York, 2013) 326 pp., $27.
In “Sisters in Crisis Revisited,” Ann Carey offers the best-documented study of the collapse of Catholic women’s religious orders to date.
The documentation is taken from original sources such as essays, journals and firsthand accounts that illustrate that the demise of traditional religious communities was not a result of happenstance or the “spirit of change” during the 1960s, but rather a well-thought-out and intentional dismantling of traditional religious life from within.
The current state of the majority of women’s religious communities in America, many of which have not witnessed a new vocation in decades, is a result of a theology based on a new vision of ecclesiology formulated and packaged as a legitimate interpretation of the Second Vatican Council even before Vatican II came to a close.
“Every major study of religious life done since the early 1990s has found that religious communities that embraced (this) philosophy of democracy and liberation ... have experienced diminishing membership, loss of corporate identity, fracturing of community, and an uncertain future,” Carey writes.
Her terminology throughout the book reflects a successful attempt to be balanced in her assessment of the causes for the demise of women’s religious orders.
“Change-oriented” sisters are held in contrast to “traditional sisters.” While the book is filled with documentation, it is not laborious to get through and speaks forcefully of the intentions of a small group in leadership who had their own vision for religious life which was not in line with the magisterial thinking of the church.
Carey first documented the demise of orders of religious sisters in her 1997 book, “Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities.” Her latest book covers much of the material while adding very little about the renewal or signs of life that are evident and emerging in the Catholic Church. Those who read the previous book may find little added value to this “revisited” assessment. The story is painful to read, but Carey documents how once-thriving communities chose the path of self-destruction.
In “Religious Life at the Crossroads: A School for Mystics and Prophets,” Sister Amy Hereford, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, acknowledges the obvious fact that religious life in the United States over the past 60 years has changed dramatically.
This change, however, is not to be viewed in despair or through the eyes of nostalgia, but is seen through the lens of hope for new and invigorated communities that are emerging. These communities reflect “the renewed commitment to the choice of radical Christian community that inspired, attracted, and sustained the religious of every age.”
In the introduction she states that many of the religious orders that are dying are not “giving up,” but rather “letting go” of ministries and of many of the works and institutions they have served admirably for a century or more. It is not defeat but rather the completion of an impressive chapter in the history of religious life.” She is charitable in her assessment.
The overall aim of the book is to explore the re-imaging of religious life with its new expressions. In doing so she brings forth the perspectives of St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Francis and St. Clare as well as Dorothy Day and Jean Vanier. Those who have only a traditional idea of religious life are asked to consider small Christian communities as the emerging, broader expression of religious life.
“Veiled Desires; Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film” by Maureen Sabine, a professor of literary, cultural and religious studies at the University of Hong Kong, explores the portrayal of religious sisters through films such as “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “Black Narcissus,” “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” “Sea Wife” and “Agnes of God,” to name a few.
Behind every portrayal of religious life on film there is an underlying theology that is often implied. In “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” there is a scene where Father O’Malley asserts that he will not overrule the school’s principal and will not “order her to do anything.” Yet, as he says this the cinematography is clear in portraying the pre-eminent power of his priestly position.
Sabine observes, “As he says this, Father O’Malley stands in the right-hand side of the frame while a high-angle shot looks down over his shoulder to where the nun is sitting. The high angle of the camera erases her authority as school principal at her desk and gives the impression that she is lower, kneeling in a quasi-confessional mode and looking up in a beseeching manner at the priest.”
These observations are interesting and do give an insight into the mind of professional actors, writers and directors who depict and characterize Catholics with whom they have little or no real contact. As with most secular representations of nuns, there is always the fascination and tension with sexuality and eroticism which the author explores.
Also of interest: “Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns” by Abbie Reese. Oxford University Press (New York, 2014). 272 pp., $34.95.
Wright is academic dean for evangelization in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., and the author of several books. He lives with his wife and three children in New Jersey.
From March 7, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.