The recent “Vatican Investigation of American Nuns” has been turning into a bit of a debacle. For one thing, no one wants to pay for it. The Sisters (or at least the main group of American Religious Women, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) didn’t ask for this “investigation” and don’t see why they should pay for it. The bishops, many of whose dioceses are having financial difficulties due to everything from lawsuits to bad financial management to a poor economy, balked when they were told that they should pay for it. And it seems that it never crossed the mind of the people in Rome who mandated the investigation that they should get stuck with the bill. For another thing, it seems like many of the Religious Sisters themselves have found ways to gum up the process by not fully answering questionnaires or sending information in a timely manner. And then too it seems that very few people—not only the sisters, but the laity, most of the clergy, and even a good number of bishops—think the whole thing is, at best, a waste of time (and money) and some even think that the investigation was not undertaken in good faith (few investigations, whether by Congress, suspicious husbands, or the Holy See are) but was dreamed up by so-called “wing-nuts” in the Church as a way to harass the more “progressive” communities. Who knows? But the investigation is not history—at least not yet and so not the subject for this blog. But it might be fun to look at the history of Religious Women to get some background. This will take several postings and I don’t intend to do them as a continuous series, but as occasional entries in this blog. After all the dear ladies are part of our title: What Sister never knew…
The first item which is important to talk about so that we can better understand not so much the investigation itself as some of the questions which the investigation wants to investigate is the difference between a nun and a sister. The investigation, as I understand it, is not looking into American nuns but American Religious Sisters. So what is the difference. Well, nuns have been around a long time—a very long time, at least since the third century and possibly even a little longer than that. We always associate them with the monastic movement in the Egyptian desert at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century. Pachomius, the originator of coenobitic (communal) religious life, allegedly had a sister who established a community of nuns even as he established a community of monks. This makes nuns a pretty old group of women (note, note not a pretty group of old women), however Father Sidney Griffith, a professor of Syriac at the Catholic University of America (and a former professor of mine about two hundred and fifty years ago when I was studying theology) talks about monasticism originating in Syria perhaps even a century before Saint Antony Abbot whose eremitical monasticism, in turn, predates Pachomius by about thirty years. I don’t know, I wasn’t there but I think he makes a good case for it.
By the way, while the English language has two distinct words, “monk” and “nun,” most Mediterranean languages—Syriac, Greek, and Latin among them—seem to have only a common root word distinguished by gender specific suffixes. Nuns then are female monks , or—in this gender sensitive age—one could say monks are male nuns. That is actually quite important as there is gender equality in monasticism pretty much up into the High Middle Ages—12 century and after. We wll deal with that in a future blog. We need to move on.
One of the breakdowns in gender equality came in 1298 when Boniface IX, of happy memory (as we say when speaking of dead popes) issued a Bull (a papal letter, named for the bulla or leaden seals with which it was authenticated) called Periculoso (which translates loosely as –it’s too damned dangerous out there for you ladies to be roaming the streets) requiring women monastics to remain in the confines of their monasteries. Frankly, it was dangerous in the streets of most Italian cities in the Middle Ages (remember Romeo and Juliet and all the family feuding), but the letter also betrays a mistrust of women and their ability to take their vow of chastity seriously. (In the Middle Ages, the men always blamed the women for the problem of sexual seduction.) We will deal with cloistering in more detail in a future posting. Suffice it to say that nuns were required to be cloistered. This was, in much of the middle ages, more honored in the breach than in the observance, but the Council of Trent (1545-1562) clamped down on the cloistering of nuns pretty effectively (though not with total success) and the old Orders—Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans (Poor Clares), Dominicans, Carmelites, etc. found their women confined to monasteries. New orders being founded at the time—the Visitandines, Ursulines, etc. adapted to the requirement as well though their cloistering rules were usually somewhat more flexible.
Well, Vincent de Paul wanted to found a community of women to work among the poor and cloister obviously did not fit this plan. We will say more about him and his Daughters of Charity in a future posting. (I am making a lot of promises here.) Suffice it to say for now he found a way around the rule of enclosure. His Daughters of Charity did not take permanent vows but professed for only a year at a time, and thus were not subject to the enclosure. He never really wanted them to be “nuns” in a monastic sense; as far as I can discover he never called them “nuns.” They were to be just pious women, committed to chastity, obedience, and poverty, doing works of charity among the poor. This community was a huge success. It drew huge numbers of vocations, was immensely well thought of by all for the good work the Daughters did, and spread like wildfire. Various bishops, priests, and laity saw the advantage of these “walking nuns” as some were called (as opposed to “caged-up nuns” I suppose). Other groups of non-cloistered women were begun. Some started as associations under the guidance of the Mendicant Orders of men, especially Franciscans and Dominicans, and shared in their charism. Others, like Catherine McAuley’s Religious Sisters of Mercy or Saint Mary MacKillop’s “Brown Joey’s” (The Australian Sisters of Saint Joseph) or Nano Nagle’s Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary were started by strong women of vision. While some wanted to be Religious, others—like Catherine McAuley’s group—did not want to be “nuns” or even Religious, but were forced by pressure from the bishops to take on the Religious State. Frankly the freedom of these new communities threw many in the hierarchy and clergy into panic and neither the bishops nor the Holy See seemed to know quite how to handle this new form of Religious life that didn’t quite fit the canonical norms. In the United States, Saint Elizabeth Bayley Seton, at the request of her bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore, established a group modeled on the French Daughters of Charity. They wore a “habit” that was nothing more than the discreet mourning clothes of a widow (Seton was herself a widow” and, faithful to the vision of Saint Vincent de Paul, didn’t borrow a lot of the trappings of traditional nuns.
This entry has gone on far too long already and there is much more to put in future blogs, but let me conclude with the fact that until the middle of the twentieth century—yes, the twentieth century like when I was a little boy—the only women in the United States who were college presidents or hospital administrators, were Catholic “nuns”—actually Religious Sisters. These women were always the avant-garde for the educational and social emancipation of women. I am no feminist, but when you know some Church history you have to say to the modern “nuns” “you go girl.” Catherne McAuley and Elizabeth Seton and Mary MacKillop would be proud of you.
Today's image: "yes, Virginia, there are still good nuns who know their place and keep to it" Actually this photo is a group of cloistered nuns who, trust me, aren't nearly as docile as they look in this picture but are pretty lively and a lot of fun and have plenty of vocations.