|Margaret Anna Cusack|
in her days as a Sister
of Saint Joseph of Peace.
The Holy See is concerned about feminism in the ranks of Religious Women, but at the risk of being anachronistic, we have to say that Religious Life was always a place of refuge for women who weren’t about to subordinate themselves to male authority. Back in the third and fourth centuries when those first monastics began to drift out to the desert and establish themselves as hermits or in small communities, people thought that this was fine for the guys but women were supposed to stay home under the authority of their husbands or fathers or older brothers. It was much more difficult for women to uproot themselves and flee to the desert. Those women who embraced the monastic life were rejecting the patriarchal structures of Roman society to live in all women communities led by women. And just as the monks put themselves on the fringes not only of society but of the Church to escape the bishop’s authority, so too did the women monastics, choose life in the desert where they were free of clergy interference. I am avoiding the words nuns here as these were really female monks. Even linguistically—while English has a clear distinction between monk and nun, in Syriac, Greek, and Latin, (and most of the modern romance languages) the difference between the words for “monk” and “nun” are the same root with a gender-particular suffix. Relationships with male monastic communities were lateral—interdependent—but not subordinate. While the women monastics may have supplied the male monastics with cloth, wine, beer, garden and other domestic products, the male monastics seem to have often helped the women with heavier projects such as clearing land, construction of buildings, and the heavier farming as well as supplying priests to celebrate the liturgy for them. Later, say eighth century through the High Middle Ages, there are examples of “double monasteries” of female and male monastics, but most often the superior of such a house was the Abbess, not a monk. In fact, the more usual pattern was a small community of monks or canons attached to a monastery of nuns precisely to be the chaplain staff for the nuns.
By the Central Middle Ages there were abbeys where the Abbess was not only independent of the authority of the local bishop, but she herself exercised Episcopal authority over a quasi-diocese called an Abbey Nullius. In such an arrangement, the Abbess was not, of course, the bishop, but she was the Ordinary of her quasi-diocese. There might be any number of towns and even a hundred or more parish churches under her jurisdiction. She confirmed the nomination of pastors (we need to do an entry on Advowsons and how pastors were appointed in the Middle Ages), gave dispensations, granted annulments, wrote dismissorial letters for ordinations, granted faculties to the clergy of her diocese just like any bishop. She had to hire a bishop to come in for the ordinations and confirmations, of course, but she was the Ordinary. As late as the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire (1806) there were over a hundred such jurisdictions ruled by Abbesses, though some had Protestantized at the Reformation. (That is another entry we have to do—the survival of religious life in Lutheran territories.) Some of these Abbacies lasted even longer—the Abbess of Los Hueglos in Spain, who was by right a Princess as well, lasted up until the time of Vatican II as head of her small diocese—down to twelve parishes if my memory serves me.
As religious life continued to evolve during the so called Counter-Reformation (I hate that term and would prefer to call it the Tridentine Reformation), women continued to create forms of religious life that exempted them from male control. The most spectacular of these was Mary Ward who founded the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1609. Modeled on the Jesuits, Mary and her sisters wore ordinary clothes, rejected most of the monastic practices that would have hindered them in their “underground” work in Protestant (and persecuting) England, and were self-governing. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t their freedom from hierarchical control that made Rome slow to confirm the work—it was their rejection of cloister which at that time was required for all religious women. Cloister, by the way, was no indication of male supervision as the great reformer, Saint Teresa of Avila showed. Teresa too was a remarkably independent woman who played authorities—the Holy See, the Carmelite Order, the King—off one another in order to preserve the independence of her nuns. Another woman of the time who founded a religious community that was structured to be self-governing was Saint Angela Merici whose Ursulines was autonomous communities working fully in the mission of the Church but in ways that they—not bishops or Curia—determined. We could go on. Jane Frances de Chantal worked very closely with Francis de Sales in the communities of the Visitandines they established but it was a collaborative work together and not one in which Francis dominated. Likewise, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac was a collaborative effort in establishing the Daughters of Charity, perhaps the most radically different form of religious life in the Church up until our own day. Vincent’s guidance told the Daughters: for a monastery, only the houses of the sick, for cell, a rented room, for chapel, the parish church, for cloister, the streets of the city, for enclosure, obedience, for grill, the fear of God, for veil, holy modesty. What would Rome say about this today? Hard to think that Rome was more open-minded in the 17th century than today but apparently it was.
And then there is the case of Saint Mary MacKillop in Australia and her Brown Joeys—the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Mary actually incurred excommunication rather than subordinate her sisters to outside (i.e. male) authority. A more tragic story is that of Margaret Anna Cusack, a convert to the Catholic Church and the famous “Nun of Kenmare.” Having left the Poor Clares where she had been a famous writer, Cusack with the approbation of Leo XIII founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace. But when Archbishop Corrigan of New York tried to force the Sisters in to subordination to his authority, she too was excommunicate and returned to the Anglican Church. Corrigan was one of the most morally righteous but nevertheless evil men to hold an American episcopate—and that is quite a distinction. His sin was power and his example should be a warning to current hierarchs. He was never given the red hat by Rome and his nemesis was Cardinal Gibbons who fought him tooth and nail precisely over the issue of whether authority in the Church should follow the European and monarchical model or the American and leadership model. But all this is for other entries. (Actually if you check the labels column you will see eight entries where I have written on Corrigan). Those ladies from LCWR are more in our Catholic Tradition than the boys in Rome who want them to fall in line and be good little girls who do what they’re told. Go nuns!