In her book “Poverty, Chastity, and Change”, the author Carole Garibaldi Rogers interviewed ninety-four nuns from forty different religious communities in North America. She gathered oral histories regarding the nun’s academic, religious, and emotional difficulties that were encountered throughout their lives. Each interview lasted a couple of hours and three basic questions were asked. “The three basic questions are: Why did you enter religious life? What were some of the crisis points or times of change in your religious life?
Or, to put that another way, how have you become the person that you are today? And, finally why are you still a religious? ” (Rogers, xx). The book is divided into two parts. Part one, on changes from the past to the present and part two, on changes from the present to the future. The book contains the wonderful accomplishments of the nun’s as well as the fears, hopes and struggles they faced throughout their lives. The life of a Roman Catholic nun still remains ambiguous to many people.
The outside world has many perceptions of the female clergy. Nuns are typically associated with wearing a long black habit and a veil; living in a recluse and sheltered environment and praying all day amongst other nun’s. The reality is far different from these stereotypes. While true that most Nuns’ join the convent because they are completely dedicated to God and wish to devote their lives serving him. Their servitude encompasses a multitude of different disciplines raging from renowned writers to traveling nurses.
The main running theme throughout the book is change and most notably the transformation that took place in the women’s religious movement after Vatican II. The Catholic Church has been historically under the management of a male clergy and hierarchy. Female clergy have not been given equal opportunities in obtaining leadership positions. Vatican II produced an emerging women’s movement that captured attention worldwide. It challenged the patriarchal tradition of the church and started making serious headway toward its goal: restoring the equality in theory and practice that belongs to each Catholic.
Vatican II embraced the sociological theory of civil rights and included the following written statement in its Pastoral Constitution: “The Church in the Modern World” stated, “With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (No. 29). Throughout the course of the book the reader is presented with detailed examples of how life has changed for female clergy before and after Vatican II and their various responses to these changes.
The impact that Vatican II produced shows that progression in the women’s movement for social justice and civil rights is also found in the Roman Catholic Church. Reactions in the church to the changes of Vatican II vary from disillusionment to happy acceptance. Many times the reactions depended on the Nun’s age, family upbringing, and her orders outlook. Many of the younger Nuns where more inclined to welcome the changes that Vatican II brought while the older Sisters where not as accepting of the new changes.
The growing emphasis on Gospel spirituality that Vatican II emphasized pointed religious women toward further developments in social order and allowed them a greater part in decision making towards particular issues that motivated them. An example of this is found in Sister Carita Pendergast oral history. Having always had an illusion to travel as a missionary worker to China. Sister Carita was able to fulfill her desire and committed eighteen years of her life to charitable work in very difficult circumstances.
In her interview she comments on her experiences: “They were very difficult years because China was in turmoil all the time. Warlords. War with Japan. The communist. That was the background” (Rogers, 36). In another story Sister Margaret Traxler Sister Margaret, a strong willed feminist, describes how she spent many years advocating the Equal Rights Amendment, which in essence states that men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. She believed that gender discrimination existed within the confines of the church.
She also describes the vast indifference toward female clergy and the ignoring of their potential within the whole body of the church. “We had bishops telling nuns what time they could get up, what time they had to get to bed. No man should run our lives! That’s the mistake of churchmen. They begin to think as the feudal men used to think of us, that we were their property” (Rogers, 145). Sister Margaret liberal beliefs went as far as signing an ad in The New York Times, “Catholics for a Free Choice”, relating that there is a diversity of opinion in the Catholic Church on the issue of abortion and calling for a dialogue.
Not surprisingly, she was almost dismissed for the abovementioned statement. Fortunately, with the help of her superiors she was allowed to stay in the Sisters of Notre Dame and continue her work on women’s issues. Another Sister by the name of Anne Montgomery tells her inspiring story of how she participated in civil disobedience and other movements against disarmament and nuclear warfare. These protest even landed her several times in jail. Besides advocating her strong ideals of peacekeeping, Sister Anne was also proactive in the Catholic Worker Movement and its issues of labor equality.
The Catholic Worker, a widely recognized monthly newspaper directed to the “worker”. The meaning of worker was used in the broadest sense, i. e. mental, physical and spiritual work, but they concentrated mainly of the poor, the homeless, and the exploited. A former Nun, Constance Merritt speaks about her life as a nun, her decision to leave the convent, and her life after the convent. She has both positive and negative memories of her experience as a nun. She has fond recollections of her work in the convent and speaks of a great rapport with her major superior.
She was given the opportunity to further her education at the Catholic University and it is during this time that she decided to leave the convent. She found religious life too limiting, “They could tell me too much of what I could and couldn’t do. I was losing my own initiative. And I also saw abuses in the vow of poverty, which concerned me. If your family had money and could send you on a trip to Europe or could afford to give you a car, you could do that” (Rogers, 246). Constance describes the emotional and financial difficulties of leaving the order.
Her past sheltered environment left her completely unprepared for her new life; e. g. she did not know how to write a check. It is during this time that she seeks comfort and advice from an old friend that was a priest. Their relationship turned into a sexual one and this brought more confusion into Constance’s life. She felt that he had taken advantage of her and this experience made her a bit more skeptical of her relation with priests in the future. Constance was finally able to get her life in order and she is now happily married and working as a guidance counselor.
The Nun’s that were interviewed have a positive and realistic outlook regarding their life decisions. Sister-advocates for the poor, attorneys, doctors, teachers, artists reflect upon their experience of the Catholic Church today and their hopes for the future. Their profound chronicles of love and charity serve as moving indication that new forms of mission and commitment are already emerging for the millennium. In their own words, the nuns reveal themselves as a diverse group. They reflect women in society and are intelligent, articulate, and open-minded.
They have taken an active role in the community and worked in fighting racism, poverty, anti-Semitism, sexism, even homophobia, both in society and in the church. Although, occasionally one of the Nun’s seems misinformed about important issues (the doctor who refused to deliver babies because she didn’t want to risk catching AIDS), but all of the women who share their stories have something to teach. The oral histories include women who have left the convent, and women who find their religious calling in secular work.
There is also an ethnic diversity among the Nun’s interviewed, i. Irish, German, Anglo, and Italian Americans, and African Americans. Although minorities were interviewed they were a small percentage of the overall interviewees. One thing I reflected on after reading this book was the way that popular images of nuns are formed around a sexist understanding of women: a sort of perpetual dear maiden-aunt stereotype. The women I met in these oral histories are complex people, whose lives are more than a moral lesson. This book also helps to break many perceptions that the outside world has of female clergy.