Vocations before the Council—A Snapshot

Not all was utopian in the Church before Vatican II, even if since the Council she has grown increasingly dystopian. The danger we face today is to fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Not everything that came after the Council can be simplistically explained away as a direct result of the Council, be that thing good or bad. The Council occurred at a particular point of time in history and culture, and the implementation of its decrees was a distinct phenomenon, which acted almost as a corrective to the deficiencies of the conciliar texts in the eyes of their implementers, and certainly as an interpretation of those texts according to an agenda that was not easily reconciled to the express will of the majority of the Council Fathers.

Should we have had a Council in the 1960s, of all decades? Well, as we shall soon discover with Covid, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

In 1956, two issues of the New York monthly, The Catholic Mind, ran pieces on issues confronting apostolic sisters’ congregations at the time. In the April edition, Sr Mary Emil IHM, of the only-recently-defunct Marygrove College in Detroit (from which a cornucopia of books have since been digitized and added to the Internet Archive), addressed in her article, among other things, “The Vocation Crisis:” Continue reading “Vocations before the Council—A Snapshot”

An unhappy time remembered

Having somehow slipped under the radar at the time, the death last October of Anita Caspary has come to notice. It seems to have been little remarked on by much of the Catholic blogosphere. Yet she was a remarkable symbol of the chaos that beset religious life in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, especially in the United States. She led the largest single exodus from religious life in recent history.

1971 file photo of Anita Caspary, president of the Immaculate Heart Community.Her biography can be found easily enough online. What is of interest is one chapter in her life: the disintegration of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the late 1960s. The secular media paints the story in terms of a “showdown” with the authorities of the Catholic Church, in particular her local Ordinary, Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles. In such presentations the sisters are said to have been attempting to answer the call of Vatican II for religious congregations to “modernize”. The “conservative” Cardinal laid down some constraints on their reforms which the sisters were unwilling to accept. Having been barred from teaching in the Los Angeles diocese, and with Rome having “squelched” their modernization process, up to 400 sisters left the congregation after a chapter meeting in December 1969, forming a non-canonical organisation (ie not recognised by the Church), the Immaculate Heart Community. Another 130 or so left any form of religious life altogether; 50 or so remained and agreed to the Cardinal’s instructions. The story made headlines in the major secular media, not least Newsweek and Time.

It was an episode that was grist for the propaganda mill. It was quickly painted in terms of feminism, patriarchy, the “spirit of Vatican II”, justice, obedience (and disobedience), to list but some. Thus Sr Dorothy Vidulich, in the wake of Caspary’s death, spoke of the sisters as having rejected “a life pattern that had to conform to canons issued by male clerics of another culture”. Caspary herself held that the departing sisters had grasped the “freedom to be self-determining and to make moral choices on the basis of conscience without leaning on the authority of others.” She said this is “the same struggle for feminist values that continues for women in all walks of life today, especially for women in the church(sic).” Sr Joan Chittester speaks of the breakaway sisters’ “fidelity”, not to the Church, but to the “spiritual ideals of the IHM tradition”.

The loud voices of propaganda have a tendency to hinder a better appreciation of the reality. This is not just in the matter of facts. We know that the Council did not so much call for the religious congregations to “modernize” as to reassess their life in light of the original charism of their institutes. And far from “squelching” the IHM sisters’ reforms, the Vatican in fact declined to act in their dispute with the Cardinal. At a deeper level, though, it was certainly a traumatic time for these women, and for the Church in the United States. Sandra Schneiders, a former religious sister herself, paints things in more muted hues: “It’s not like the Immaculate Heart women were doing anything outlandish. … All these changes were taking place without incident in the majority of dioceses around the country. Cardinal McIntyre simply was saying, ‘Not in my diocese.’ ” The “dictates” that the Cardinal was apparently imposing on the sisters to repress their renewal are apparently not so extreme either. Sr Joan herself lists them: (1) “adopt a uniform habit,” (2) “attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass together every day,” (3) “keep in mind their commitment to education”, (4) “collaborate with the Local Ordinary in the works of the apostolate”. Nothing outlandish in themselves, but they conflicted with the desire of many religious women, not least many of the IHM sisters, to abandon the habit, to explore new ways of living in community, and to undertake new, often experimental, works.

What has not been mentioned by the propagandists nor by the obituarists is the role played by psychology and psychologists in the demise of IHM sisters. They signed up en masse in 1967 as guinea pigs, in effect, for the new phenomenon in psychology of “encounter groups” pioneered by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Essential to the meetings of these groups was the un-fettered airing of feelings, desires, opinions and judgments by members. The aim was to promote honesty about self and to break down individual and social inhibitions. The psychologists who ran these meetings did so by not running them (an approach known as non-directive), and allowing things to develop unhindered. Far from liberating the individual, more often than it subjected the individual to the pressure of the group’s judgment. In trying to break free from the perceived bonds of Church and traditional institutional religious life, individual sisters found themselves submitting themselves to the judgments and opinions of the encounter group. Moreover, feelings and emotive judgments were not challenged or discussed, but effectively affirmed and encouraged. There were no good or bad feelings. Your experience was valid however you might interpret it. Often the groups gave vent to repressed sexual urges, and the sexual feelings of one member for another. As the sisters expressed more and more freely their “true” selves, the majority decided they did not want to submit to any institutional authority except “the authority of their imperial inner selves”. More can be read about the destructive effect of this psychological intervention here. William Coulson, one of the pyschologists involved with the sisters’ encounter groups, has come to regret his involvement and now works to help the victims of the encounter sessions. You can read more from him here and here.

So, at the very least there is more than meets the eye to this tragic chapter in the history of the Church in America. There was more to it than the just a collective rebel yell of liberated feminist sisters. Psychology, in one of its more fertile and experimental periods, was accepted uncritically as a tool, when in fact its agenda in this particular case was totally at odds with a Catholic approach to personhood and spiritual growth. That all the members of a congregation could willingly submit themselves to be guinea pigs for a new and unproven school of psychology is quite breathtaking. It was not the only time that psychology, uncritically employed, has been a destructive factor in the Church over the last 50 years.

What remains? The breakaway sisters’ non-canonical, lay foundation still exists, the Immaculate Heart Community. Considering that it began with over 300 ex-sisters, and its open recruitment policy has permitted receiving men and non-Catholics, its current total of 160 members reveals a clear decline. Given the age profile of the community the decline appears to be terminal. But they had a solid foundation in material terms from the outset for, before she renounced her religious vows, Caspary transferred ownership of the congregation’s college, hospital, high school and retreat house to secular companies owned by the new breakaway community. The sisters who remained in the congregation and faithful to their vows were left without the congregation’s assets. So they made a new start, and relocated to Wichita, Kansas. Judging by their website, the sisters wear the habit, and have a spirituality and mission that is integrated into the life of the Church, centring mainly on education and retreat work. They are planning to expand their motherhouse. I cannot find any estimate of numbers for them but if their website is any guide, they seem to be doing quite well. Thankfully these sisters, who remained faithful to the Church through the most difficult times, seem now to be prospering in work that is clearly at the service of the Church.

Sweeping judgments on this sad affair are easily made, but we should remember that it is was a very difficult period in the history of religious life: destructive forces came from within the religious life as much as from without, and were too often unrecognised as such. Yet Anita Caspary herself gives a clue to the profound error underlying the actions of so many religious women (and men) in the 1960s and after. In her memoirs she wrote, “In many ways, we foreshadowed the contemporary (and vibrant) feminist movement within the Catholic Church.” It seems in retrospect that the dominant imperative in the reformation, and disintegration, of so many congregations was not one of authentic renewal within the heart of the Church, but rather of secular ideology. Radical feminism and women’s liberation spoke a language that was at odds with a Catholic Christian understanding of the individual and of society. Its agenda was in no way Christian, but essentially secular, employing a variation of Marxist class-warfare: gender conflict. By the mid 1970s, we find religious sisters openly espousing Wicca, among other pagan ideologies, with its talk of priestesses and goddesses within. One need only read Ungodly Rage by Donna Steichen to find abundant documentation.

Sadly many ordinary, well-intentioned religious women were caught up in a maelstrom of self-destruction unleashed by a minority of articulate, radicalised and misguided sisters. The pieces are still being gathered up today. For all that, we can only pray for Anita Caspary, that she might find mercy with God, and rest in peace.

The Pope speaks to consecrated religious

On Friday Pope Benedict addressed the assembly in Rome of the superiors of religious orders and congregations. The full address at the moment is only available on the Vatican website in Italian – the English version normally takes a few days to be released.

The Holy Father reminded the assembled superiors that all renewal in religious life must be based on the Word of God, which is central to the religious life. The living out of the Gospel “every day is what makes the consecrated life intriguing and beautiful”. To provide a true and reliable option for Christians in modern society, consecrated men and women must meet the primary expectation that both world and Church have of them: “to be a living Gospel”.

One aspect of this living out of the Gospel the Pope highlights is fraternity. It is the communal life and its spirit of fraternity that attract young people, and it is the living of community life in a fraternal spirit that is “an important prophetic element you offer to a highly fragmented society”. In a world increasingly individualistic and even selfish, the consecrated religious is called to live a life in community that embodies the Gospel values of mutual service and self-sacrifice. In so doing the religious community, be it apostolic and active, or contemplative and monastic, becomes an icon of the universal Church living in obedience to Christ’s great commandments to love God and our neighbour. By implication, a community that lacks this fraternal and communal spirit, this fidelity to the Gospel in daily life, is one that will not meet the needs of either the contemporary Church or the world.

To avoid this, the Pope reminded the superiors of the need “for serious and constant discernment in order to listen to what the Spirit is telling the community, in order to recognise what comes from the Lord and what is contrary to Him”. It is very easy for a community or a congregation to be so fixated on its own agenda and its own self-chosen set of priorities that it fails to meet the most pressing needs of the Church and world, which are primarily spiritual and moral needs. When a community thus serves itself rather than the Lord who speaks and acts through the Church in the contemporary world then it will not attract others to its life. Therefore, “without discernment, accompanied by prayer and reflection, consecrated life risks basing itself on the criteria of this world: individualism, consumerism, materialism; criteria that undermine fraternity and cause consecrated life to lose its allure”.

Which brought the Holy Father to the concept of mission. Mission is essential to the consecrated life and always involves a mandate “to bring the Gospel to everyone, without borders”. Such an openness to encountering the world will only be fruitful if it is “supported by a strong experience of God, solid formation and fraternal life in the community”. Without these elements, the products of prayer, study and fraternity, the religious community risks being shaped by the world rather than itself shaping the world. A religious community that ruins to a worldly agenda is a failed community. Perhaps here lies part of the reason for the decline in religious life in Europe and the West.

For all its decline, religious life is a constant in the life of the Church: “the difficulties must not make us forget that consecrated life has its origins in the Lord; chosen by Him for the edification and sanctity of His Church. Thus consecrated life ‘will never be lacking’ in the Church”. While particular communities and congregations may pass away, either because they no longer serve a pressing need in the Church in the world or because they have strayed from the essentials of their vocation, the consecrated life will remain a God-given factor in the life of the Church. The consecrated life, be it active or contemplative, always links the spiritual welfare of its members to the service of the Church. Where that service is lacking or mis-directed, the consecrated life becomes sterile and doomed to die.

The Pope has effectively given the religious superiors a particular and pressing task: to discern afresh the role of religious communities in serving the Church. What are the needs that religious are called to meet? Pope Benedict has given us many clues over the last few years:

  • to restore worship as the central activity of the Church, worship offered not only for the Church but also on behalf of all the world;
  • to counteract the increasing materialism, rationalism, atheism and individualism of the modern world by preaching, in word and in action, the reality of God and the primacy in healthy human existence of God’s universal call to self-sacrificial love;
  • to bear witness to the centrality of the Church, not only in the life of Christians but also in that of the world; and
  • to promote the dignity of all human life, from conception to the grave, and beyond.

For those who are considering religious or monastic life, you will probably need to ask yourselves two questions: (1) does this describe the sort of life to which you are attracted and to which you may therefore be called; and, (2) in which community or monastery, given your personal gifts and strengths, will you best fulfill God’s call to you?