Randy Engel
Sisters in rebellion - non serviam (Part II)
The roots of rebellion in women religious institutes
By Randy Engel
April 23, 2012

    Regulars, as well men, as women, shall order and regulate their lives in accordance with the requirements of the rule which they have professed; and above all that they shall faithfully observe whatsoever belongs to the perfection of their profession, such as the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity... and which regard the observance of a common mode of living, food, and dress. And all care and diligence shall be used by the Superiors that these things be not departed from; it being certain, that those things which belong to the substance of a regular life cannot be by them relaxed. For if those things which are the basis and the foundation of all regular discipline be not strictly preserved, the whole edifice must needs fall (emphasis added). [1]

    The Council of Trent
    25th Session, 1563
    "On Regulars and Nuns"

By the time Conditae a Christo, the Apostolic Constitution of Leo XIII appeared on December 8, 1900, more than three hundred years had passed since the Council of Trent began anew the task of the authentic reform and renewal of religious life in the Church. The Constitution represented an important step in the formal restructuring of the life of religious especially with regard to active religious congregations of sisters who took simple vows in the name of their institute (not in the name of the Church) and were placed under the governance of their local bishop. Eighteen months later, on 18 June, 1901, the Holy See set forth a set of regulations (Normae) which outlined the manner in which these new institutes of diocesan right would be constructed and governed, and older, established orders of cloistered nuns of pontifical right, reorganized and renewed. [2]

Under the pontificates of Leo XIII and his immediate successors, Saint Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI, the consecrated life of women religious was marked by stability in essentials (a common life and governance, authority of a Superior, vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, the wearing of distinguishable habits, and the pursuit of the evangelical counsels tending toward individual perfection and charity), and diversity in charisms.

In the Constitution Sapienti Consilio, promulgated on June 29, 1908, St. Pius X, as part of his reorganization of the Curia, placed the religious of the whole world under the jurisdiction of the new Congregation of Religious. And in 1917, the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law was published. It contained 200 canons on every aspect of religious life and governed the Church for the next sixty-five years. [3]

In the first half of the 20th century, religious life in the Catholic Church was by no means problem-free, but it was flourishing nevertheless.

In the United States which was still considered mission territory until 1908, non-cloistered congregations which promoted the active over the contemplative life dominated the American scene, a characteristic of American women religious life that was to have far reaching repercussions in the years ahead. Not withstanding this fact, to their great credit, up until the late 1950s, the typical American sister managed to juggle a full schedule of Mass and regulated prayer, and common life and duties in her convent, with her special apostolate in education or caring for the sick and infirmed and other corporal works of mercy in the world. She was the pious, dedicated, selfless sister we loved and remembered, and, sadly, came to take for granted.

Pope Pius XII Institutes Major Paradigm Shift in Religious Life

The revolution in women's religious orders began with Pope Pius XII. This is a hard truth, but a truth nevertheless. [4]

Eight years into his pontificate, Pius XII turned his attention to the "reform" of religious orders. Traditionally, the term "reform" in the Catholic Church has been associated with stricter codes of conduct and opposition to laxity of rule as with the classic example of Saint Teresa of Avila, the great 16th century reformer of the Carmelites, and co-founder with Saint John of the Cross of the Discalced Carmelites. But, this was not the case with the programs Pius XII instituted. The results were predictable. The pope's numerous constitutions and allocutions mandating the modernization and updating of traditional contemplative orders and active congregations, became the harbingers of the wholesale destruction of religious life, which would be carried out by Pope Paul VI only a decade and a half later. [5]

Pope Pius XII's first Apostolic Constitution, Provida Mater Ecclesia, was released on February 2, 1947. It awarded juridical status to Secular Institutes (SI) so that, "states of perfection" might be extended "to the greatest possible number of souls who eagerly aspire today to a more perfect life." [6] SI members take only private vows, live in the world, have no common life, wear ordinary clothing, and have no Superior to which they owe strict obedience. Yet, they are defined as "consecrated" persons. Sixty years after the fact, the exact nature of the "consecration," has yet to be canonically determined. Provida Mater had the immediate effect of undermining the corporate identity of traditional religious. [7]

Pope Pius XII's second Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi, issued on November 21, 1950, was directed at Orders of nuns who "canonically profess the contemplative life as their first and primary end." [8] On the issue of 'modernization' and 'renovation' the Holy See instructed the traditional nuns as follows:
    On the other hand there are some elements in the institution of Nuns which are neither necessary nor complementary, but merely external and historical, since they certainly owe their existence to the circumstances of former times which are now very much changed. These, if they are found to be no longer of any use or liable to hinder greater good, seem to have no special reason for being preserved. ... [9]
Sponsa Christi introduced a dual system of religious designation whereby traditional Orders were to be called "major," and Orders where the majority of nuns wished to convert to the new system that included a modified closure, the taking of simple vows, and the acceptance of outside apostolates would be called "minor." [10] In both cases work was mandated. Ora et labora. [11]

The document also encouraged the formation of a federation of women religious bureaucracies similar to the National Episcopal Conferences which Pius XII, as Cardinal Pacelli, had promoted while serving as Secretary of State under Pius XI.

In 1956, the Holy See created the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMRS), the forerunner of the radical Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), to give women religious greater voice in the Church and in their governance. The following year, it established the Pontifical Institute Regina Mundi in Rome to advance the spiritual and theological formation of nuns and consecrated lay women. [12]

In the United States, the push for college education of religious was promoted by the newly-formed Sister Formation Conference. [13] Like the CMRS, by the mid-1970s, the SFC would become just another cog in wheel of the radicalized feminist engine steamrolling over the Faith and the faithful.

Curia and Superiors Resist Attempts at Aggiornamento [14]

Beginning on December 8, 1950, and continuing through December 12, 1957, Superiors General of women's institutes who had generalates in Rome were repeatedly ordered by Pius XII to "update" and "adapt" to the world by not only modifying their rules, constitutions, and customs, but also by modifying their traditional habits, and doing away with "outmoded" acts of devotion or penance.

The resistance to Pius XII's aggressive program of aggiornamento came from two sources — the Italian-dominated Curia which traditionally acted as the watchdog of the Faith, and the Superiors General themselves. Tensions ran high.

For his part, the pope resented what he perceived as the "inflexible spirit" of some Superiors and charged them with opposing "any timely development" and "the common good." [15] The Congregation of Religious sided with the pope. It argued for the retention of essentials, and the modification or disposal of non-essentials in religious life.

The problem is, authentic religious life, especially the contemplative life, is made of whole cloth. In theory, one may be able to make clear distinctions between what is essential and what is non-essential, but in practice, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to do.

The following prophetic dialogue is taken from Heartbreak Earth, one of a series of marvelous books on the contemplative life of an English Carmelite Order published in the early 1950s. [16] Sister Imelda, the oldest inhabitant at the convent, is asked how Sponsa Christi might affect their convent. She replies:
    What even Catholics don't always realize is that the vocation and the setting are inseparable in practice, although not in argument. It comes to this: could we keep the spirit of this vocation in a completely modern atmosphere? For myself, I don't see how. One cannot express spirit of the great St. Teresa in slacks and Woolworth crockery, because that is not how she expressed it....

    The contention is that it is no longer genuine poverty to have voluminous habits and old-fashioned brown ware when modern fashions in both would be so much cheaper. We are told that we are paying large sums in order to surround ourselves with an artificial atmosphere which simply annoys postulants who come in having seen real poverty in the world. I don't think that not to annoy postulants was St. Teresa's first consideration in founding her Reform. ...

    One might equally say that it is not economical to spend four or five hours a day in going to Mass and reciting the Divine Office. It isn't. But that has nothing to do with it. We recite the Divine Office for other motives than economy, and it is not brown pottery and yards of thick material which we are paying for, but tradition; and that is always beyond price, as those who have not got it have so frequently found. ...

    No, if we are going to modernize the old Orders, do not let us trouble to modernize them at all, but declare boldly that they are outworn, and in their place found modern congregations, or else rely upon our Secular Institutes. [17]
The Meltdown Accelerates Under Pope Paul VI

By the time Pope Paul VI ascended to the papacy on June 21, 1963, major problems had already developed in many religious institutes, especially in large congregations of active sisters in the United States.

The popular practice of sending novices and sisters for basic and advanced degrees to coed Catholic (and later secular) universities, many of which were already infected with Modernism and alien philosophies of Marxism and Existentialism, doomed many a promising vocation. This crisis was compounded when radicalized sisters brought their feminist/lesbian ideology and spirit of dissent back to their convents. Other sisters entered into the "Third Way" of living out their vow of chastity by fraternizing and even dating members of the opposite sex, including priests, and never returned to religious life. The spiritual formation of sisters according to the charism of their order, a duty canonically assigned to superiors, was usurped by groups like the Sister Formation Conference.

Add to this volatile mix, a vacillating, effete, progressive-minded pope in the person of Paul VI.," and an Ecumenical Council that proclaimed a "new phase of self-realization of the Church," and introduced numerous theological innovations and novelties that stand in opposition to traditional Catholic doctrine, and you had a guaranteed prescription for disaster for already troubled religious orders. [18]

On October 28, 1965, Paul VI proclaimed Perfectae Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council's decree On the Adaption and Renewal of Religious Life. [19] The document ordered that "constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited and, obsolete laws being suppressed, be adapted to the decrees of this sacred synod." [20] Modernization of habits was mandated. [21]

On December 8, 1965, on the eve of the closing of the Council, the Congregation for [of] Religious (CFR) announced the creation of the International Union of Superiors General, an idea which originated with Pius XII, to provide an international forum for women religious as they embarked on the program of renewal mandated by the Council.

Eight months later, the pope issued a motu proprio, Ecclesiae Sanctae, [22] which included the norms or guidelines for the renewal of religious life based on Perfectae Caritatis. The sleeper clause in the motu proprio which opened the door to wholesale chaos is found in Part I, I.6.:
    This general chapter has the right to alter certain norms of the constitutions ... as an experiment, as long as the purpose, nature and character of the institute are preserved. Experiments contrary to the common law, provided they are to be undertaken prudently, will be willingly permitted by the Holy See as the occasions call for them.
Ecclesiae Sanctae provided no specific deadline for ending the "experiment" and no real safeguards against abuses of authority by the 'progressive' leadership within the religious institutes.

The jinni was out of the bottle! And no pope, from Paul VI on, has yet been able to get her back in the bottle and corked shut, although it has not been for want of trying.

Vatican Proves No Match for Rebellious Sisters

The ink on Ecclesiae Sanctae had not yet dried when Paul VI received alarming news from Ildebrando Cardinal Antoniutti, Prefect for the CFR, and Egidio Cardinal Vagnozzi, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was spinning out of control and some teaching Congregations were already in advanced states of disintegration.

In 1968, the CFR sent an Apostolic Visitation team to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to mediate the war between James Cardinal McIntyre and Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. [23] In 1969, another Apostolic Visitation team was sent to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to quell the rebellion of the School Sisters of St. Francis against the supine Archbishop William E. Cousins. [24] In both cases the rebels emerged victorious.

On June 29, 1971, Paul VI set his seal on the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelica Testificatio On the Renewal of the Religious Life According to the Teaching of the Second Vatican Council. [25] But no amount of sweet talk from the Vatican was going to lure the rebels away from their new-found freedom and the spoils of war they had come to enjoy under the Montini papacy.

Pope John Paul II did not fare much better. Unwilling to confront the LCWR and its feminist cohorts with a healthy dose of punishment politics, he decided on an alternative strategy — the formation of a Commission to study and make recommendations on the reasons for the decline in women religious life in America.

On Easter Sunday, April 3, 1983, John Paul II announced the creation of what came to be known as the Quinn Commission, named after its Chairman, Archbishop John Quinn of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. One month later, the CFR issued Essential Elements in the Church's Teaching on Religious Life as Applied to Institutes Dedicated to Works of the Apostolate, which, together with the post-Concilar decrees on religious life, and the new Code of Canon promulgated on January 25, 1983, were intended to serve as guidelines for the three-member Commission. [26] Essential Elements also officially brought to an end the period of "experimentation" in religious orders mandated by Paul VI seventeen years earlier.

On March 25, 1984, the pope issued an Apostolic Exhortation, Redemptionis donum, a tribute to men and women religious "In Light of the Mystery of the Redemption." [27] The LCWR crowd was not impressed.

The Final Report of the Quinn Commission presented to the Holy See on October 1986 turned out to be a dud — a whitewash — and an expensive one at that. As for Essential Elements, it was quickly dismissed by the leaders of the LCWR as being alien to the lived experience of the American sister.

In early 1992, John Paul II decided to try another tactic based on a plan that had been simmering over at the CFR for some time. Still unwilling to cut off the diseased LCWR from the Church, the pope agreed to the creation of an 'alternative' organization to the LCWR, one with equal canonical standing designed to attract more 'traditional-minded' sisters. On June 13, 1992, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious came into being. Unfortunately, the existence of the CMSWR proved to be no panacea for the complex and difficult problems facing religious orders.

In October 1994, the World Synod of Bishops took up the topic of "The Consecrated Life and Its Role in the Church and in the World." The LCWR instructed the bishops in the new role of the modern woman religious as an agent of change dedicated to the principals of feminism, pluralism and diversity, globalism, ecumenicalism, environmentalism, and the democratic transformation of traditional institutions and structures. The LCWR leadership was still raging at the pope's Apostolic Letter of May 22, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, forbidding the ordination of women to the priesthood, but their anger at John Paul II was tempered by the fact that the Synod would pose no threat to their plans to move forward towards a new form of religious life independent of Rome. And they were right.

Today, it's Pope Benedict XVI's turn at bat, and he has chosen to go the Apostolic Visitation route in order to bring some order to the chaos that characterizes much, but not all, of religious life in the United States. Next month, in the closing segment of this series, I will document the operation of the lesbian and pro-homosexual network within women religious orders, and then return to the matter of the Apostolic Visitation and examine its chances for success.


[1]  For the complete text of the Council of Trent on "Regulars and Nuns" see http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct25.html.

[2]  A women's religious Order is an institute of cloistered regulars or nuns (moniales) who have taken solemn vows. A Congregation is a religious institute whose members are usually referred to as sisters. They take simple vows and are associated with an active apostolate such as education or the healing arts.

[3]  In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the term religious, refers to those whose vows pronounced in any religious [institute]; religious of simple vows, when they are in a religious Congregation; regulars, when they are in Orders; sisters, when they are religious women of simple vows; nuns, when they are religious women of solemn vows... . Today, however, the terms nuns and sisters are used interchangeably, and the definition of religious has been blurred sufficiently to include virtually every form of consecrated life including secular institutes and societies of apostolic life.

[4]  For an introductory examination of the 'progressivism' of Pius XII which laid the foundation for the post-Conciliar Church at many different levels see Randy Engel, "Twentieth Century Harbingers," The Rite of Sodomy — Homosexuality and the Roman Catholic Church, NEP, Export, PA, 2006, pp.1094–1099. Available at www.newengelpublishing.com.

[5]  A similar scenario was carried out with regard to Pius XII's "reform" of seminary life. Prior to the publication of Menti Nostare On the Development of Holiness in Priestly Life on Sept. 23, 1950, members of the Curia including the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities warned the pope that the mandated wholesale changes in seminary life would adversely affect seminary life and the priesthood. Their warnings were ignored.

[6]  See "The States of Perfection," an address given by Pope Pius XII to the Second General Congress of the States of Perfection on December 12, 1957.

[7]  This unfortunate morphing of the definition of "religious" can be seen in the change of names given to the Congregation of Religious by subsequent popes. In 1967, Paul VI renamed it the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, and in 1988 John Paul gave it an even more nebulous title, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

[8]  Sponsa Christi, Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII, Nov. 21, 1950, published by the Daughters of St. Paul, Derby, NY, 1952, p. 19.

[9]  Ibid., 17-18.

[10]  Ibid., 22-23.

[11]  By the turn of the century, the traditional system of dowries and begging of alms, had already been replaced by new sources of revenue for cloistered nuns. These included the baking of altar breads, making of priestly vestments and altar cloths, and the copying of sacred manuscripts. This work was in addition to their primary task of offering up prayers and penances to Almighty God for the salvation of souls and the welfare of Holy Mother Church.

[12]  Reginda Mundi closed its doors on May 24, 2005.

[13]  See "The Re-Education of Sister Lucy," Sisters in Crisis, Ann Carey, OSV, Huntington, IN, 1997, pp. 133-148. The National Catholic Educational Association had already established a program for teacher education for sisters in 1948.

[14]  Sponsa Christi was followed by the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas on March 25, 2954; Sedes Sapientiae on May 31, 1956; and the decree from the Congregation of Religious on December 12, 1957, which set forth the rules that must guide the new effort at adaptation and revision by religious.

[15]  See Allocation of Pius XII to Superiors General on February 11, 1958.

[16]  Heartbreak Earth, a Carmelite Nun, Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1953.

[17]  Ibid., pp. 197-199.

[18]  Fr. Johannes Dörmann, Pope John Paul II's Theological Journey to the Prayer Meeting of Religions in Assisi, Angelus Press, 1998, Part II, Vol. 3, p. 197.

[20]  Ibid., 3.

[21]  Ibid., 17.

[23]  Carey, "Communities vs. the Hierarchy: The IHMs and the School Sisters of St. Francis," pp.184–192.

[24]  Ibid., pp. 192-210.

Note: This series appeared in Catholic Family News — April-June, 2010.

© Randy Engel


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Randy Engel

Randy Engel, one of the nation's top investigative reporters, began her journalistic career shortly after her graduation from the University of New York at Cortland, in 1961. A specialist in Vietnamese history and folklore, in 1963, she became the editor of The Vietnam Journal, the official publication of the Vietnam Refugee and Information Services, a national relief program in South Vietnam for war refugees and orphans based in Dayton, Ohio... (more)


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