Aren’t Nuns Wonderful?

August 10, 2015 at 10:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Some of the people I love and admire most in the whole world are Catholic sisters. But almost none of them fit into the Singing Nun, Whoopi Goldberg, or even Maria von Trapp caricature that too many people think they do. I can forgive the purveyors of popular culture for exploiting the image of these hard-working, in large part justice-oriented women this way, but I have no time for ostensible scholars who do so. The following is my review of a book by one such writer, published by a highly regarded academic press, whose “aren’t nuns wonderful” caricature is really problematic. My review appears in the current issue of the journal Church History.

Dedicated To God: An Oral History Of Cloistered Nuns. By Abbie Reese. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Xvii+ 247pp. $34.95 cloth. Church History, 84, pp 485-487.

Dedicated to God is a portrait of the Corpus Christi Colettine Poor Clare Monastery in Rockford, Illinois, by photographer and independent scholar, Abbie Reese. Based on interviews Reese did with the monastery’s twenty nuns over a six-year period, Dedicated to God is an appealing exploration of cloistered religious life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In addition to a first-person preface and epilogue, Reese’s volume comprises nine chapters on themes of cloistered religious life. These alternate with eight edited oral histories drawn from Reese’s interviews with individual nuns. The thematic chapters, written in the third person, also draw extensively on Reese’s interviews.

The nuns in Reese’s oral history come from varied backgrounds; some were older when they entered, some younger; their educational levels vary; some transferred from other orders; one is a convert and one a Filipino. They have occasional disagreements, of course, but most of these occur because, as one sister says, “a woman by nature likes to arrange things and have her kitchen the way she wants…” (34). At one point, Reese mentions that she once repeated to the Abbess something a nun said in an interview, and the Abbess disagreed. But nuns would not otherwise have occasion to know they hold divergent views, Reese assures us, because they “would not find occasion or opportunity to discuss philosophical differences of a cloistered calling” (230).

In almost all other respects, however, the nuns are in astonishing agreement about almost everything: the austerity of their way of life, the purity of having given their lives wholly to God; the unity of all the sisters, based in their vow of obedience; the enormous joy they feel.

In her 2008 study of the early history of the Poor Clares, The Privilege of Poverty: Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, and the Struggle for a Franciscan Rule for Women, Joan Mueller, herself a member of an active Poor Clare congregation, observes that in many histories of the Franciscans, Franciscan women’s experiences “have been basically ignored.”(University Park PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006: 2). And in an otherwise enthusiastic review of Carole Garibaldi Rogers’s Habits of Change, a previous volume on Catholic sisters in the Oxford Oral History Series, historian Margaret Susan Thompson notes “a scarcity of women who represent more traditional approaches to religious life.”(Journal of Women’s History, 26:4, 182–190 [Dec. 2014]: 184.) An oral history of cloistered Poor Clare sisters helps to fill these lacunae. And the volume’s thirty-six black and white photographs are of high quality.

Unfortunately, a number of problems outweigh these contributions. One of these is a certain lack of accuracy. Reese acknowledges that she is not a Catholic, but an editor should have caught her missteps, for example, referring to Rome as the “birthplace of the Catholic Church”(67); claiming that the vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” are “universally” taken by “all” in religious life (the Benedictines do not do so, as Margaret Susan Thompson observed in an email to me) [2]; referring to novices as “novitiates” (163); and other errors.

More troubling is Reese’s use of oral history. Oral historians have documented a shift in the understanding of the role of an interviewer from one of observation to that of participating in a “shared experience.” Reese, in her preface, claims the latter approach, one of “co-authorship” and “shared authority,” invoking the work of Alessandro Portelli (xiv, xiii).

This methodology has its critics, however. Some argue that there is no “shared authority” if a historian’s scholarly knowledge isn’t included in their product—as it too often is not in Dedicated to God. And Reese herself admits Portelli calls attention to the fact that “memory, including collective memory, is faulty” (xiii). But nowhere in Dedicated to God is there the least hint that the memories of the Rockford nuns may be faulty. Instead, their stories reveal “transcendent truths”(xiv).

One instance of potentially faulty memory in Dedicated to God is that no nun ever refers to the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), or to “Perfectae Caritatis,” the Council document that, over the signature of Pope Paul VI, called for the renewal of religious life and a return to the charism of congregational founders. It is virtually inconceivable that any Catholic religious order would not have held a general chapter to discuss their way of life after Vatican II. But in their interviews none of the Rockford Poor Clares seem ever to have mentioned such a meeting. Perhaps they are all happy to forget any attempt to renew “the cultural time capsule that is the monastery,” as Reese puts it (92).

But there were 45,000 fewer U.S. sisters in 1975 than in 1965 when the Council ended. Some of those no longer present in 1975 had died, of course, but the majority “left the convent.” Too bad Reese’s “shared authority” methodology didn’t include interviews with the former Rockford Poor Clares almost certainly included in that number.

And returning to the charism of their founder, St. Clare of Assisi, would have presented the Rockford Poor Clares with other problems. For example, what would it mean for their adulation of total obedience and agreement concerning their way of life that Clare struggled fiercely with popes and cardinals to maintain her sisters’ right to the absolute poverty mandated by Francis of Assisi?

From Maria Monk to Maria von Trapp, from Whoopi Goldberg to Mother Teresa, Americans are spellbound by nuns. Reese’s idealized portrait of the Rockford Colettine Poor Clares is likely to be quite popular. In March, the otherwise competent critic, Casey N. Cepp, published a glowing review of it in the New Yorker (March 5, 2014). Indeed, given its fine photographs, Dedicated to God would make an attractive coffee table book. But why would a distinguished academic press publish it?

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