The radicalization and steep decline of nuns

Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities
By Ann Carey
Our Sunday Visitor, 1997, 368 pp.

2 Stars

In 1965, there were 180,000 nuns in the U.S. Fifty years later, in 2014, there were only 50,000 and most of them were elderly. What caused the steep decline?

In this book, the author attempts to explain the reasons why the bottom dropped out of Catholic women’s religious orders. The RCC was already contemplating modernizing tradition-bound religious orders prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The unofficial aggiornamento “fresh air” theme of the council emboldened nuns in leadership positions, who were simultaneously being drawn into the burgeoning feminist movement, to make drastic changes to their orders. They increasingly viewed the church as a patriarchal institution that devalued women. The church hierarchy watched in dismay as nuns jettisoned habits (uniforms) and convents and became increasingly involved in social gospel causes and New Age philosophies. Pope John Paul II repeatedly attempted to rein in the rebellious nuns, but the horse was already out of the barn.

Author Ann Carey, a conservative Catholic, laments in excruciatingly painstaking detail how American nuns became increasingly radicalized and distanced themselves from the control of the church hierarchy. Readers will need a program to keep track of all of the sundry councils and committees that were involved in the transformation. The traditions and structure that had once attracted fresh recruits to the orders were gone and membership plummeted.

Back in the 1960s in my northeast corner of Rochester, there were three Catholic parishes within a two-mile radius, each with its own grammar school and convent of teaching nuns. Is there anything more cultish than a convent full of virginal women claiming to be brides of Christ, replete with wedding rings? American Protestants had gradually become inured to the bizarre cultishness of convents.

My parish school, St. James, had a mixture of nun and lay teachers. My nun teachers were Sister Imelda (kindergarten), Sister Annunciata (1st grade), Sister Tarcisius (3rd Grade), and Sister Mary Ann (8th Grade). Other nuns at the school who I can remember were Sister Lourdes, Sister Gemma, Sister Goretti, Sister Virginia, and the principal, Sister Edwardine. Who were these mysterious women in their 14th century garb with their faces tightly squeezed by a multi-layered, cloth tourniquet? How did they live together in that convent building next to the school after classes were over?

In my nine years at St. James (1961-1970), under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy, I NEVER ONCE heard the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Instead, I was indoctrinated into Roman Catholicism with its false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit and its intricate rituals and cultish practices. Those poor nuns were deluded slaves of a pseudo-Christian counterfeit.

This book was both painfully boring and interesting, if that’s possible. I did appreciate learning the history of how the radicalized nun leadership steered their orders into steep decline.

Above: An enclosed passageway allowed the teaching nuns of the former-St. James Elementary School (left) to comfortably enter and exit their convent house (right) in all types of inclement weather.
The woman above exemplifies today’s radicalized nuns

15 thoughts on “The radicalization and steep decline of nuns

  1. I find your experiences very interesting Tom. As I went to Protestant and secular schools I never had much contact with nuns but here in the Rep. of Ireland I’ve met a few and tried to be a witness. They are still very conservative here but they are definitely on the decline. I remember reading “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” (1836) and wouldn’t doubt that some pretty horrific things went on back then – and maybe still do. Certainly nuns have got a really bad press from the way they treated unmarried mothers in Magdalene Laundries with forced and unregulated adoptions etc. But I think most of them are seriously misguided. It’s sad that many have sacrificed their entire lives and have never found the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. Yes, those trusting women “went through the (convent) wringer” hoping the strict rituals and many sacrifices would merit them salvation. Catholic clergymen dismissed Maria Monk and other such Protestant “convent escape narratives” of the 19th and early 20th centuries as fables, but they had little to say when “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” by distinguished historian Hubert Wolf was published in 2014. What it describes was as bad or worse than what Maria Monk claimed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow didn’t know there was that many nuns back in the past but I shouldn’t be suprrised.
    Fascinating to read about the radicalization. I can see how the book is boring and fascinating; kind of feel like that with sometimes reading works on textual Criticism with the nitty gritty about the manuscripts of the Bible. Good review. I pray many RC would come to Christ!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Nuns were such a big part of Catholic culture back in the 1960s. Those who remain are now largely in senior facilities/nursing homes. Multiple leadership committees steered the nuns towards a radical course (the details were dizzying), but the same names kept popping up over and over. Yeah, I can understand the interesting yet dull aspects of textual criticism.

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  3. I googled that book as I don’t think I’d heard of it… just horrific! There are convents and monasteries near where I live in the depths of secluded countryside and I often wonder what their daily lives consist of. There is one where the large gates were always closed and one day years ago, after leaving the children to school, I prayed that they’d be open as I had some Christian literature for them. That prayer was answered and was able to get in! (A long story). We just keep praying that the Lord will penetrate the darkness of these places with His light.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. Yes, we have a Discalced Carmelite monastery near us with the perpetually closed gates and no individuals allowed on the grounds in the front of the building.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting Tom.
    Not far from where I live we have the convent of “The Poor Clair nuns”, they still dress in the 14th garb during “normal” times before Covid one can see them in the street. Separated by a field on the opposite side of the convent we find the Franciscan friars. Never ever seen a friar I think they are a secret order 🤫
    Just thought I share 😃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Crissy. We have a Discalced Carmelite monastery in our town. The gates are just about always closed and no individuals are allowed on the grounds in front of the building. I imagine it is a very small community these days. So much sacrifice and self-mortification for naught.

      Liked by 1 person

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