Balanced, well-researched exploration of the vanishing world of nuns in America.
Religion journalist Briggs (Holy Siege, 1992) sets out to understand why the population of American nuns has dropped from 185,000 in 1965 to fewer than 70,000—most of them more than 50 years old—in 2005. The reasons are complex, but he pinpoints three major factors. First, a historical ambivalence about, or even hostility toward, nuns within the Catholic hierarchy. Second, the upheaval caused by Vatican II reforms, coupled with the rise of cultural feminism. Third, the constant stonewalling and badgering with which the hierarchy greeted American sisters’ attempts to reform on their own. Rather than producing a diatribe against the patriarchy, however, Briggs takes the view that even the most conservative bishops and cardinals involved in these battles were simply doing what they thought was best for the church. The decades in question were confusing for all and fraught with sea changes, he reminds us. His narrative moves from the 1950s, when nuns wore full habits, rarely ventured into public and adhered to stringent rules, through the ’80s, when they were often barely recognizable in a crowd and mainly worked outside the convent, often in social-justice organizations. In between was a period of drastic change that saw thousands of sisters abandon the religious lifestyle, as its very definition was rewritten. Though the author concludes with a somewhat pessimistic forecast for the future of American nuns, he makes evident the indomitable spirit of those who do remain. Briggs has researched the topic thoroughly, and his text is filled with the voices of sisters and former sisters (though some comparison with how nuns from the rest of the world weathered the same period would have been helpful).
Touching and intriguing.