For the last 10 years, Christine Gervais, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa in Canada, has been studying women religious — namely, their contributions to feminist spirituality, social justice and international development in Canada and Latin America. Her book, Beyond the Altar: Women Religious, Patriarchal Power, and the Church, comes out next spring.
GSR: What about women religious interests you?
Gervais: For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in women religious. One could say that it's literally been a lifelong interest that began the day I was born: Due to my fragile state at birth, it was determined that I should be baptized immediately. In the absence of a priest, I was baptized by a sister.
While I was always proud that I was baptized by a woman religious, she was always constructed — and often negatively so by others — as the "alternative" to the male priest. Her secondary status both puzzled and bothered me. Later on, after observing other instances of sexism within the Roman Catholic Church, I came to more fully realize how women's subordination was systematically entrenched within the institutional church.
Yet while I was concerned for women religious' place within the church, I was simultaneously impressed by their contributions. I became intrigued by their open-minded opinions and their inclusive approaches that I presumed many people neither were aware of nor would believe, due to the popularized stereotypical assumptions of "Catholic nuns." So I set out to discover and document what Canadian women religious have both endured and accomplished.
How and where do women religious fit into the field of criminology?
I am often asked this question. Well, I think that there are countless connections. One of the most obvious links for many people would be women religious' involvement in the criminal justice system as chaplains among those who have been criminalized and imprisoned. They have also been invaluable supporters of those who have been victimized by harmful behavior.
What I think is particularly interesting in those settings is that they are involved in so much more than traditional evangelization. Many women religious facilitate a variety of leading-edge healing practices, which again are a testament to their innovative and inclusive spiritual endeavors.
I have also analyzed constructions of "deviance" and discipline among women religious in two ways, and I must say that I have done so through a critical lens. First, in a journal article, a colleague and I examined how deviant behavior was perceived, disciplined and resisted in past convent settings, but the purpose of drawing attention to those historical examples was to emphasize how hierarchical convent structures have evolved into inclusive forms of shared leadership and decision-making in many women's religious communities.
The second way has to do with how women religious continue to be "deviantized" and disciplined by the church's clerical hierarchy, as we have witnessed relatively recently through the targeting of outspoken sister-scholars, authors, speakers and activists, as well as through the dual investigation and apostolic visitation against sisters' religious communities and leadership organizations in the United States.
My interest in women religious also intersected with my criminological lens when, in 2010, the Vatican released a decree that led to the canonical criminalization of women's ordination. Afterward, I gathered Canadian Catholic sisters' opinions on that controversial issue.
Now, after having mentioned these examples related to criminology, I should clarify that my doctoral studies were in sociology, and I have been involved in various sectors, including education, human rights and international development. So I approach all of my projects from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Criminology itself, and especially its critical variant, is an interdisciplinary domain in which human rights violations and harms of the powerful are now prioritized, particularly in my department at the University of Ottawa. Thus, the gender-based discrimination and victimization experienced by women religious within a context of institutionalized patriarchal oppression are relevant topics in critical and feminist criminology.
What's the most interesting or fascinating thing you've learned about women religious in the last 10 years?
While in the past, many women religious played an undeniable role in training girls and women to be subservient, today — at least among the sisters I have interviewed — they now proudly prioritize the empowerment of girls and women. I've seen firsthand, in both Canada and in many Latin American countries, the life-changing benefits of the educational and human rights projects for girls and women that are led by dynamic women religious who often risk their own lives in order to carry out these projects. These feminist-based shifts in their priorities and practices cannot be overlooked, and they should definitely not be underestimated.
In your opinion, what can other women learn from women religious?
I think that women religious' resilience and resourcefulness are exemplary and can inspire women in their efforts to overcome patriarchal obstacles in all spheres of life. While many women religious have denounced and sidestepped sexism within the Roman Catholic Church, they have also drawn attention to and addressed gender inequality on both micro and macro levels across many sectors in societies throughout the world.
So, I think, given the major obstacles that sisters have always had to negotiate within one of the most patriarchal institutions in the world, we should definitely look to them for guidance on how to be strategic in wider efforts to overcome gender-based discrimination everywhere. I also think that their more recent models of inclusive governance and shared leadership are practices that we all — both men and women — should learn from, because they teach us how to take time to dialogue and discern ideas and options, and, by extension, how to engage in collegial and considerate collaboration.
Tell me about your upcoming book.
I wrote [Beyond the Altar] because I felt compelled to convey both the plight and potential of women whose voices have been silenced and whose contributions are either unknown or sometimes misunderstood. So it reveals Ontario-based Canadian women religious' accounts of both obstacles and opportunities, as well as of pain and perseverance.
Given that Roman Catholic Church altars are predominantly male-dominated and are thus visible spaces of gender-based exclusion, I especially wanted to draw attention to all the locations where women religious have created inclusive and empowering sources of spirituality and support.
I have come to realize that a considerable amount of spiritual initiatives take place in less-visible and less-known places. In fact, I would go so far as to say — as I do in the book — that many more meaningful spiritual experiences take place off "the altar" than on or even near it, and women religious are at the forefront of many of those opportunities. As the title suggests, I conceive of such spaces as "beyond the altar."