The DNA of pre-Vatican II religious life

I studied for my doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota before and during Vatican II. When I had a Monday night seminar at my professor's home, I had to bring a companion with me. (She was a new young first grade teacher who usually fell asleep, teacher's manual in hand, until I woke her for the break and the beer and popcorn.) When Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna, one of the leading lights of Vatican II, gave an evening lecture at my university, I was not allowed to attend. Why not? "We don't have the bishop's permission," said my superior. Could we ask for his permission? NO!

As you can imagine, I was more than ready when the Council asked religious to revise their constitutions so as to bring them into line with contemporary life. Insights from my courses in social psychology and the sociology of religion seemed to have great relevance for religious life. In my American novel class, I was intrigued with the nun-figures in the novels of Henry James and William Dean Howells. As we were discerning how our constitutions should be changed, I realized that we couldn't do a good job of creating new roles if we didn't understand where our current roles had come from. "Role theory" from social psychology seemed to be a way to figure this out. So I embarked on a dissertation on the role of the nun in 19th-century America.

In my research I looked at the roles seen in constitutions, roles sisters actually played in society, people's reactions to them, and roles depicted in literature, including the anti-Catholic novels of that period. I found many interesting things, including how sisters completely changed the public attitude towards Catholicism by their Civil War nursing. But I think the most important insight – and the most depressing – had to do with the formal role definitions for nuns that are found in papal decrees that functioned as canon law.

It turns out that the basis for the rules that required me to have a companion for my class, and kept me from attending Cardinal Koenig's lecture, dated back to 1298 and medieval Europe! At that time many monasteries were lax, because they had some members who had not freely chosen religious life. The women's parents had consigned them to the convent because the dowry required there was less than that expected for marriage. Unfaithful wives, illegitimate children and the deformed might also be put into convents. Frequent visits to, and from, friends and relatives, liaisons with men, and luxurious living, marked some of these monasteries.

Bishops documented the resulting scandals in their visitation records, but despaired of getting the women to change. Finally, in 1298, Pope Boniface VIII issued a decree, Periculoso, aimed at correcting the situation, not by attacking the root cause – unwilling nuns – but by controlling all comings and goings in the monasteries and building a wall of separation – both literally and figuratively – between the nuns and other people. He created a system of cloistral regulations that required that doors be locked and monitored, that superiors control all mail, that sisters be separated from their guests by an iron grille in the parlor, and that forbade anyone to enter or leave the monastery without the bishop's permission. Sisters who left the monastery for important reasons, always had a companion, as did any sister interacting with outsiders.

Boniface insisted that these decrees must apply "to all nuns, present and future, to whatever order they belong, and whatever part of the world." Thus these rules became part of the DNA of religious life for women. Over the centuries there were other decrees affecting sisters' lives, but the basic ideas of cloister, and of controlling a sister's interaction with outsiders, continued to influence constitutions until they were finally rewritten after Vatican II.

I have documented some of the extraordinary lengths to which active communities went, in their attempts to keep the rules of cloister, in cultures and situations where they didn't fit, in the book that resulted from my research, The Role of the Nun in Nineteenth-Century America (1978; a new edition has recently been published in 2014).

One community built a covered bridge over the street in front of their motherhouse to the school building on the other side, so the sisters would not have to leave their cloister to do their teaching. The requirement that there be a wall around convent property caused great concern in frontier towns where walls were unheard of except for prisons. One convent without a wall piled up the logs for their wood stove against the outer wall of the convent. When the pile was beyond the reach of the sister with the longest arm, the sisters went without heat until a visitor arrived and rescued them. No one could accuse them of leaving their cloister without permission! Some sensible bishops gave superiors general permission to do whatever they needed to do, given the circumstances.

Though my research focused on sisters' roles in the 19th century, my findings have relevance for the 20th and 21st centuries as well. They help us to understand where we have come from – and why American sisters have had trouble with Vatican expectations from day one. Only when we were asked to rewrite our constitutions did we have a chance to cut out the cloistral practices and, instead, look to the world around us and how we could best serve it. Not everyone understood why we took up social justice issues. Today, in many places where there is great poverty all over the world, sisters are found trying to change the systems. Some, like Pope Boniface, would prefer that we remain behind our convent walls. Fortunately for the church, we now have a pope in Francis who is asking the clergy to leave their rectories and look for the poor on the margins, where the sisters have already shown the way.

[Mary Ewens is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. As an educator she has taught in grade school, high school and college and has been an administrator at the university level. She received the "Distinguished Historian Award" of the Conference on the History of Women Religious for her contributions to sisters' history, including chapters in 10 books.]