dogging the hatches

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jan 31, 2008

As I opened the hatch, I found myself looking into a raging inferno which pushed me back. It was impossible to enter. The screams and cries of those many Army troops in there still haunt me. Navy regulations call for dogging the hatches to preserve the integrity of the ship, and that's what I did. -- from a World War II naval memoir

One of the best-hidden casualties of the post-Conciliar Catholic upheavals is the unprogressive religious sister who finds herself trapped in a congregation that has flaked out. Her plight is not the same as that of other old folks who find adjustment to novel circumstances difficult. For the nun's part, her religious commitment requires fidelity unto death to her institute, yet the institute to which she is committed has excused itself from a comparable fidelity to its own charter. Bound by her faith to a system of belief, piety, and discipline to which her superiors grow increasingly alien, bound by her vows to obligations of obedience that preclude an effective challenge to the injustice of her predicament, she has no choice but to put up with the indignities visited upon her by the people in power, as they sing a new church into being.

Though not without frustrations of their own, unprogressive priests are rarely afflicted to the same extent. On the one hand, Holy Orders affords them some canonical protection against arbitrary use of authority; on the other hand circumstances often make it possible for them to find refuge from institutionalized flakiness. Regardless of the atrocities his brethren commit in the chapel, e.g., a priest can slip off and say a licit Mass on his own; yet Sister is pushed in her wheelchair into a multipurpose worship space where, liturgically speaking, she has to eat what her superiors put on her plate.

The unprogressive sister is not always the best advocate for her own cause. Faced with an intimidating ecclesiastical machinery that appears presumptively aligned with her superiors and against the dissident, she will be reluctant to sound off. When she finally does give voice to a grievance the occasion may seem petty or peripheral (even when there's a serious religious malady at the bottom of the offense). It's also the case that a sister who spent her past forty years working in a laundry or a kitchen can't always muster in her defense the kind of formidable theological arguments that will stand up against her superiors or that will engage the sympathies of the churchmen to whom she appeals for redress.

For ultimately it comes down to the churchmen: the diocesan bishop in the first instance, the officials of the Congregation for Consecrated Life in the last. Outside the authority structure of her own institute, these are Sister's only hope. Yet there seems to be a kind of social darwinism current among senior ecclesiastics -- including those who deplore the flakiness -- that is content to watch the diseased orders sicken and die off by their own devices, and that almost never intervenes to correct the abuses. The political reasoning behind this darwinism is easy to understand: why cause a media furor and disedify the faithful by attempting piecemeal corrections in congregations that will probably resist the corrections and that will eventually collapse anyway? Benign neglect (so the thinking goes) may serve the purposes of the larger Church.

Naval warfare presents the horrifying circumstance of a shelled or torpedoed ship in which the crew must isolate the the flooded compartments from the rest of the vessel by sealing them off ("dogging the hatches"), thereby abandoning the men on the wrong side of the bulkhead to certain death by drowning. Necessary though it may be to save the ship and the greater part of the crew, the command to wall-in one's comrades to their fate must be painful to contemplate and a torment to remember. So too the ecclesiastical non-interventionist strategy of "leaving the dead to bury their dead" would be unproblematic but for the vexing consideration of immortal souls: most poignantly, but not exclusively, the souls of those sisters trapped beneath the water line.

How many unanswered letters and unreturned phone calls have been transmitted by good women whose only fault was to enter the convent on the wrong side of 1965? How do they make sense out of the bishops' inaction? How do they interpret their superiors' confident gloating? Wheeled out of the worship space back to their rooms, how do they keep the faith?

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  • Posted by: - Feb. 06, 2008 12:21 PM ET USA

    Papal rescript of 6/6/66? WhoooooooOOOOoooo!!!!

  • Posted by: - Feb. 01, 2008 11:42 AM ET USA

    In answer to your closing question, Di: "By the amazing grace of God." Here's one of those examples, Ignatio. How can "gratis omnino et nullo . . . accepto stipendio" = "[the Jesuit shall serve] altogether free of charge and with no stipend accepted [for any ministry]" --the current language in the Formula of the Institute, the charter document SJ & papal law-- possibly MEAN that a Jesuit may be paid for his ministry? So claims the papal rescript of 6/6/66 to Father General Pedro Arrupe.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 01, 2008 9:53 AM ET USA

    Unum said"There are efforts to recruit and train deacons, but little success because of the example set by existing clergy. Who wants to join a losing team? " You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 8:10 PM ET USA

    Perhaps what the new and flourishing orders should do, as an assist to their older and wiser sisters trapped behind enemy lines in their own convents, is offer to take them in. Imagine the joy of an older sister persecuted to be among joyful young women in habits who will appreciate her, care lovingly for her and nurture her in her last years. Wouldn't the polyester social workers willing give them over so as to avoid having to explain wheeling them around the labyrinth one more time?

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 7:01 PM ET USA

    Benign neglect has replaced leadership in much of our Church hierarchy in the U.S. Most of the parishes in my diocese are in decay (both materially and spiritually) with little oversight of aging, caretaker pastors. There is little accountability. Diocesan programs of education and spirituality are almost nonexistent. There are efforts to recruit and train deacons, but little success because of the example set by existing clergy. Who wants to join a losing team?

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 6:14 PM ET USA

    At my wife's 40th high school reunion of what had been a "Catholic" girls' high school, some nuns wore habits, the middle aged nuns wore business suits with a cross you needed a microscope to see, and the "Mother Superior", in her forties, wore a cocktail dress and heels with long flowing hair. I am consoled with a statement St. (Padre) Pio said: "There are no coincidences with God." He knows all that has occurred and He is allowing us the Church we deserve.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 5:33 PM ET USA

    I hope someone who lives in area and is reading this visits "those who are imprisoned." Throw those good sisters a lifeline, please!

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 5:11 PM ET USA

    I have watched in amazement as many nuns I have known hav moved out of their comunities and into apartments while claiming to be members of the community. How can you be a member of a community when you are living away from the community, not out of necessity but out of choice? My wife and I alwayd donate generously to the communities of women who formewd us in our parish schools. We owe them much. It is a great loss to the Church to see all of these religious communities close.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 4:58 PM ET USA

    Once at Mass I noticed a solitary nun in traditional habit. My children seldom saw a nun, and her presence was a real boon to my efforts to raise them Catholic. After Mass I thanked her for wearing her habit. She pulled me closer and asked that I repeat this. When I did, she replied with tears in her eyes, “Thank you for saying it. And please, every time you see one of us, tell her what you just told me. We need to hear it – you have no idea how we are persecuted in our own convents.”

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 3:19 PM ET USA

    What an appropriate commentary on the problems with religious life in the "modern" Church. And how sad! Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., describes the problem in detail in "The Life and Death of Religious Life" in the June/July 2007 issue of "First Things" ( ) The good news here is that the monastic groups that are faithful to t/Tradition - Western and Eastern - are exploding with vocations. There is a message here!

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 2:10 PM ET USA

    Not only are nuns victims but one could find many examples in male orders. Perhaps it is the result of little theological training or perhaps it is just not having the energy to fight at the end of the day trying to do the mission they are assigned.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 11:37 AM ET USA

    The flipside of this dilemma is the laity's financial support (or lack thereof) of such institutions. How many times have you suspected that a fund-raising letter accompanied by a photo such as the one above was calculated to garner sympathy for an order that had brought its own house down? How can we support faithful sisters in their old age without throwing away even more money on those responsible for this awful situation?

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2008 9:28 AM ET USA

    Talk about dry martyrdom! An excellent essay. I am sure the silent suffering of these faithful religious not only contributes to their future glory in heaven but also atones for the sins of their superiors, both within the convent as well as the hierarchy. May God Bless them!