Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Sisters in Crisis: The Definitive Guide

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 27, 2013 | In Reviews

Among the more important books released by Ignatius Press recently is an updated edition of Ann Carey’s Sisters in Crisis. Originally published in 1997, the initial study closed before the more dramatic efforts of the Vatican to reform women religious in the United States. The new 2013 edition, Sisters in Crisis Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal, brings the chronicle up to date, including the Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious and the response to it, and the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

Carey’s work is no mere overview. It does not simply summarize the conclusions reached long ago by knowledgeable Catholic insiders. The author has done both comprehensive and meticulous research into the patterns of religious life in the United States between about 1950 and the present, enumerating the stresses and strains caused both by explosive growth in the mid-20th century and by the revolutionary secularization of religious culture as the century wore on. The reader gains a clear idea of why the Vatican was talking about the renewal of religious life even before the Second Vatican Council, why that renewal was very slow to be undertaken, and how a spirit of rebellion and dissolution overtook many religious communities after the Council, during the last third of the century.

Sisters in Crisis is divided into three parts. The first, “Post-Vatican II Sisters: Ready for Renewal or Revolution?”, portrays the state of religious life at the close of Vatican II. The second, “How Did All of This Happen”, explores the progressive indoctrination of women religious, the rise to dominance of those in rebellion against the Church, the first efforts of the Vatican to redirect this process through the spectacularly unsuccessful Quinn Commission in the 1980s, and the ultimate ideological transformation of mainstream religious leadership organizations. The third, “Where Do Sisters Go from Here?”, explores the triple crisis of contemporary female religious life in America (vocations, finances and the elderly), the apostolic visitation, and the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR—the text of which is included in an appendix.

Carey draws from primary sources, secondary sources and interviews to formulate her comprehensive account, which runs to some 400 pages, fully-footnoted, along with a five-page bibliography and a 22-page index. Certainly the issues are momentous; the prose is smooth and well-organized; the book is neither dull nor difficult to read. But make no mistake: This is the definitive account. It will remain an important reference on American religious life for generations to come.

A juxtaposition of passages from earlier and later portions of the book will serve to illustrate the importance of the theme. First, religious life at the time of the Council:

…change was resisted by most women’s orders, which continued to follow practices needing reform. For example, in many orders, even in the early 1960s, sisters were required monthly to ask their superiors for permission to perform routine tasks such as bathing, obtaining toothpaste and soap, doing assigned work, and even praying. Some sisters needed permission for normal adult activities such as using the telephone, even when doing so was an implicit part of their job. Behind this practice of requesting permission was an interpretation of the vow of obedience in which everyday activities didn’t have merit unless they were done as acts of obedience. Thus, all actions, even daily routines that every adult must perform, came under the authority of the superior. (p. 30)

After this, some religious communities eventually began the long process of renewal called for by the Council and by subsequent popes. Carey identifies these groups as following a “traditional” model. But a great many institutes flew off on an immense tangent of feminism and Modernism. Sadly, this won them the praise of the world while putting them at odds with the Catholic Faith and causing their numbers to plummet as dramatically as has ever been seen in history. Carey, who deliberately avoids unattractive labels, calls these groups “change-oriented”. Thus:

…the institutes of women religious that carried experimentation and renewal to extremes that were neither intended nor authorized by the Second Vatican Council are in decline. Statistics show that these change-oriented institutes have lost a greater percentage of their membership than the traditional institutes, for their average age is in the seventies. In these institutes, the lifestyle of the sisters evolved to a point at which it became impossible to distinguish sisters from their lay professional counterparts…. A myriad of problems have arisen in aging orders, including retirement funding, building maintenance, and even decisions about continuing the existence of the institute. Still, as these problems escalated in the twenty-first century, many leaders of women religious continued to be more willing to accept the inevitable demise of their institutes than to admit that they had made mistakes. (p. 325)

In between these two snapshots, an overworked and under-appreciated workforce of women religious lost nearly 75% of their numbers overall, including a whopping 96% of sisters who taught in schools. The path through this sweeping destruction was marked by countless horror stories, deliberate indoctrination in modern ideologies, a crushing loss of faith, and direct defiance of ecclesiastical authority.

And yet there is great hope for the institutes which, whether early or late, have followed the authentic path of renewal, and for new institutes founded upon the principles of renewal the Church has set forth. Almost uniformly, their vocations are growing rapidly. Their apostolates are, once again, expanding into the world.

It is all thoroughly chronicled and explained in this remarkable book. If you want to delve more deeply into the history of the life of women religious in the United States over the past sixty years, do not be deceived by propaganda from any other source. Ann Carey knows the real story, the complete story, and she tells it extraordinarily well.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 31, 2016 8:15 AM ET USA

    The difficulty lies in the fact that this has been self-inflicted. Even St. Pope John XXIII chided those "prophets of doom" who warned of secularism, neglect of Catholic social principles and abandonment of the social reign of Christ the King in society. Since then, many prelates have led the movement toward programs and away from principles of societal fraternity and subsidiarity in Christ. "The hierarchy must become genuinely counter-cultural..." For prelates this begins at the mirror.

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - Aug. 28, 2013 11:33 AM ET USA

    This truly is a remarkable book for anyone interested—and we all should be— in the whys and wherefores of our Catholic sisters and nuns. I’ve read both editions and can strongly second this review. Buy the books.