An unhappy time remembered

Having somehow slipped under the radar at the time, the death last October of Anita Caspary has come to notice. It seems to have been little remarked on by much of the Catholic blogosphere. Yet she was a remarkable symbol of the chaos that beset religious life in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, especially in the United States. She led the largest single exodus from religious life in recent history.

1971 file photo of Anita Caspary, president of the Immaculate Heart Community.Her biography can be found easily enough online. What is of interest is one chapter in her life: the disintegration of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the late 1960s. The secular media paints the story in terms of a “showdown” with the authorities of the Catholic Church, in particular her local Ordinary, Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles. In such presentations the sisters are said to have been attempting to answer the call of Vatican II for religious congregations to “modernize”. The “conservative” Cardinal laid down some constraints on their reforms which the sisters were unwilling to accept. Having been barred from teaching in the Los Angeles diocese, and with Rome having “squelched” their modernization process, up to 400 sisters left the congregation after a chapter meeting in December 1969, forming a non-canonical organisation (ie not recognised by the Church), the Immaculate Heart Community. Another 130 or so left any form of religious life altogether; 50 or so remained and agreed to the Cardinal’s instructions. The story made headlines in the major secular media, not least Newsweek and Time.

It was an episode that was grist for the propaganda mill. It was quickly painted in terms of feminism, patriarchy, the “spirit of Vatican II”, justice, obedience (and disobedience), to list but some. Thus Sr Dorothy Vidulich, in the wake of Caspary’s death, spoke of the sisters as having rejected “a life pattern that had to conform to canons issued by male clerics of another culture”. Caspary herself held that the departing sisters had grasped the “freedom to be self-determining and to make moral choices on the basis of conscience without leaning on the authority of others.” She said this is “the same struggle for feminist values that continues for women in all walks of life today, especially for women in the church(sic).” Sr Joan Chittester speaks of the breakaway sisters’ “fidelity”, not to the Church, but to the “spiritual ideals of the IHM tradition”.

The loud voices of propaganda have a tendency to hinder a better appreciation of the reality. This is not just in the matter of facts. We know that the Council did not so much call for the religious congregations to “modernize” as to reassess their life in light of the original charism of their institutes. And far from “squelching” the IHM sisters’ reforms, the Vatican in fact declined to act in their dispute with the Cardinal. At a deeper level, though, it was certainly a traumatic time for these women, and for the Church in the United States. Sandra Schneiders, a former religious sister herself, paints things in more muted hues: “It’s not like the Immaculate Heart women were doing anything outlandish. … All these changes were taking place without incident in the majority of dioceses around the country. Cardinal McIntyre simply was saying, ‘Not in my diocese.’ ” The “dictates” that the Cardinal was apparently imposing on the sisters to repress their renewal are apparently not so extreme either. Sr Joan herself lists them: (1) “adopt a uniform habit,” (2) “attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass together every day,” (3) “keep in mind their commitment to education”, (4) “collaborate with the Local Ordinary in the works of the apostolate”. Nothing outlandish in themselves, but they conflicted with the desire of many religious women, not least many of the IHM sisters, to abandon the habit, to explore new ways of living in community, and to undertake new, often experimental, works.

What has not been mentioned by the propagandists nor by the obituarists is the role played by psychology and psychologists in the demise of IHM sisters. They signed up en masse in 1967 as guinea pigs, in effect, for the new phenomenon in psychology of “encounter groups” pioneered by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Essential to the meetings of these groups was the un-fettered airing of feelings, desires, opinions and judgments by members. The aim was to promote honesty about self and to break down individual and social inhibitions. The psychologists who ran these meetings did so by not running them (an approach known as non-directive), and allowing things to develop unhindered. Far from liberating the individual, more often than it subjected the individual to the pressure of the group’s judgment. In trying to break free from the perceived bonds of Church and traditional institutional religious life, individual sisters found themselves submitting themselves to the judgments and opinions of the encounter group. Moreover, feelings and emotive judgments were not challenged or discussed, but effectively affirmed and encouraged. There were no good or bad feelings. Your experience was valid however you might interpret it. Often the groups gave vent to repressed sexual urges, and the sexual feelings of one member for another. As the sisters expressed more and more freely their “true” selves, the majority decided they did not want to submit to any institutional authority except “the authority of their imperial inner selves”. More can be read about the destructive effect of this psychological intervention here. William Coulson, one of the pyschologists involved with the sisters’ encounter groups, has come to regret his involvement and now works to help the victims of the encounter sessions. You can read more from him here and here.

So, at the very least there is more than meets the eye to this tragic chapter in the history of the Church in America. There was more to it than the just a collective rebel yell of liberated feminist sisters. Psychology, in one of its more fertile and experimental periods, was accepted uncritically as a tool, when in fact its agenda in this particular case was totally at odds with a Catholic approach to personhood and spiritual growth. That all the members of a congregation could willingly submit themselves to be guinea pigs for a new and unproven school of psychology is quite breathtaking. It was not the only time that psychology, uncritically employed, has been a destructive factor in the Church over the last 50 years.

What remains? The breakaway sisters’ non-canonical, lay foundation still exists, the Immaculate Heart Community. Considering that it began with over 300 ex-sisters, and its open recruitment policy has permitted receiving men and non-Catholics, its current total of 160 members reveals a clear decline. Given the age profile of the community the decline appears to be terminal. But they had a solid foundation in material terms from the outset for, before she renounced her religious vows, Caspary transferred ownership of the congregation’s college, hospital, high school and retreat house to secular companies owned by the new breakaway community. The sisters who remained in the congregation and faithful to their vows were left without the congregation’s assets. So they made a new start, and relocated to Wichita, Kansas. Judging by their website, the sisters wear the habit, and have a spirituality and mission that is integrated into the life of the Church, centring mainly on education and retreat work. They are planning to expand their motherhouse. I cannot find any estimate of numbers for them but if their website is any guide, they seem to be doing quite well. Thankfully these sisters, who remained faithful to the Church through the most difficult times, seem now to be prospering in work that is clearly at the service of the Church.

Sweeping judgments on this sad affair are easily made, but we should remember that it is was a very difficult period in the history of religious life: destructive forces came from within the religious life as much as from without, and were too often unrecognised as such. Yet Anita Caspary herself gives a clue to the profound error underlying the actions of so many religious women (and men) in the 1960s and after. In her memoirs she wrote, “In many ways, we foreshadowed the contemporary (and vibrant) feminist movement within the Catholic Church.” It seems in retrospect that the dominant imperative in the reformation, and disintegration, of so many congregations was not one of authentic renewal within the heart of the Church, but rather of secular ideology. Radical feminism and women’s liberation spoke a language that was at odds with a Catholic Christian understanding of the individual and of society. Its agenda was in no way Christian, but essentially secular, employing a variation of Marxist class-warfare: gender conflict. By the mid 1970s, we find religious sisters openly espousing Wicca, among other pagan ideologies, with its talk of priestesses and goddesses within. One need only read Ungodly Rage by Donna Steichen to find abundant documentation.

Sadly many ordinary, well-intentioned religious women were caught up in a maelstrom of self-destruction unleashed by a minority of articulate, radicalised and misguided sisters. The pieces are still being gathered up today. For all that, we can only pray for Anita Caspary, that she might find mercy with God, and rest in peace.