'Double Crossed' Details Decline of American Nuns

Catholic nuns are disappearing in the United States. Why? Kenneth Briggs, former religion editor of The New York Times, lays out his views in Double Crossed. He tells Sheilah Kast the trend will continue.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

Catholic nuns are disappearing in America. It's not just that they're less conspicuous because they're no longer wearing anachronistic clothes. No, they really are on the verge of extinction. Forty years ago, there were 185,000 sisters. Now fewer than half that, about 69,000. Of those, a big majority are older than 70. Fewer than 6,000 American nuns are under age 50. Kenneth Briggs, a columnist for the Web site Belief.net and former religion editor of the New York Times, wondered what's going on. The result of his research is a new book, Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. He joins up from WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Welcome.

Mr. KENNETH BRIGGS (Author, Double Crossed): Thank you very much.

KAST: That's a strong word in your title, Double Crossed. What do you conclude the Catholic Church did to nuns?

Mr. BRIGGS: From the time of the second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 and really rewrote the constitution of the church, nuns at that point were given a special mandate, a separate document that said you are permitted to go out and renew and revise and reform your way of life to bring it up to closer to modern life. And they went out and began to do it in terms of what they wore, the kinds of work they did, and how they lived together. My contention is that that period of reform and renewal had barely got started before it was perceived principally at the Vatican as a threat, and the authorities of the Church the next 10 to 15 years went into combat against the very renewal that had been started, preventing it then from reaching fulfillment, and eventually breaking its spirit.

KAST: How did you research this? With whom did you speak and what questions did you ask?

Mr. BRIGGS: I tried to find as many of the key leadership people who were in the religious communities during that time. Many of them are quite old now. I traveled the country, I stayed in religious communities to see the dynamics, to understand better what was going on, how people were thinking, what they were doing and how they viewed the future and so on. A lot of kind of outside historical material - because I saw this and still do see this very much as a - it's a story of history, it's a story of women's history. And it's a story of women's history that very little attention has been paid to.

KAST: Did you also speak with the clergy and with Cardinals and the authority figures that you say were part of this betrayal?

Mr. BRIGGS: Yes, I spoke with some of those. There wasn't much new there. It was pretty much the story has been pretty much accepted throughout the heirachical ranks anyway that women went too far. They just went off on a tangent and created all of these ways of life that became too secular. Bishops were simply being bishops. They weren't particularly at fault. This is the world that they had understood and the way it worked. The way nuns fit into the picture was something very traditional. They were acting within their own frame of understanding about how things should work.

KAST: Let's talk about the way sisters look to the world. Were the changes in their dress a symptom or a cause of the turmoil that followed the second Vatican council?

Mr. BRIGGS: I think they were more of a symptom. It's very interesting that Pope Pius XII in 1950 had noticed that nuns in Europe seemed to be so far out of touch with modern life that he suggested some adaptation of the dress. The habit he said should change so that people would accept nuns into modern life and current events more than they did. And when it got to the second Vatican Council then, there were some sediments that something had to try to narrow the perceived distance between the nun and how she looked and how she lived and the rest of the world, particularly the Catholic laity. So when that changed, it did become a symptom of so much that was going to happen later on.

KAST: You note that most American sisters are elderly and that most convents are financially strapped. Is that part of what you mean by double-crossed?

Mr. Briggs: Yes, oh yes. I believe most Catholics think that sisters are supported and always have been by the church, and that is not true. They have had to support themselves and they did it by teaching and working as nurses and so on for - usually a pittance.

There was more provision really for what happens to nuns when they get old. In 1972 they finally were able to get into the Social Security system, so they have now a very small social security income. But there is some of that, and there are other groups that try to support too. But this doesn't really even begin to cover the cost of keeping a large number of people in nursing homes and other care facilities, and they're not prepared for it.

KAST: And you say they're not prepared for it, but it's not as if the church has ever taken financial responsibility for the financial retirement of the sisters. So how is it that they're not prepared for it? Why did the communities of sisters not plan more foresight to their retirement planning?

Mr. BRIGGS: I think the sudden loss of so many sisters, so many income-producing sisters, took them by surprise. And I think when the losses began to mount so quickly, it suddenly caught them without knowing where the income was going to come from, and there may have been a lot of poor planning in that. But that's where that ended up. And they didn't have any institutional tie that they could rely on, the way priests do, for example, or members of the clergy.

KAST: What is the outlook for religious sisters in America? Will we see any in 10 or 15 years?

Mr. BRIGGS: I think very few, and I think the ones we do see will probably come increasingly from the very traditional groups, the very conservative groups that have decided to go back to the old ways. I think the appeal is still there but I don't think it's being nurtured and developed and I think the climate within communities is such now that it is not likely that it is going to happen.

KAST: Kenneth Briggs' new book is Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns, published by Doubleday. He joins us from WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Thanks very much.

Mr. BRIGGS: Thank you very much.

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