ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Fifty years ago tomorrow, Pope John XXIII launched a revolution in the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council opened on October 11th, 1962, with the goal of bringing the church into the modern world. Catholics could now hear the Mass in their own language. Lay people could take leadership roles in the church. And the church opened conversations with other faiths. For American nuns, Vatican II brought freedoms, and controversies, that are still playing out today. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty tells us more.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Maureen Fiedler joined the Sisters of Mercy in September 1962. She was 19 and moved into a convent, where she had limited contact with the outside world. A month later, Vatican II began.
SISTER MAUREEN FIEDLER: I found this to be the most exhilarating time in my whole life, as a Catholic, because it felt like the petals of a flower were opening, and that there was a whole new fragrance in the air of the church.
HAGERTY: Women religious became independent. Many left their communities, to live in apartments. And then there were the robes they wore.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: We dressed in these black habits from head to toe. We scared a lot of kids.
HAGERTY: Sister Helen Prejean was glad to see them go. Prejean says when she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph at age 17, the nuns were cordoned off from the world to pursue holiness and prayer.
PREJEAN: Then Vatican II came along and said, start looking at the signs of the times. Look at where the people are suffering. Look at where the people are in need. And I'm kind of a story - or an embodiment - of what happened to nuns out of Vatican II because it brought me, eventually, to poor people in New Orleans; and to death row.
HAGERTY: She began working with convicted murderers and wrote a memoir, "Dead Man Walking."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEAD MAN WALKING")
SEAN PENN: (As Matthew Poncelet) Why is you a nun?
SUSAN SARANDON: (As Sister Helen Prejean) I was drawn to it, I guess.
HAGERTY: Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn starred in the movie based on her book.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEAD MAN WALKING")
SARANDON: (As Sister Helen Prejean) Hard question to answer. It's like asking you why you're a convict.
PENN: (As Matthew Poncelet) Bad luck.
SARANDON: (As Sister Helen Prejean) Good luck, then. I had a loving family, a lot of support. I guess I felt obliged to give some of it back.
HAGERTY: Prejean was not unusual. Many sisters threw themselves into social justice ministries. Maureen Fiedler, who now hosts the public radio program "Interfaith Voices," fasted 37 days in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Encouraged by the newfound freedom, she says, they pushed for more changes.
FIEDLER: We thought, well, women priests can't be far behind. A married priesthood can't be far behind. What we didn't count on, I don't think, was that many forces - and people - within the Vatican had set their minds to rolling back the changes that Vatican II brought about.
HAGERTY: Colleen Carroll Campbell, author of "My Sisters the Saints," says the nuns went too far.
COLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL: The call to be engaged with the world was not a call to throw the baby out with the bathwater - doctrinally speaking, or in any other way.
HAGERTY: The Council fathers intended to clear the underbrush, not light a forest fire; she says, just read the documents from Vatican II.
CAMPBELL: Nowhere in those documents is there this vision of the church having a radical break with its 2,000-year history and now, at the Second Vatican Council, everything is up for grabs.
HAGERTY: Colleen McDannell, a historian at the University of Utah and author of "The Spirit of Vatican II," says for more than a decade, the Vatican waited to see how this tug of war between tradition and modernity would play out. Then came the election of John Paul II...
COLLEEN MCDANNELL: ...who felt Vatican II was important; it was legitimate. But it had been interpreted incorrectly.
HAGERTY: The initial conflict with John Paul came in 1979, during his first visit to the United States. After one papal address, Sister Theresa Kane, a leader among the nuns, stood up to address the pope.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
SISTER THERESA KANE: That the church, in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons, must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church.
HAGERTY: The pope rejected that idea. He favored a more traditional church, where authority resided in Rome; where altar boys were boys; and women religious centered their lives in community prayer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) To praise you for the living bread. All...
HAGERTY: Eight women in long, white habits sing their evening vespers. These Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia live together, sharing every meal in prayer. Sister Mary Jordan Hoover joined the order in 1991, when she was a 25-year-old school teacher. She wanted to live a life, she says, set apart for the Lord.
SISTER MARY JORDAN HOOVER: I wasn't attracted to living a religious lifestyle that looked just like the way I was living as a chaste lay woman, teaching in a public school.
HAGERTY: Hoover, the principal of John Paul the Great High School in Dumphries, Virginia, is part of a fast-growing order based in Nashville. Her community illustrates a generational and philosophical split among nuns. Unlike the older sisters shaped by Vatican II, Hoover says many young women are flocking to more conservative orders.
HOOVER: I see that the young people want to join the congregations that have hours of prayer, times in community, faithfulness to the church, respect for bishops, love of Mary. All of these things - they don't put young women off. They're attractive.
HAGERTY: This was John Paul's - and now, Pope Benedict's - vision for women religious.
MCDANNELL: The organizational church wants women to support the organization.
HAGERTY: Again, historian Colleen McDannell.
MCDANNELL: They want women to promote a much more narrow range of social justice issues so that the bishops, and the Vatican, can have good foot soldiers in their concerns.
HAGERTY: But the generation shaped by Vatican II doesn't want to be foot soldiers. Sister Maureen Fiedler says she's troubled by the bishop's focus on abortion, contraceptives and homosexuality; and their relative silence about poverty, the budget and war.
FIEDLER: A good number of nuns have serious questions about the positions that the bishops put forward. And so they're not anxious to jump in the fray and become - you know, warriors on the bedroom issues, if you will.
HAGERTY: Fighting words. And earlier this year, the Vatican cracked down. It's reorganizing the Leadership Conference of Woman Religious, which represents the vast majority of American nuns. It says the group has serious doctrinal problems, and promotes radical feminist themes. Colleen Carroll Campbell says the assessment was absolutely necessary.
CAMPBELL: Because there's been so much confusion about what the church teaches because so many women religious have either not proclaimed that teaching, or have openly dissented from it.
HAGERTY: Sister Helen Prejean says she was surprised by the harshness of the Vatican's criticism.
PREJEAN: But it didn't affect my life like, oh, my goodness; look what's happening here because they did this. I know the road I'm on is the road of the Gospel. So that's where my energies are.
HAGERTY: Colleen McDannell says the story of the nuns, over the past 50 years, is not one of soaring freedom and then tragic crackdown.
MCDANNELL: You know, this notion that somehow you've got this big, bad Vatican with a big stick - you know, smacking these poor, innocent nuns around, infantilizes Catholic sisters. I mean, I tell you, it's an even battle. And if I had to put money on it, I would bet on the sisters.
HAGERTY: The next generation of sisters may favor a more traditional church, she says. But the spirit of Vatican II is too much a part of their DNA to go back to the old ways.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.