"I can see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns.”, an Irish housekeeper warns the genial Fr. O’Malley on his first night at his new parish in the classic 1945 film, “The Bells of St. Mary’s".
The irony behind that scene is that very few Catholic priests in history have ever known what it was like to be up to their neck in nuns. What many American Catholics today regard wistfully as the most traditional and immemorial of Catholic traditions – the fully habited community of sisters in residence in their parish, running the parish school or the local Catholic hospital – was, in fact, a very recent historical development and probably would not have happened even 40 years previously. Because for 450 years, Popes and ecumenical councils had declared over and over again - in the strongest possible terms - that true women religious must be completely enclosed.
What prompted this post is a funny new image of Blessed John Henry Newman, making like Boromir and saying " One does not simply become deep in history and remain Protestant." This post isn't really a response to the image, which I actually rather enjoy. It is a response to the working assumption that I have encountered so often around the Catholic blogosphere: that what it means for us to be “deep in history” is obvious. Whenever I come across this assumption, my first gut response is “Clearly, you haven't read much history”. Long ago, I realized that most of our contemporary discussions that supposedly draw upon history – especially around the blogosphere - are not deep in history; they are usually deep in ideological clichés with a few names and dates tacked on.
All history, including Catholic history, is complex, partially obscured, and often seemingly contradictory, and does not lend itself to one-dimensional apologetics or simplistic support for 21st century ideological debates. To see how this has played out in one very important multi-century drama, let’s look at a few crucial moments in the complex history that made the graceful presence of Sr. Benedict at St. Mary’s school possible.
In 1298 Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal decretal (a legal, disciplinary ruling) named Periculoso for its first Latin word “dangerous”. Periculoso required perpetual enclosure for all vowed religious women. One of the primary reasons behind the decretal was the alleged licentiousness of many nuns. (Recent historical studies of sexually active medieval nuns has found that their partners were usually priests already incorporated into the monastery or other men whose presence was required because of enclosure.) This was not traditional. Early monasticism did not have the tradition of required feminine enclosure and sometimes had “double houses” of male and female monastics. Double houses were suppressed by Justinian in the east but survived in the west until the 12th century.
Enforcement of Periculoso, which was never total, was a multi-century struggle and reinforced by papal decrees in 1309, 1566, 1570, and 1572 as well as by the Council of Trent. By the time of Trent, the decretal’s dictates had largely become synonymous with traditional conceptions of women religious; for example, the Council referred to enclosure as the "primary obligation for nuns".
Where enclosure was strictly enforced, women’s communities had to remain small because they could only support themselves through alms and the sort of work that could be done within the cloister. Most women’s communities moved into towns where they could find more financial support. Although we think of a world in which women religious outnumber male priests and religious as normal and very traditional, that is a very recent development. For many centuries, priests and monks greatly outnumbered religious women because the discipline of enclosure meant that only small communities of women could be sustained.
At the same time, a number of informal communities of devout women who did not take vows such as tertiaries, Beguines (a medieval movement of single women who did not take vows, devoted their lives to prayer and care for the poor, and could leave when they wished) sprang up as did later groups like St. Vincent de Paul’s Sisters of Charity, who did not call themselves “nuns” and made only temporary vows, which were renewed on a yearly basis. Communities like the Ursulines who were founded originally as active teaching orders but took formal vows, were later required to become enclosed and had to move their schools within the enclosure. This meant that they could only teach girls; so much for the image of Sr. Benedict teaching Eddie to box in “The Bells of St. Mary’s”.
The complex history of Mary Ward’s Congregation of Jesus/Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary reveals a good deal about howwhat we now regard as "traditional" Catholic education developed.
Mary Ward was born in 1585 and related to most of the recusant Catholic families of England. All the women in her family - mother, grandmother, aunts - were very devout and had spent years in prison for their faith. Mary was classically educated and spoke and read several languages, including Latin. Like many Englishwomen from the higher classes, Mary Ward enjoyed much greater freedom and independence than was available to women in most Catholic countries at that time - especially in Rome.
In response to a direct vision from God, Mary established an apostolic community of religious women living under an adaptation of the Jesuit Rule whose primary work was educating girls. The congregation's innovative approach to the education of girls (including Latin!) quickly spread over the Europe as they were invited in by bishops. They were commonly known as the “English Ladies” by their friends.
When a Jesuit Minister in Rome dismissed Mary’s burgeoning group with the memorable phrase “they are but women”, Mary famously responded:
“There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things . . .”
Her community was formally suppressed in exceptionally harsh terms by the Pope in 1631 – in part due to their lack of enclosure (Mary was an incessant traveler by foot and walked across Europe several times). Mary herself was accused of being a heretic and schismatic and imprisoned for two months in a Poor Clare convent by the Inquisition (although released by the Pope when he realized what had happened). Her community smuggled notes to her in prison that were written in lemon juice – a trick that English Catholics had learned to avoid persecution. Mary headed one of her letters written from prison "From my palace". The truth of Mary’s innocence, courage, and heroic virtue was recognized even then by many of her contemporaries.
“One of the Poor Clares, who had a reputation for sanctity and a gift of discernment, said to the Abbess, “Mother how we have been misinformed! This is a great servant of God, whom we have received, and our house is happy in her setting foot in it. Let me at least have the happiness of going to look at her in the door, although I am not allowed to speak to her.” When the door was unlocked and unchained, Mary was astonished to see a venerable Sister kneeling on the threshold with clasped hands, praying devoutly and then after a few minutes withdrawing.” (From Mary Ward, Pilgrim and Mystic)
The 1631 Papal Bull of Suppression was never been rescinded but some houses of Mary’s community survived, including one in Munich. It was the Munich house that became the trigger for the surprisingly low-key undoing of 450 years of required enclosure for all vowed women. In 1749, the local archbishop wanted to assert Episcopal control over the Munich house and asked the Vatican to rule on whether or not the group was a “religious” community, because if it was, he demanded episcopal jurisdiction. The Pope’s ruling gave the Munich community permission to remain unenclosed as true religious, ending the era of enforced enclosure with a whimper.
Ironically, the 1749 bull acknowledged the existing community as religious under the name of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but prohibited naming the Mary Ward as founder. It was only in 1909 that another Papal bull named Mary Ward as foundress and her public rehabilitation continued when Pope Pius XII called Mary "that incomparable woman" in his speech to the 1951 Congress on the Apostolate of the Laity. In 2004, Mary’s congregation was finally allowed to live by the full Jesuit constitutions and formally took the name she had intended to give it: The Congregation of Jesus. The first Catholic Mass held in magnificent York Minster since the Reformation was in honor of Mary Ward (January 29, 2009). Mary was declared “Venerable” by Pope Benedict a month before the 400th anniversary of the founding of her community was celebrated in January, 2010 at Westminster Cathedral before a congregation of thousands.
The decision of 1749 triggered a staggering growth in women religious that we now think of “traditional” but which was unprecedented. By 1800, new congregations of active religious women were being formed all over Europe. In Ireland, for instance, there were only 120 women religious in 1800. Sisters made up only 6% of the sum total of all priests/women religious. By 1851, women religious comprised 38% of all priests/women religious and 50 years later, they outnumbered priests more than two to one. Finally, in 1900, Leo XIII, in the apostolic constitution Conditae a Christo, formally recognized as an authentic form of Religious Life non-cloistered apostolic congregations.
The uniquely American factor behind St. Mary’s school was the demand of the Third Council of Baltimore that all Catholic parishes open a school within two years. By 1900, an estimated 3,500 parochial schools existed in the United States. Within 20 years, the number of elementary schools had reached 6,551, enrolling 1,759, 673 pupils taught by 41, 581 teachers. Secondary education likewise boomed. In 1900, Catholics could boast of approximately 100 Catholic high schools, but by 1920 more than 1,500 existed. The explosion of Catholic schools would not have been possible without the armies of non-cloistered religious women dedicated to the work of Catholic education.
Dramatic change over time and remarkable changes in the apparent direction of development has always been part of the Church’s life and is hardly limited to the post Vatican II experience. Which is why, less than two centuries after the Pope told the Archbishop of Munich that the non-enclosed religious women in his diocese were true religious, Fr. O’Malley found himself “up to his neck in nuns”. And it is why Ingrid Bergman teaching Eddie to box strikes us as a sentimental but completely traditional image of Catholic life and not as a disobedient and dangerous heretic as the “incomparable” Mary Ward appeared to the Inquisition. And it is why Blessed John Henry Newman, who first wrote the words “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”, was widely regarded as potentially dangerous by Catholic bishops of his day.
Enjoy the clip below from The Bells of St. Mary's and see how different it looks when you know something of history behind the sisters and their beloved school.