No Longer Creatures of Habit: American Women Religious and Conflicts of Obedience
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In the 1960s, a group of American women, Religious, separated from the Roman Catholic Church following a prolonged conflict. These women, the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles, were women of integrity and dedicated members of the Catholic Church. The mother superior of the IHM sisters at the time of the conflict, Anita Caspary, makes clear in her account of the events that she, as well as her fellow sisters, had no intention of disobeying the Vatican; they believed that their process of renewal was in line with Vatican II’s call for renewal. The crux of that conflict, their idea of religious life, was incompatible with that of their local Episcopal authority and ultimately that of the Vatican. Throughout this project, I argue that in their split form the Vatican, the Immaculate Heart Sisters were implicitly demanding a new broader interpretation of the vow of obedience in religious life. The Vatican held to a more juridical definition of religious obedience while the sisters saw obedience to their conscience and to their understanding of Vatican II as a valid fulfillment of that vow. While the IHM did not explicitly state their intentions of challenging existing Catholic doctrine, their actions, following a restrictive maneuver by the local hierarchy, imply that they had found a voice and a conscience of their own. In claiming their ability as women religious to renew their form of life, the IHM sisters were claiming obedience to the Holy Spirit above that of any earthly authority. I develop my argument through an examination of a range of traditional and contemporary theologies of obedience, and how the IHM decisions align with interpretations of that vow. Additionally I explore the way in which those theological differences were manifest symbolically through the habit. Finally, I contemplate the implication that those theological and symbolic changes had for the IHM as Religious, as prophets, and as women within a patriarchal institution. The IHM conflict with the Vatican can help shed some light on the current conflict between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (an umbrella group of women Religious in the US recently accused of espousing “radical feminist themes” ) and the Church.