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Double crossed : uncovering the Catholic…
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Double crossed : uncovering the Catholic Church's betrayal of American…

by Kenneth Briggs

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How you will like this book will depend on how you feel about Vatican II and progressive nuns, and what you are expecting to find. I feel that I must say that I am an atheist and never had a Catholic upbringing, so I am an outsider, and I can't judge the accuracy of what is being said.

Briggs starts off by differentiating between nuns (who were cloistered) and sisters (who worked in the world). He then tells us that he will be using the interchangeably, as most of us do. He has concerned himself almost entirely with "progressive" Sisters, but he claims that they make up ninety percent of the total. He recounts a very troubling story of the exploitation and ingratitude for nuns on the part of the Church hierarchy. For the last two hundred years, especially in the United States, sisters were essential to building a Catholic environment in a predominately Protestant culture. They worked for low stipends, which, totaled together, allowed populous communities to survive and provide for their sisters. Financially, they were and mostly remain, on their own. Briggs quotes Pope Paul VI is saying: "Pius XII once told me that the Sisters of the United States are the strength of the church. And I know that is true." However, he still expects utterly obedient servants with no voice in their church.

Then came Vatican II and an emphasis on working for social justice and renewing the Church to deal with the modern world. Most of the Sisters seized upon the opportunity, but it was fraught with perils. The changes themselves were very stressful, even if they were improvements, and most of the male hierarchy were unprepared for nuns who were not docile worker bees. Now that the nuns cannot afford to work for such low stipends, since there are not enough of them, the hierarchy rejects them as useless. Moreover, the sisters had to contend with what they regarded as unwarranted interference from the top. The communities hemorrhaged members as older sisters left and new ones did not appear to replace them. The convents are now faced with being unable to support retired sisters, and may, in the end, have to close. This is told movingly and affectingly.

I am left with on question which Briggs does not address very well: why would woman still become sisters under these circumstances. Briggs points out that the popularity of being a nun may have declined because women have other options. What I want to know is what being a nun means to them. Many of the sisters seem to lead independent lives not unlike unmarried career women like myself. They aren't part of a close community, in many cases, they don't have the round of religious observances, so what does being a Sister add to their lives? Perhaps as an outsider I don't understand how being a sister resonates with Catholic women. In the case of the progressive nuns, Briggs attributes this to the treatment of the nuns at the hands of the hierarchy, but I don't think that he develops this as well as he should. To do this, he needs to know more about why women left, other than to get married, and why young women aren't interested, and this isn't really researched. He seems to briefly concede that contemplative orders are doing better at retaining their numbers, but he more or less dismisses this. He concedes that perhaps sisters are an institution that has become outmoded. I wonder how this will effect American Catholicism, which nuns did so much to build. Does wearing lay clothing make them invisible as nuns? How will not being taught by nuns affect how American Catholics will feel about their church? Judging by the amount that the laity donate to support elderly nuns (still not enough), and the outrage when the Pope put the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) under the command of bishops, which occurred after the period covered by this book, perhaps priests should ask themselves whether they can take up the slack.

He does not discuss the issue of the American branch of the church versus the international church. To give the Vatican its due, it cannot shape the international church entirely to American needs. Of course, if sisters are allowed greater participation in decision-making as most Americans want, those who don't want to participate don't have to. If they want to be cloistered, presumably they can continue to be so, especially if Briggs's critics are correct that contemplative orders are more viable. One of the beauties of individualism is that if one wants, one can still devote oneself to a cause, or find someone to tell on what to do. ( )
  juglicerr | Mar 18, 2014 |
This was really thought-provoking for me, esp. since I didn't realize how harsh a world nuns had before Vatican II, and how difficult it was to create changes. I also had different sisters I have worked with in my mind and thought about when they might have become involved with their particular orders, and what 'side' they took (pro-renewal and change or anti-renewal and change) after Vatican II. If you're Catholic and had sisters as teachers, or if you have worked with sisters, I would recommend the book as very enlightening. ( )
  sriemann | Mar 29, 2013 |
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To Matthew and Joanna

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No figure has etched a more indelible impression on the nation's psyche than the nun.   (Preface)
Forty-five years ago, nuns covered the U.S. Catholic landscape like black-eyed Susans in a summer meadow.  (Introduction)
Toting a small hoe and pruning sheers, Sister Agatha Grosdidier crept her way along the flower beds straddling the massive stone Ursuline convent in Paola, Kansas, bending to paw the earth and clip a useless twig.
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Pius XII once told me that the Sisters of the United States are the strength of the Church.  And I know this is true.

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385516363, Hardcover)

This groundbreaking exposé of the mistreatment of nuns by the Catholic Church reveals a history of unfulfilled promises, misuse of clerical power, and a devastating failure to recognize the singular contributions of these religious women.

The Roman Catholic Church in America has lost nearly 100,000 religious sisters in the last forty years, a much greater loss than the priesthood. While the explanation is partly cultural—contemporary women have more choices in work and life—Kenneth Briggs contends that the rapid disappearance of convents can be traced directly to the Church’s betrayal of the promises of reform made by the Second Vatican Council.

In Double Crossed, Briggs documents the pattern of marginalization and exploitation that has reduced nuns to second-, even third-class citizens within the Catholic Church. America’s religious sisters were remarkable, adventurous women. They educated children, managed health care of the sick, and reached out to the poor and homeless. They went to universities and into executive chairs. Their efforts and successes, however, brought little appreciation from the Church, which demeaned their roles, deprived them of power, and placed them under the absolute authority of the all-male clergy.

Replete with quotations from nuns and former nuns, Double Crossed uncovers a dark secret at the heart of the Catholic Church. Their voices and Briggs’s research provide compelling insights into why the number of religious sisters has declined so precipitously in recent decades—and why, unless reforms are introduced, nuns may vanish forever in America.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:22 -0400)

A study of the treatment of nuns by the Roman Catholic Church in America criticizes the church's betrayal of promised reforms, revealing a pattern of exploitation that has reduced nuns to second-class citizens within the church.

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