Sunday, August 30, 2009

Changing Habits: Women's Religious Orders in Canada

Edited by Elizabeth M. Smyth, 312 pages, 312 pages, Novalis.

While a book on the history of women religious in Canada shouldn't emphasize the recent, sorry years of misplaced feminist bravado and ambition, nor the resulting tragic, precipitous decline of vocations for Canadian female Catholics, this precipitous decline is a fact that historians cannot avoid, however ideologically motivated they happen to be.

Some of the essays in Changing Habits are excellent because they appreciate the immeasurable artistic, intellectual, and medical achievements of Canada's female religious. Yet the cloud hanging over this book is the sometimes openly confrontational and sometimes hidden anti-male bias.

“Gender and Mission,” chapter 13, negates any shared vision between the male priests and brothers on the one side and the female religious on the other. The reader is left supposing that a perpetual wrestling match took place with the subordination of women by men.

From a power-oriented view of history, such as put forth by Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, or Joseph Stalin, yes, subordination did take place. But this chapter, and the entire book, fails to consistently emphasize the sense of service, love, duty, honor, and mission – vocation, in other words – that all religious communities, male or female, had. Nor does it show consistently how, or even if, male and female religious had any shared vision.

In Changing Habits, feminists often confront the reader with a version of history pitting men against women, each with their own agendas. We hear of the archetypal unfeeling, power-hungry yet ultimately impotent (male) bishop, central to some feminist mythologies of male power and domination:

“Sister Mary Lumena, the longtime superior at St. Mary's Mission wanted to keep 'her' orphans and her commitment to their parents to educate them locally. Bishop Durieu succeeded in having Sister Mary Lumena transferred to St. Ann's Convent in Kamloops. Within a year, however, she was caring for a new set of 'her' orphans as she liked at the Cowichan convent.”

The author suggests no other motivations for the removal of the sister. Rather than giving the bishop the benefit of the doubt – he surely knew that this strong-willed person would pick up in her new place where she had left off in her old – or suggesting that, Heaven forbid, he knew what he was doing, the writer paints him as a rascal.

Again, the author uses confrontational, we-they language: “The sisters' system and the Oblates system came together at mission residential schools, where, owing to gender politics, the women religious who taught were officially subordinate to the Oblates. But the women religious had a separate culture and were not entirely integrated into that male system.”

This author defines women religious largely in terms of their relationship to the Oblates rather than in terms of their relationship to the truth as preached by the Catholic Church. This reflects the feminist tendency to objectivize men and turn men into objects of worldly power and success rather than seeing men as human beings. Repeatedly, men in this book are portrayed as givers and takers of power, with women as their humble and humiliated servants and beggars.

Another chapter uses excessive academic jargon – inspired from Michel Foucault, a Nietzschean – to reduce the physical buildings of the women religious to meaningless academic conjecture. What on earth does the following mean?

“In the case of the nineteenth-century representations in runaway nun tales, the convent stood at the crossroads of urbanity, modernity and new formulations of the sacred-profane divide that made it both and neither. It was certainly not total but was discursively incomplete, unresolved and incompatible with its wider environment.” This empty wind continues for some time.

The beginning pages of Changing Habits outline the great professional opportunities women religious had within the Catholic Church in, say, the nineteenth century – teaching, administration, health. This reflects something very important about the Catholic Church. Why can't Changing Habits or other books acknowledge more openly (or at all) that the Church is not the terrible, misogynist organization mainline and radical feminists paint it to be? (After all, the vast majority of churchgoers, in every church, are women!)

Despite some promising material and some very good historical research, this book fails because it does not boldly enough counter lies, exaggerations, and emotional half-truths used by feminists against the Church. In fact, it sometimes falls prey to these.

At the end of the book, the question is irresponsibly left hanging: How did radical and mainline feminism, and an accent on power rather than on Christ-centred ministry, change and eventually reduce these orders to a shadow of themselves? Read between the lines at the words and attitudes of the book's authors themselves to get an answer.

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