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A survey, a fast and Catholic tradition


Talk about a survey! It had a daunting 645 questions, and of the 157,000 sisters who received it, 139,691 responded. It happened 32 years ago, and what follows is the story of its impact -- an impact heightened by the approaching Jubilee Year.

And talk about Catholic tradition. There’s nothing like a fast to make a point.

First, the “Sisters’ Survey.” It was initiated in 1967 by the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (now the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) and was designed to determine the readiness of sisters to implement the decisions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Marie Augusta Neal, sociologist at Emmanuel College, Boston, and research director for the survey, had developed 100 items based on what she called pre- and post-Vatican belief orientations.

Those of us who remember struggling for hours to answer these questions will also remember this as a critical experience. It was to change the way American women religious prayed, lived, dressed, worked and related to church structures.

Questions relating to ministry were particularly challenging, and are relevant to everyone: “What does it mean to have a strong option for the poor?”

Another question asked sisters, as every Catholic should be asked: Should you “be witnessing to Christ on the picket lines and speaking out on controversial issues?” At that time, 44.1 percent said yes and 31 percent said no.

The public witness that thousands of women religious have given in prayer vigils, fasts, nonviolent disobedience, arrests, imprisonment and long jail sentences in the intervening years shows the development of the sisters’ deep commitment to justice and social change.

Since the council, Neal said in 1967, such acts of social justice continue to seek the basic human rights of the poor. The survey provoked something in Neal, a focus for her 1987 book, The Just Demands of the Poor, (Paulist Press). It also provoked more questions.

The book asks: When the poor reach out to take what is rightfully theirs, what does the gospel mandate tell the non-poor to do? The answer, said Neal, is, “Take your hands off the things they need in order to survive.” She continued, “This new emphasis on the rights of the poor has finally brought to the fore the reality of the jubilee and the sabbatical in their original biblical meaning: Namely, that since the land belongs to the people, they cannot be dispossessed of it in perpetuity (Leviticus 25:23).”

It is scarcely surprising then that at the 1998 joint assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, member congregations of women and men religious passed a resolution that called for joining “in the worldwide movement to cancel the crushing international debt of impoverished countries by participating in the Jubilee 2000/ USA Campaign.”

Though by now NCR readers are probably fully conversant with it, the Jubilee movement seeks to bring about major debt relief for the world’s poorest, the dying countries. The World Bank describes 40 of them as “heavily indebted.” They owe, according to the World Bank’s president, James Wolfensohn, “about $213 billion in foreign debt” (NCR cover story, March 26).

And here’s the link back to 1967 -- as the world prepares to enter the new millennium and U.S. Catholic sisters focus on Jubilee 2000 -- the Leadership Conference of Women Religious sent out another questionnaire, mercifully much shorter.

The answers showed women religious involved in world debt “actions” at a very high level. Many Catholic sisters have joined other faith communities in the Washington-based Religious Working Group on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

A few examples illustrate what congregations are doing independently:

  • • The School Sisters of Notre Dame, with 5,000 members worldwide, have sponsored debt study days and distributed Jubilee information packets. Further, Notre Dame Sr. Fatima Carcamo of Honduras will describe the effects of the debt on her native country when she comes to the United States to participate in the Sept. 21 rally sponsored by the Religious Working Group.
  • •The Holy Cross Congregation, with members in eight countries on four continents, began to see a common thread of injustice in countries outside the United States connecting to those inside the United States. One was gender inequality. The congregation developed educational materials to tackle that issue, along with the issues of bilateral and multilateral debts. The Holy Cross Congregation’s video “Demythologizing Economics” is a down-to-earth description of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund workings, policies and impact.
  • • Benedictine Sr. Marlene Bertke of Erie, Pa, has been studying the question of unpayable international debt for more than 10 years. “It’s the moral question of today,” said Bertke, but it has consequences not often brought into the equation, such as the fact that in some places, indebtedness poverty “leads to war.”

And those issues, in turn, lead more sisters to protest.

Dozens of sisters (including many who way back when agreed that sisters ought to publicly protest) will be back for yet another protest in Washington Sept. 21.

And so to the fast.

According to Marie Denis, director of the Maryknoll Global Concerns Office and chair of the Religious Working Group, on Sept. 21 in the park across from the World Bank and IMF, during another big interfaith community push on Jubilee issues, sisters and others will pledge something new for the final 100 days of 1999.

Those 100 days are being called, a “rolling fast.” People aren’t being asked to fast the entire time, but to commit themselves to it for at least one day.

As sisters in towns and cities nationwide work to keep the fast rolling, more than 11,000 people are pledging to go hungry.

Sisters included.

Dorothy Vidulich is a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace and an occasional NCR contributor.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999