National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 5, 2003

When power and vision collide

Renewal and resistance profiled in tale of California IHMs’ battle with cardinal


Ovid, the Roman philosopher, wrote: “All things change, nothing perishes.” In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, that lesson has gone largely unheeded. The notion lives on that changing a practice undermines the faith. As a result, the struggle for the soul of the church has been a mighty one. Ideas have been stifled, unity has been strained, projects have been crippled, individuals have been crushed.

In her recently published work Witness to Integrity, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Anita Caspary tells a modern story of what it means to take one spiritual road and, in order not to perish, find yourself required to take what looks to be entirely another. The book makes for living history. It also makes for a good many questions about the nature of authority in the church, the place of women, the role of religious life and the definition of church itself.

Witness to Integrity was written 35 years after the Immaculate Heart Sisters of California found themselves forced to choose between the edicts of Cardinal James Frances McIntyre and the decrees of their own general chapter. In 1967, over 600 IHM sisters were listening to the directives of Vatican II to renew religious life based on “the charism of the founder, the signs of the times, and the needs of the members.” At the same time, McIntyre mandated that they cease both experimentation and change. Newspapers across the country recorded the whole sordid affair.

McIntyre ordered the community to 1) “adopt a uniform habit”; 2) “attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass together every day”; 3) “keep in mind their commitment to education”; 4) collaborate with the local ordinary in the works of the apostolate -- or, in other words, develop only those ministries he himself would approve. In this case, schools.

The sisters refused to accept the cardinal’s mandates and abandon the work of renewal. The cardinal refused to relent, and required their removal from diocesan schools and their dissolution as a congregation. The Vatican refused to negotiate the situation. Other authorities, perhaps fearing for their own futures, refused to support the community.

When the dust settled, only 50 sisters decided to accept the cardinal’s prescriptions; 132 sisters, weary of the struggle and disillusioned with the church, left religious life altogether; more than 400 others committed themselves to the IHM community that remains to this day. The Immaculate Heart Sisters became the Immaculate Heart Community.

But now they are a new kind of religious community. They are a community of women and men, married and unmarried, Catholics and non-Catholics, all of whom promise their lives to the spiritual ideals of the IHM tradition.

The price paid for such fidelity is astounding. The book’s most poignant passage describes the sisters’ reception of the stacks of dispensations that were distributed for them to sign. Dispensation meant that, after having given up everything “for the hundredfold,” they suddenly had no vows, no place to live, no work to do and no means of support. Caspary writes: “Each sister ... was to sign [an] application [for dispensation] without delay.” But in the application form was the statement that the petition for dispensation from one’s vows -- in other words, permission to leave religious life -- was made freely. Virtually every sister, without consultation with the others, took one final, important step: She crossed out the word “freely.”

Because of their courage, much survived: sound theology, the prophetic dimension of religious life, the dignity of women. True, a lot changed -- but, ironically, as Ovid said, nothing really perished.

Those were the incidents that led to the dissolution of the Immaculate Heart congregation as the world had come to know it. But those were not the issues. The issues were authority and vision.

“Justice and power must be brought together,” Blaise Pascal wrote, “so that what is just may be powerful and whatever is powerful may be just.”

For Anita Caspary and the IHMs in California, justice and power were light years apart.

It was just for the community to embark on a program of experimentation and renewal. Since the community was not organized as a diocesan congregation but fell under pontifical jurisdiction, it was not just for the archbishop of Los Angeles to assume power over their internal affairs.

Justice was on the side of the sisters, but the cardinal’s power to maneuver the system won out in the end. As a result, the Catholic school system in Los Angeles lost over 250 teaching sisters overnight and the community split into three major parts. Better to lose a community of women than to irritate a cardinal, apparently. In the end, Macintyre himself lost the good reputation other works of his must surely have deserved.

Witness to Integrity could well become a seminary textbook in courses on pastoral administration. The title of the course would be: “This is not the way to do it.”

The IHM story reprises the struggle between the authority of experience and the power of a system. Authority and power, this book makes clear, are not the same thing. Power lies only in the ability to enforce an order that may be wrong in the first place. The cardinal, it can be argued, had the authority to decree that religious without habits could not teach in archdiocesan schools. But what kind of authority is that? What is its purpose? Why was it so threatening to allow these women to follow their own insights and identify with the population they served -- as Jesus did?

Clearly, the criteria for the good use of church authority are not power, not “law,” not custom. The criterion is only Jesus, who went about doing good to everyone the system disdained.

Witness to Integrity demonstrates what happens when one part of the system sets itself above what committed people in another part of the system know to be the demands of the gospel for them. Indeed, the IHM Community itself is still together, even if not canonically recognized. And yet, 35 years later, the church still resists the inclusion of women, the counsel of lay people and the coming of a new day in ecclesiastical structures. It seems to me that we have already seen what happens when power blocks vision. Disaster.

There are some things no institution in the world can make up for by good management alone. Vision is one of them.

Even the most efficient buggy whip makers lasted only a few years after the invention of the horseless carriage. None survived over the long haul. The lesson begs respect. You can only live in the past for so long. But moving into the future takes vision. “Vision,” Jonathan Swift wrote, “is the art of seeing things invisible.”

The problem is that social change lurks among us largely invisible long before it becomes apparent.

Change does not start simply with the creation of a new gadget or the spinning of a new idea. Social change starts in people’s hearts. Change starts with discomfort, with lack of energy. Change begins when what we’ve always done ceases to satisfy us. Ceases to make sense. Ceases to work.

Religious life in the United States had reached the point of static perfection long before Vatican II. It had been fine-tuned to the ultimate. Its early missionary impulses had settled down into institutionalization. Religious stayed within very defined cultural boundaries. Our schools vied with one another for the population of Catholic students.

Every year we found ourselves further and further away from the very kinds of people whom religious ministries had been instituted to serve.

The novitiates were full to overflowing, but the culture from which the novices were coming had ceased to support childish lifestyles for professional women. It made no sense for a sister to be required, in the interest of “obedience,” to ask permission to go places she had been told to go -- like the schools in which we taught -- or to be deprived of professional formation because courses were held at night. A new generation of women religious failed to be persuaded that these were necessary steps to holiness.

A trivialized life began to look trivial to postwar women whose vision had expanded with the expansion of the world around them. New social questions -- poverty in an industrialized world, peacemaking in a violent world, children and hunger and housing and women’s issues -- began to creep into consciousness.

It was precisely issues of social change that fueled the struggle between the Immaculate Heart Sisters and Cardinal McIntyre, and his supporters in the Vatican.

McIntyre lacked what the IHMs had. He lacked vision. He could see only what was behind him, not in front of him. He had resisted the decisions of Vatican II, complaining at the council itself, Caspary notes, that “active participation [by the laity at Mass] was receiving more consideration than needed ... [especially when it would be practiced by those] whose whole intellectual capacity is not great.”

Witness to Integrity is a warning to us all. Scripture says it clearly: “Without vision the people perish.”

The IHMs -- and, with them, hundreds of other religious communities -- have gone beyond the old discipline of submission. They have become adult as well as committed, involved as well as set apart. What’s more, new communities of men and women have sprung up everywhere: married and unmarried, Christian and interfaith, driven by a different vision, given to new issues but nourished by ancient spiritualities -- many of them beyond the pale of the church.

From where I stand, if this book is any signal of things to come, if the church itself is to stay a potent factor in society, it must develop a vision that embraces the invisible. Otherwise, this book warns us, how else can our creating God go on creating except, perhaps, by rupture?

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

The column above is an edited version of Chittister's Web column, "From Where I Stand," published July 22 and 29 and Aug. 5 and available at

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2003

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