National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 16, 2004

Marie Augusta Neal, teacher, author, researcher, dead at 82


Sr. Marie Augusta Neal radicalized me with the help of the book of Leviticus. Yes, Leviticus. A quarter century before the term “Jubilee Justice” crossed the lips of socially engaged Christians approaching the millennium, Neal introduced her students to the biblical Jubilee. In the Jubilee year, says Leviticus 25, the prisoners are set free, land is returned to its original owners, debts are forgiven and fields allowed to lie fallow. Not only people, but the land itself is given a sabbatical.

The vision of the Jubilee guided and inspired Neal and the students she taught. A Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, Neal died last month at the age of 82. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard in 1963 and went on to chair the sociology department at Emmanuel, the Boston women’s college run by her religious community.

She is best known for conducting the National Sisters Survey, which charted change among U.S. Catholic women religious after the Second Vatican Council.

The title of her first book, Values and Interests in Social Change (1965), was a constant theme in her later works, which included Catholic Sisters in Transition: From the 1960s to the 1980s (1984) and From Nuns to Sisters: An Expanding Vocation (1990).

I remember Neal, in the mid-1970s, heading for Harvard’s computer lab -- those were the days of mainframe computers -- and doing the rigorous, patient work of collecting, analyzing and studying data on the lives of sisters. She asked questions of the numbers and knew which questions to ask. As director of the research committee of what was then the Conference of Major Superiors of Women’s Institutes (CMSW, now LCWR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious), Neal “deeply influenced U.S. women religious,” said Dominican Sr. Kaye Ashe, “especially in terms of how effectively we took the message of Vatican II.” Ashe, a former president of the Dominican Leadership Conference, was prioress of the Sinsinawa Dominicans from 1986 to 1994.

Ashe spoke of her respect and love for Neal, whom she called “a consummate scholar ... exquisitely sensitive to global inequities and to the plight of the poor.” Neal’s research, said Ashe, “helped us close the gap between what we said we believed and our actual ministry.” True to her global interests, Neal conducted a study of education in South Africa and wrote extensively on women’s issues in church and society.

“She made us examine our beliefs in relation to actual expenditure of money, energy and talent,” said Ashe, now lecturer at St. Mary’s College of California and the author of Feminization of the Church.

Neal also influenced three generations of Catholic social activists, including anti-death-penalty activist and Dead Man Walking author Sr. Helen Prejean and Kip Tiernan, one of Boston’s most respected advocates for marginalized people, who founded the women’s shelter Rosie’s Place and the Poor People’s United Fund.

Always “Sister Marie Augusta” to her students, Neal, unlike many U.S. sisters, kept her religious name after the changes of Vatican II and did not return to her birth name of Helen. She was my teacher in the 1970s at Harvard Divinity School during her years as a visiting professor there, and taught me one of the most important questions I have ever learned to ask: “Who defines the situation?” I still ask this question of theological texts, institutions, religious and secular, political situations and many other realities. Just weeks ago, I taught it to my own students.

Neal taught hard lessons without ever raising her voice. Elegant, soft-spoken and radical, she fixed her blue eyes on us, calmly reeled off facts and figures on the gap between rich and poor, and invited us to relinquish our privilege.

During those heady years of the 1970s, with Vatican II still a fresh memory and new theological voices emerging, many here in the North were beginning to ask: “What is the equivalent of liberation theology for us in the First World?” Sr. Marie Augusta had a clear, tough answer: “Ours must be a theology of relinquishment.” One of her books from that period carries the unwieldy but challenging title: A Socio-Theology of Letting Go: First World Church Facing Third World Peoples (1977). A decade later, The Just Demands of the Poor: Essays in Socio-Theology (1987) pointed in the same direction.

“She impressed me as being at the same time gracious, passionate and serene,” Ashe remembered. “She really did spur all of us to become more politically and socially aware both globally and locally, and inspired us to translate into action the Gospel message of Jesus to the poor.” There was no resignation in the Gospel Neal heard and proclaimed, Ashe remembered, but rather the affirmation that “the poor aren’t meant to stay poor; the non-poor are required to share.”

Feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, cofounder and codirector with Diann Neu of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, Md., remembers this message of Neal’s most clearly. “Marie Augusta’s legacy,” Hunt said, “was her insistence that those of us who live with privilege are obliged in justice to ‘let go’ so that the abundance of Earth may be shared.”

Jane Redmont, author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today, teaches at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and is completing her Ph.D. in theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004

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