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Issue Date:  September 1, 2006

By Kenneth Briggs
Doubleday, 256 pages, $24.95
Layman decries betrayal of U.S. nuns

Book traces the renewal movement of Vatican II and the church's subsequent retrenchment


“Some of the garbs are outrageous. If I were not a religious, I might be tempted to run the other way.”

Author Kenneth Briggs cites this observation, made by a sister during the 1950s, in his study on the life of women religious in the United States during the transformation years of the 20th century and into the present time. It seems strange to me, therefore, that Doubleday chose a photo of one of those garbs worn by an elderly, sad-looking sister as the front cover.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, though I fear this cover might discourage many from taking this work seriously. The book is worth reading and should be of interest to a wide audience of Catholics.

Double Crossed is a gentle, respectful book by a layman troubled by the fact that “Catholic sisters in America [are] disappearing so rapidly,” and that what seems to him “an irreplaceable component of the Catholic heritage in this country [is] passing out of existence with relatively little notice.” In explaining the decline in the number of nuns, from 180,000 in 1965 to 68,000 in 2006, Mr. Briggs reveals a story of domination, hostility, rejection, highhandedness, and ultimately of the betrayal of American women religious and their congregations by church leadership both at home and in Rome.

The author’s research is extensive. With the exception of just a few factual inaccuracies (for example, Gregory Baum was not a Jesuit; religious today generally take somewhat modified simple, not solemn vows, although the latter are still present in canon law), he offers an engaging exploration into the structures of religious life, the dispositions and values of women religious before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), what furthered the impetus for change and renewal, what struggles had to be faced, who were the motivators and visionaries and how they were treated by a threatened church leadership.

I especially appreciated Mr. Briggs’ sensitive reflections on the history of the Sister Formation Conference and of the Second Vatican Council. The vision generated by Vatican II keeps many of us to this day struggling for transformation in social structures, including those of the church we love. A former religion editor of The New York Times, Mr. Briggs exposes some of the less honorable aspects of the council, turning point in Catholic self-understanding though it was: namely, the blatant exclusion of women during the first two sessions, their reluctant admission as “observers” (23 spectators among nearly 3,000 men), and the highhanded and rude rejection of the request that women religious be part of the discussion concerning religious life.

Mr. Briggs describes with numerous examples the movement toward transformation and renewal set off by Vatican II. He recalls for us the enthusiasm, fervor and pain, the struggle in the face of deeply opposing views regarding the intentions of the council, both internal as well as external opposition to change, the departure from religious life by numerous women for diverse reasons, and the cruel expulsion of others by church leaders who could not let go of control. Availing himself of key documents such as the Sister Surveys by Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Marie Augusta Neal as well as internal documents and questionnaires of various congregations, his use of personal interviews with those who lived through these years of turmoil puts a human face on the whole experience.

The author analyzes the exhausting opposition and retrenchment into pre-Vatican II positions on the part of ecclesiastical authority that contributed to the wearing down of hope and creativity among religious communities. He discusses the financial plight experienced by numerous congregations as their numbers declined. The meager stipends offered by dioceses for their work no longer sufficed to meet the sisters’ needs.

His report on how religious congregations are responding to their decline is honest and sympathetic, food for reflection and discussion. With candor and respect, this book explores a history of hope, enthusiasm and creative initiative betrayed. It truly leaves one wondering what might have been.

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Barbara Fiand is author of Living the Vision: Religious Vows in an Age of Change and Wrestling with God: Religious Life in Search of its Soul (Crossroad).

On the Web
To hear author Kenneth Briggs and former NCR editor and publisher Thomas C. Fox discuss Double Crossed, visit and select NCR Podcasts from the menu bar at the top of the home page.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2006

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