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Carmen Mangion

Chapter 7 engages with the ideas coming out of the 1970s women’s movement and their influence on the identities of women religious. Through the Nun in the World and feminist theologians, nuns and sisters experienced a more thorough grounding in theology that acknowledged their womanhood and sexuality and linked it to a deeper understanding of their faith. They questioned the ‘charged symbols’ of religious life. Enclosed nuns opened their non-cloistered spaces more readily, and some began to see the grille that separated them from the world as an unnecessary impediment to their ministry. The other loaded symbol of religious life, the religious habit, was being modified and in some communities was seen as a barrier to new ministries. For some, these unchanging symbols of religious life signified tradition, security and the authenticity of religious life. For others, the need for modernity, to meet the modern world in different ways offered a ‘renewed’ way to be an authentic religious. Women religious, like feminists, claimed for themselves the right to define their own place in both secular society and the Catholic world. This chapter demonstrates that both religious and secular ideas shaped these women’s awareness of their womanhood.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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Post-war modernity and religious vocations
Carmen Mangion

Chapter 1 provides a snapshot of the Catholic Church engaging with the modern world in the 1940s and 1950s. It examines both the global and the national Church and is the backstory to the remaining chapters, asserting a significant prehistory to the Second Vatican Council. It surveys young women’s place in the modern world of the 1940s and 1950s, considering their opportunities and their decision to enter religious life through an analysis of the ‘vocation story’. It links the specificities of their life histories to the growing global, national and institutional awareness that fewer women were saying ‘yes’ to religious life. The 1950s was often remembered as a golden age ‘when novitiates were bursting’. The archives suggest a different story that features the paucity of women crossing the monastic threshold. This phenomenon was addressed in various ways. Pope Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Sponsa Christi (1950) and subsequent international congresses advocated a renewal of religious life. Modern approaches were employed to develop a more sophisticated means of vocation promotion that was direct, public-facing and professional. The new religious discourse on the ‘modern world’ acknowledged that religious life must modernise to become more relevant and attractive to Catholic women.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
Britain, 1945–90
Author: Carmen Mangion

Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age examines the changes in religious life for women religious in Britain from 1945 to 1990 identifying how community and individual lives were altered. This work is grounded in three core premises: women religious were influenced by and participated in the wider social movements of the long 1960s; women’s religious institutes were transnational entities and part of a larger global happening; and the struggles of renewal were linked to competing and contradictory ideas of collective, institutional identities. The work pivots on the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), but considers pre and post Vatican II social, cultural and religious events and social movements of the 1960s as influencers in these changes. It interrogates ‘lived experience’ by examining the day-to-day lives of women religious. Though rooted in the experiences of women religious in Britain, the book probes the relationships and interconnectivities between women religious within and across national divides as they move from institutions embedded in uniformity to the acceptance of cultural plurality. It also engages with the histories of the social movements of the long 1960s. For too long, religion has been relegated to its own silo, unlinked to the ‘radical sixties’ and depicted as ultimately obstructionist to its social movements. To contest this, female religious life is examined as a microcosm of change in the Catholic Church pointing to the ‘new thinking and freer lifestyles’ that allowed for the questioning of institutional cultures.

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Carmen Mangion

The Conclusion encapsulates the changes enacted from 1945 to 1990, considering both the voices heard and the voices not heard in this study, and acknowledging the pain of change. It returns to the three core premises – religious life as a social movement influenced by secular social movements; transnational influences; and changing identities – setting these in the more international frame of religious life, identifying what made British religious life distinctive. In addressing the global nature of these changes, it reminds us of the internationality of religious life and the transnational encounters that informed women’s understanding of religious change. It then links this historical study with the sustained complexity of contemporary religious life: a time of continued diminishment and innovations, revelations of abuse and new religious movements.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
Carmen Mangion

Chapter 3 explores the ways in which religious life was reconfigured in regard to governance and obedience, leading to the elimination of, as one sister put it, ‘a Victorian attitude’. It genders our knowledge of the global 1968 movements by exploring an emancipatory movement led, sustained and spread by women. The female leaders of religious institutes rethought governance and replaced deeply embedded structures where the mother superior or abbess and her council made decisions for all members of the community. The result: more women participated in governance, as delegates to General Chapters or as members of provincial structures; more voices were heard via questionnaires and consultative meetings. At the local level, changes in governance practices were experienced by each and every member of a community. Renewal unleashed a social movement that gave voice to grievances and concerns about religious life and encouraged collective action that changed, in many communities, the lived experience of community life. And yet, this was in no way a straightforward story of progress. These changes polarised women religious in groups that were ‘for change’ and ‘against change’ and were highly contentious.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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Carmen Mangion

This chapter sketches out the rationale for this research, identifying methodologies, sources and the key historiographies that the work is embedded in. It critiques the primary sources, including original material from public and private archives such as correspondence, instructions, questionnaires and reports. Documents do not tell us everything we need to know about the past, though they often identify events, official decision-making and institutional ideologies. Oral testimonies provided another layer of interpretation and allowed for a focus on subjectivities, the meanings, emotions and attitudes so central to the construction of self. The ‘turn to self’ which legitimated (in some circles) the engagement with life stories (particularly autobiography and oral history) in academic studies has been influential to scholars working on cohorts marginalised or missing from documentary sources. This research is grounded in a particular British context and contextualises the changing dimensions of women’s religious life within the historiographies of post-war Britain, Catholicism in Britain and the Second Vatican Council, exploring how religious bodies engaged in modernisation and reinvigorated (or not) their global presence.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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Changing ministries
Carmen Mangion

Chapter 6 interrogates how religious institutions re-examined their ministries in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by a discourse of social justice grounded in solidarity with those marginalised by society and in line with a voluntary sector re-energised by the social movements of the long 1960s. In addressing the role of women religious as purveyors of religion, it suggests a rethinking of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy that realigned them with the politics of mercy. Alternate ministries were both local and global, but united by their focus on those marginalised by society. Whether working as parish sisters, in convent schools or in the barriadas of Peru, female religious held on to this larger objective of social justice that was not narrowed by geography. What linked these ministries was a more global thinking of their role as religious: their work revealed both a local mission done globally and a global mission done locally. Added to these shifts in ministries are the complexities of the realisation that the decline in numbers would not be reversed and institutional work running large schools and hospitals needed to be rethought.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
Carmen Mangion

In Chapter 2 the discourse on the post-war Modern Girl takes centre stage and the chapter investigates how she influenced the boundaries of female religious life in British congregations and orders from the 1940s to the 1960s. It identifies the predominant themes developed by the cultural trope of the Modern Girl, which reflected certain orthodoxies regarding perceived social and moral swings and then demonstrates how these were incorporated within the Catholic discourse of youth culture in general, but more particularly the Catholic Modern Girl. Using primarily nun memoirs, apologetic texts and vocation promotion literature, it interrogates how the institutional Church along with female religious congregations and orders reacted to this discourse and what steps were taken (or not taken) to restructure the lived experience of religious life to accommodate the Modern Girl.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
Carmen Mangion

Chapter 4 addresses the changing tenor of homosocial relationships within monastic and convent female homosocial spaces as a move from the formal to the relational. Women’s experiences of religious life are analysed to understand how relationships were understood and lived. The first section considers the ‘common life’, communal ways of inhabiting the social spaces of the convent that held religious life together. As the horarium that regulated the religious day was altered, the permission-centred model of religious life became one that allowed for personal responsibility. The formal structures of the ‘common life’ provided a unity that was now questioned and relationships grounded in formerly rigid structures were renegotiated. The second section addresses the complex, relational nature of these shifts and questions the language of generations used to identify those for and against change. The convent, often imagined as a conservative site of religious piety, became a place of radical activism and generational dissonance when a discourse of personal and shared responsibility challenged matriarchal social hierarchies.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
Carmen Mangion

The nun in the modern world and the modern world inside the convent is the subject of Chapter 5. Some considered adaptations to a secular age a dangerous move towards religious secularisation. Others saw this as a necessary antidote to the evils of modernity. This engagement with the world, faintly visible in archival sources from the 1940s, quickened with the publication of council documents Perfectae Caritatis (1965) and Lumen Gentium (1964), which emphasised (or so it seemed) a radical activism embedded in a secular world. The acceptability of engaging with the modern world on its own terms in its own language exemplifies this new relationship with modernity. By the 1960s and 1970s, the questioning of institutional barriers to ministry and bolstering of individual autonomy was reflective of the larger 1960s mentality that emphasised individual expression, links between people and the removal of boundaries. Becoming part of the world was a response to both religious and secular social movements. For many sisters and nuns, it was not a sudden thrust into the world; but a gradual shift. It was not always a welcome shift when it disrupted patterns of living and beliefs about the sacred/secular divide.

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age