DOUBLE CROSSED: UNCOVERING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH'S BETRAYAL OF AMERICAN
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
Reviewed by BARBARA FIAND
“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
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 NCRcafe.org
and select NCR Podcasts from the menu bar at the top of the home page.
National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2006