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In Los Angeles, a face-off after Vatican II
On October 18, 1967, the Los Angeles Times published a story about a general chapter meeting of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters—the “IHMs” to those who inhabit the Catholic universe—a 119-year-old teaching order of 560 religious women known for fostering excellence in the diocesan schools. The IHMs’ superior, the Reverend Mother Mary Humiliata Caspary, explained to the paper’s reporter that the order, in response to the directives of Vatican II, had voted to begin a several-years-long process of altering its rules and lifestyle, so that it could become “more open to the world . . . more responsive and involved in it.”
Among the changes were several that would quickly elicit the ire of the staunchly traditional archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, and of pastors whose parish schools were staffed by the sisters. For example, any IHM nun who felt called to work outside the classroom would be allowed to choose a new career. As Mother Caspary explained:
“We won’t abandon our traditional works, but we also say that diversity in works is not to be discouraged, but encouraged. . . . If one of our sisters has a special talent or interest, we will encourage her to pursue it. She might be a commercial artist, or a newspaper woman, or a musician, or almost anything else.”
Moreover, the sisters would henceforth have “options” as to their dress: They could wear traditional veils that covered their hair, or abbreviated veils, or no veils at all. They could choose to retain their traditional ankle-length habit, wear a modified (knee-length) version, or dress simply and modestly in street clothes. They would also have an opportunity to return to their given, family names and to shed the “names in religion” bestowed with their vows.
The structure of the order was about to change, too. In place of past regimentation, under which “each convent had a superior who was in charge and community prayers were set out in detail by the order’s constitution,” said Caspary, “members of each local convent will decide what kind of government they want.” Mother Caspary was quoted in the article as observing that the reforms being undertaken were “more profound than any thus far announced by any American religious society of Catholic women.” Another sister called them a “major breakthrough” for U.S. nuns.
Like many other orders of sisters, the IHMs had embraced the call of Vatican II to rediscover the “original inspiration” of their founding. It would turn out, however, that such founding visions were often more radical than early 20th-century entrenched tradition would admit. At the IHMs’ establishment in Spain in 1848 (the order was started by a diocesan priest), the sisters had focused their energies on apostolic service at the edges of society. They were an order called to work in the world, among people who otherwise might not hear the Word preached; their clothing was intended to mark them as members of the working poor, not a caste apart. Their modern role, as teachers in middle-class parochial schools, had come about accidentally, out of a need to make ends meet when members of the order arrived in California in the 1870s. For the IHMs, renewal as mandated by the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 “Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life” (Perfectae Caritatis) meant forsaking unquestioning obedience to Church officials and shouldering responsibility for their mission and identity.
Many observers have attempted to cast the confrontation that followed in Los Angeles as a battle between liberal sisters and a conservative hierarchy, personified by the 81-year-old Cardinal McIntyre, an administrator respected for his business acuity. The cardinal’s dismissive attitude toward anyone who would change what he took to be changeless truths of the Catholicism he’d learned in seminary was legendary. At Vatican II he had opposed switching from the Latin Mass to the vernacular: The move gave excessive deference to people whose “intellectual capacity was not great,” he said, and “active participation [by the laity] was frequently a distraction.” But, in fact, the process of change envisioned by the IHM general chapter was rooted in the words of the hierarchical Church itself. The norms for implementing Perfectae Caritatis issued by Pope Paul VI a year after the close of Vatican II pointedly encouraged communities of religious women to experiment with dress, lifestyle, and apostolic work.
Local Church officials immediately recognized the institutional threat posed by the order’s decisions. The network of Catholic elementary and high schools was a jewel in the crown of what was in Los Angeles a Catholic empire, including hospitals, a conference center, and Immaculate Heart College (now closed), all substantially staffed by nuns. Mother Caspary’s vision of a “diversity of works,” if allowed to prevail, promised institutional turmoil.
On October 16, two days before the news broke in the Los Angeles Times and two days after the general chapter had reached its decisions, the five members of the order’s general council (Caspary included) were called to the cardinal’s chancery. As Caspary later set the scene, the sisters were “praying silently as we ascended the marble staircase to the conference room . . . prepared to meet the criticism that was inevitable.” McIntyre, she reported, professed to be “shocked” and angered at the possibility that the sisters might actually teach in “street clothes” the following September. He declared that he would not allow any IHM sister who was not wearing a religious habit into a classroom, and further announced that the Immaculate Heart Sisters would not be teaching in any archdiocesan school the following fall.
On October 24, the superintendent of the archdiocesan school system, Monsignor Donald Montrose, forwarded to the sisters a letter from the cardinal:
It would appear that the action of the chapter presents to the archdiocese of Los Angeles an ultimatum that does not even admit of discussion or negotiation. This ultimatum, with its elements, is not acceptable to the archdiocese of Los Angeles and its ordinary [McIntyre]. Consequently, there is no alternative than to accept the threat of the community that they withdraw from the teaching staffs of our parochial schools in the archdiocese.
The IHMs were stunned by the archdiocese’s reading of their announcement as a “threat” and stated to reporters that the entire matter had been referred to the pope’s representative in the United States, the apostolic delegate Archbishop Luigi Raimondi. Officially, this was a correct canonical action; the IHMs were a pontifical order answerable to Rome and not to the local archbishop. But involving the apostolic delegate immediately intensified both the animosity and newsworthiness surrounding the issues.
Support for the sisters spread quickly and widely. The February 3, 1968, issue of Ave Maria, a popular Catholic magazine, carried a letter signed by 13 Jesuit seminary professors praising the reforms undertaken by the IHMs. The Jesuits, all professors at Alma College in Los Gatos, California, described the experiments envisioned by the sisters as “a splendid response to the call for renewal and adaptation of religious life.”
By March 8, 1968, the fracas between the sisters and the cardinal had reached a peak. That day, Los Angeles TV station KNBC reported that the IHMs were prepared to resign all of their diocesan teaching positions rather than agree to Cardinal McIntyre’s demands that they adopt a habit, maintain some form of common daily prayer, and affirm their apostolic commitments within the archdiocese. Four days later the New York Times wrote that the order would appeal its case directly to Pope Paul VI. Finally, on April 16, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Religious and Secular Institutes, the Roman office assigned to deal with groups of religious women, appointed a four-member committee of American bishops to investigate the affair and make recommendations.
Only later would it be revealed that more than a month before the naming of this committee, the sisters had received a (secret) responsum from the Sacred Congregation. The ruling was a reply to Cardinal McIntyre’s separate appeal to Rome regarding the controversy and represented what the National Catholic Reporter termed a “crushing defeat for the sisters.” The Roman congregation decreed that the sisters must comply with McIntyre’s demands and, most important for shaping subsequent events, that even though the IHMs were subject to the Sacred Congregation for Religious in Rome, they were nonetheless answerable to the archbishop of Los Angeles.
The press reported on March 20 that a majority of the order had decided to “put off compliance” with the directive from Rome. This position was immediately supported by a national write-in campaign in which some 3,000 women religious as well as assorted Protestant denominational leaders and Catholic political figures sent their signatures to Rome, backing the sisters.
An extraordinarily public standoff now existed among the IHMs, Cardinal McIntyre, and the Roman Congregation of Religious. It was Denver’s Archbishop James Casey, the head of the investigating committee appointed by Rome, who announced a resolution. In the estimation of the committee, he said, the order already constituted two separate communities: a large progressive faction that would follow the lead of Mother Caspary; and a smaller (and generationally older) faction that wanted to maintain the traditional lifestyle and diocesan apostolic commitments. Thus the investigating committee, in Solomonic style, recommended that the IHMs themselves choose their course. Cardinal McIntyre and his school superintendent would inherit the “no-nos” (as the press dubbed the conservative sisters), and the progressive “go-gos” would have the right to determine their own future. Roman authority, diocesan institutional needs, and American democratic ideals were thus all (more or less) affirmed.
About 50 sisters voted against the reforms planned by the general chapter and united under the leadership of Sr. Eileen MacDonald. These nuns, retaining the original name of the order—the California Institute of the Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary—adopted modified habits, retained common prayer as the organizing principle of their day, and committed themselves to teaching in nine parochial schools in the archdiocese.
Close to 150 members of IHM chose to leave religious life altogether. The remaining 350 or so sisters formed the Immaculate Heart Community, under the leadership of Mother (now Ms. Anita) Caspary. In 1970, they became the single largest group of religious women in the history of the American Catholic Church to become exclaustrated, that is, formally released from their vows by the Vatican. Though not strictly a religious order according to the Church’s canon law, this new group—an intentional community of lay women (and, more recently, men)—nonetheless maintains an identity focused on apostolic work in the world. The community retained the right to administer Immaculate Heart College (which closed in 1981, strapped financially), Queen of the Valley Hospital (now subsumed under Citrus Valley Health Partners), and the order’s retreat center overlooking the Pacific near Santa Barbara.
The treatment thus accorded the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters by their bishop and subsequently by officials in Rome might stand as a powerful symbol for other individuals and groups in the Church who interpreted the signs of the times too radically and found themselves in ecclesiastical hot water for attempting to do precisely what they thought the Church wanted. The IHMs (and many other orders) believed that the force guiding them was the Holy Spirit. Their story offers a dramatic instance of the unintended conflict generated by Church officials who call for reform but believe that it can be accomplished without controversy and without changing Church structures. Whatever the intentions of the bishops of the Second Vatican Council—and that debate is a heated one—it is clear that historical events have a life of their own. Even ecumenical councils cannot control them. That is part of the messiness of history. Believers get no exemption from historical messiness.
Mark Massa, SJ, is dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. His essay is drawn and adapted by permission from his book The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever (copyright © 2010 by Oxford University Press).
Read more by Mark Massa, SJ