In 1970, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre drew international attention to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles when he forced the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) sisters to break away from the Catholic Church. A talented financier and builder, McIntyre has been called the most reactionary and authoritarian prelate in the history of American Catholicism. The long-simmering dispute revolved around the cardinal’s insistence that the IHM nuns wear traditional habits, restrict their ministry to teaching in his schools, and adhere to a strict monastic schedule including when they should pray and when they should go to bed.
The struggle was chronicled in Witness to Integrity, a book authored by Anita Caspary, who served as IHM mother superior and president of Immaculate Heart College. Formerly known as Sister Humiliata, Caspary died last year. She was 95.
The IHM has recently offered the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) the use of the Casa de Maria, their retreat facility in Santa Barbara, free of charge.
Lenore Navarro Dowling is the daughter of Filipino immigrants. She entered the Immaculate Heart Community in 1950. She holds a doctorate in communications from the University of Southern California and teaches English at Rio Hondo College in Los Angeles.
Mark Day interviewed Dowling about the Immaculate Heart Community, her thoughts on today’s Catholic Church, and the Vatican’s conflict with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Mark Day: How does the IHM’s conflict compare with the current struggle between the Vatican and the LCWR?
Lenore Dowling: We went through the same kind of investigation, but our conflict was more a question of discipline. We wanted to send our nuns to school to finish their degrees before teaching. Cardinal James Francis McIntyre refused to allow us to do that. He objected to our wanting to change our habits, our daily routine, and to be able to get other jobs and to live outside the convents. That was a matter of discipline. What is happening now with the LCWR is about fidelity to the church’s teachings on issues such as homosexuality and abortion.
Our stance was based on self-determination, that we could not accept an outside authority dictating to us on our internal affairs. This is what today’s nuns are experiencing. It’s the male hierarchy telling women how they should run their lives.
And isn’t this essentially what the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith is doing to the LCWR?
Yes, the very fact that they are being charged with having feminist ideas, liberal ideas—the idea that they conform to their idea of how nuns should live and what they should be doing. The LCWR did not receive an ultimatum. We at the Immaculate Heart Community did receive an ultimatum.
There seems to be a lot of courage in both instances.
Yes. And I think the nuns are being very courageous today. Take Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK, for example. The ground has not shifted under her. As a spokesperson for nuns who are working against the Ryan budget and in solidarity with those in need, she says that nothing has changed.
Do you believe the Vatican will give the nuns an ultimatum?
I can’t speculate on that. Individual congregations of sisters are discerning their own position. Maybe there never will be an ultimatum. Who knows, maybe the bishops and the Vatican will be the ones to back off. The nuns are neither defiant, nor passive. They are biding their time. After all, there is such a groundswell of support for them.
Do you think the recent political turmoil within the Vatican will play a role in this?
Yes. The Vatican’s internal investigations of its own scandals should be drawing attention away from the nuns. After all, it’s simply been a convenient diversion for the Vatican to go after the sisters.
What do you make of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) labeling the nuns of LCWR as “radical feminists?”
Feminism means equality. What women are asking for is not to be oppressed, not to be dictated to, not to be considered subservient to men, and not to be obedient to the authority that comes down upon them. I haven’t seen them repudiate this charge. But it’s like, how do you answer those who say Obama is a Muslim—as if being a Muslim were a bad thing? To say the nuns are not feminists would be to say that feminism is bad thing. It’s too bad that they can’t say, “Yes, we stand with the feminist movement, the women’s movement that has been working for equality in society and in the church.”
Is this the wave of the future for Catholicism? Do you think more of these congregations could take this route?
I think it depends on the charisma of the group and the wisdom of their leadership. I don’t think there will be any kind of mass movement in this direction. But I do think some of these groups are looking for alternatives. Some congregations may opt out of LCWR or change it into another entity or coalition that is no longer tied to the Vatican. This stalemate will not last. Something has to happen.
You have said that there is confusion in the hierarchy’s mind about their role versus the role of the nuns. Could you elaborate on that?
The hierarchy is the teaching arm of the church. Women religious are the ministering arm of the church. They are two difference modes of being in the world. The hierarchy views nuns as their handmaidens. That’s never the view of the nuns, simply to carry out the work of the parishes. The women see their role differently. They don’t use the word “preach.” They just try to live the Gospel according to their consciences on a case-by-case basis in their ministries to the poor and to women and families in crisis.
It’s interesting that you speak of the role of conscience, which is one of the major teachings of Vatican II.
Things are going backwards now. Regressing. At the Vatican Council, Catholics were told to follow their consciences. But now we have gone back to pre-Vatican II days. That is out of line and unfair to Catholics today. For the bishops to take a negative stance against health care and Obama care is to fail to understand the health needs of women. The bishops should be like Sister Simone Campbell and preach against the Ryan budget, which is completely opposed to Catholic social teaching. It oppresses the poor.
Pope Benedict XVI has been railing lately against secularism, warning Catholics to stick to their religious values, to the rules. What do you make of this?
If Jesus were here today, he would be out on the streets. He would be “secular,” living in the world, and ministering to the world. He wants us to do likewise, to live in the world and minister to the people.
How do you feel about the health of your own IHM community?
We have been getting new candidates. We’ re not as big as other communities, but we are healthy and alive. The fact that people keep coming is a good sign. Some religious communities are not getting any new candidates or very few. Our attrition is mainly through the deaths of our members. We have a lot of diversity. Many candidates are coming to us as older adults. Our average age is 74, but that doesn’t bother us. Most religious congregations have aging members. With the IHM, there is a spectrum of Catholic beliefs. Some are traditional, others free spirited. It seems that the more educated a person is, the more likely that person is a critical thinker who relies less and less on what comes from the pulpit.
Where do you personally stand in regard to the institutional Catholic Church?
I am a practicing Catholic. I go to Mass, I don’t subscribe to church teachings against contraception and homosexuality. So I think I am with with the majority of Catholics who can align themselves with the Gospel but not with recent church teachings that deviate from the Gospel and from what Jesus intended.
Do you think the Vatican can be reformed in its present state?
I don’t know. At this time, it looks like a fortress. You never know when the Holy Spirit will break through. There is always hope. In the meantime, it’s harmless, really. Take the nuns. They will continue to do what they are doing, unshakable in their faith. Whether the fortress stands or falls, the nuns will keep going.
Mark Day is a filmmaker, journalist and labor activist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org