Religion: The New Nuns

Religion: The New Nuns
They dress in everything from miniskirts to medieval mantles. They do
everything from classroom teaching to police work. One has a job with
Cesar Chavez, another with Ralph Nader. There is a deputy attorney
general and an Air Force lieutenant. They live in inner-city slums, in
posh suburbs, on farms, even in the desert. They come singly, by the
dozen and in battalions. They are the new American nuns who, in the
decade since the Second Vatican Council first provided the inspiration,
have streamed out of their centuries-old enclosures into the modern
world. The most radical of the new nuns have abandoned their orders to form
“noncanonical” experimental communities outside the reach of church
authority. But they do not consider themselves “ex-nuns.” A free-form,
geographically dispersed group called
Sisters for a Christian Community was founded in 1970 to
“experiment and pioneer new forms of religious life for the 21st
century.” Essential to the undertaking, says Founding Sister Lillanna
Kopp of Portland, Ore., is the elimination of the bureaucratic,
authoritarian structures that have driven American nuns out of
traditional religious orders by the tens of thousands since the Vatican
Council closed in 1965. Since that year, the number of U.S. nuns has
dropped from 180-000 to 150,000—far more than can be accounted for by
normal attrition. “We must be a pilgrim people on the road,
unencumbered by luggage,” says Sister Kopp, a sociologist and author,
who left her order in 1969. “Marble mother houses are what destroyed
the old orders.” The S.F.C.C. has no mother general, much less a mother house, since it
owns no real estate. Each sister makes a home for herself, sometimes
shared with one or two other members, finds her own job and pays her
own taxes. Each writes a private commitment to Christ instead of taking
formal vows. None is required to wear a habit or any other religious
symbol. Many, however, including Sister Kopp, wear crucifixes or other
emblems of the profession. Probably the best known of the noncanonical communities is a group that
broke away from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in Los Angeles
. Today 260 of the original 300 “defectors,” as
they are called in canon law, remain active. In a bold redefinition of
a religious order, they have added to their ranks three married couples
and one Protestant woman, who are considered full members of the
community and, like the sisters, contribute part of their earnings to a
common fund. Says Sister Anita Caspary, the community's moving spirit
and the former head of the mother group: “Our own strength and
liberation as women came from our past experiences in the Immaculate
Heart order, when we were forced to take top administrative roles and
do work usually assigned to men in the outside world.”