I know I’ve been very quiet lately. I’ve been traveling for nearly three weeks, mostly tending to family affairs and doing a little research along the way. I’ve also had the chance to spend valuable time in conversation with friends in Michigan and New England, a rare pleasure all the more precious because of current events, which utterly bristle with hostility and violence now. I feel very sheltered and cared for by all of you, in comparison to so much of the rest of the world.
Although I’ve blogged extensively about the peculiar ferocity and gendered nature of gun violence in the United States over the past 8-1/2 years, I must admit to being completely hollowed out by the horrors of the mass murders in Orlando 10 days ago. What does it matter what I or any of us write here, with that kind of nihilism plus access to semi-automatic weaponry living among us? Unsurprisingly, the killer was a 100% homegrown American man, and like so many other American men, he was deranged by anger, misogyny, and his own sexual desires.
I may have more to say about this, especially the fact that the murderer targeted a largely LGBT and Latinx crowd, something that’s been lost in the panic about his supposed motivation to join ISIS/ISIL. I’ve been happier living in my imagination in some of the more peaceful corners of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the past few weeks. We all must consider how we can take the best of the past and make it a living tradition, and leave behind the worst: injustice, brutality, corruption. Historians struggle with these issues more than most people, I suppose.
A few weeks ago, I was invited by Edward Carson (@ProfCarson44) of the Christian Century to write something for their history blog, Then & Now. Here’s an excerpt from “What future is there for religious women in the west?”
Most Americans are more likely to know Catholic sisters as fictional characters in books, movies, or television shows than they are to meet or know one in real life. The fictional Protestant sisters of the (also fictional) order of St. Raymond Nonnatus on the BBC series Call the Midwife are more numerous than the real-life ones I’ve met in the course of my life. The show, set in postwar London in the 1950s and early 1960s, portrays sisters who may be just another quaint period detail, like the Bakelite telephones and the unexploded ordinance leftover from the Blitz.
Is there a future for religious women in North America and western Europe? Even heavily Catholic regions like Ireland and Quebec have populations of Catholic sisters who are overwhelmingly elderly, with few younger women to replace them or even to care for them within their communities.In the course of researching 18th-century Ursulines, I visited their monastery in Quebec City, which was founded in 1639 and hosts the oldest school for girls in North America. It felt more like a retirement home. I met no religious women under 70, and almost none of them were performing any of the work central to their apostolate. All of the teachers at the school are now laypeople. Sometimes it feels like the sisterhood is on its way to extinction.
Read the whole thing, and let me know what you think, especially those of you who also write about religious women or the history of religion in general. I’ve got a few tips for the Church (based in what’s been historically successful!) if they want to continue benefiting from the massive amounts of volunteer labor that sisters contribute.