Generations from now, historians will look back upon 19th and 20th Century American Catholicism with a sense of awe over the institutional might that it exhibited, in much the same way that today we marvel at the kind of faith (and expense) that it took to construct the great cathedrals of Europe centuries ago.
Across the vast expanse of America in that era, the Church founded and ran the most extensive private network of grade schools, high schools, colleges, orphanages, hospitals, and shelters that this country has ever seen and likely will ever see again. For millions of poor immigrants, or urban youth, or rural farmers, the Church was their source of safety, security, and education.
And, all of that was in addition to, and built in tandem with, an equally impressive crop of parishes and missions (and seminaries, monasteries, and convents) in every corner of the land, from the most populous to the most desolate.
Not unlike the building of the great Cathedrals of Europe, it would be difficult to reproduce the conditions to make that building boom happen again. Such an amazing institutional achievement was the result of an alignment of several unique circumstances in Catholic, European, and American life that have now come and gone.
The End of American Institutional Catholic Era
A different alignment of new circumstances has all but eliminated most of that former institutional might. The Catholic heart has disappeared from much of it leaving a shell to survive in its place today- a shell of buildings and some saint names for institutions, but lacking the Catholic life blood that built and maintained them.
The last remaining edifices of that once vast communal infrastructure are our educational institutions and our parishes. But those, too, are struggling to replace the animating force that has gone out of them, and they are rapidly changing (or disappearing) as a result.
There are a host of factors that brought about the end of the era of institutional Catholicism in our country, but there is one in particular that was singularly devastating: the disappearance of religious sisters. We did not realize it until they were gone, but they were the ones who truly built all those structures and held it all together. And their structures have now disappeared with them.
The Religious Sisters Did It All, For Nothing Except Heaven
For many years now, I have drawn a parallel between the institutional American Catholic Church of the 19th and 20th Centuries and the Antebellum South in the slave era. The American South, by the time of the Civil War, had built up an impressive economic infrastructure fueled in an outsized way by slave labor. That is part of why they fought so bitterly to keep slavery in place because it was their single biggest investment and guarantor of their economic future. To put it simplistically: the North had invested in factories, and the South had purchased slaves.
You can do a lot with cheap labor. The Church’s slave labor force were the sisters, without question. We built so many hospitals and schools because they were staffed by people who were, essentially, unpaid. And many lived in the most meager of conditions for decades.
The parallel with the Antebellum South is not perfect. The vast majority of those women freely chose their lifestyle, answering a calling from God, and living in poverty out of tremendous love for their Divine Spouse, and out of an earnest desire to serve the face of Christ in the least of his poor people. For the sisters it was, most of the time, a true labor of love and a heroic, free response to a Gospel summons.
To put it another way, they were mothers to countless people. And we do all need mothers to be sure. It was their motherly sacrifice and vocation that powered the vast infrastructure of our land in so many respects.
Our Schools Will Need to Change With the Sisters Gone
Most would agree that by now the orphanages, shelters, social service institutions, and (most) hospitals have ceased to be Catholic or ceased to exist with the sisters gone. Sadly enough there is just a quiet acceptance of the fact that we’ve lost any influence over those pivotal realms of the culture, ceding almost all of it to the government.
But what I think we are only just beginning to realize now is how nearly impossible it is to keep the last edifices running (the schools and parishes) without the sisters as well.
On the schools front, Catholic Education is simply too expensive for the most needy of children because we have to pay lay teachers. And many of our lay teachers, while generally great people who work hard and sacrifice much for their profession, simply do not have the Catholic formation that the sisters had instilled into them so deeply that it just automatically oozed out of them at every turn. For the sisters there is just no substitute.
We are lurching ahead with the old infrastructure and abstract (even sentimental) concept of Catholic Education, but we are trying to do so without the very people that made it possible for nearly two centuries. Something is going to have to give if we are to stay in the ministry of running our own parallel school system.
Some locations, including my own Archdiocese, have found a temporary solution by welcoming millions of dollars of taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to finance our Catholic education infrastructure in its most urban (and therefore most mission-oriented) areas.
But that cannot last because a government check is just no substitute for personal sacrifices that grow out of religious convictions, which lead to privately supported schools. At some point, the voucher schools will cease to be authentically Catholic either from a lack of internal religious sensibility, or, from outside government pressure as more strings are attached to all that sweet cash.
Parishes Are Now Households In Constant Search of Mothers
Parish ministry in the absence of the sisters represents a more nuanced problem, but it seems clear that in time parishes will begin to suffer the same difficulties as our schools.
I often liken a parish to a household. It’s a big family with routines, structures, formative elements, complex personalities, family meals (the Mass), arguments, achievements, and the like.
Successful households have both fathers and mothers (not just one) because there are some things that fathers just do intuitively well, and there are some things that mothers do intuitively well, and rarely do the two swap roles effectively.
Pastors (priests), even when we are the best of fathers, do not have the same instincts as the sisters did when it comes to caring for people, especially the sick and the children. So many customs, structures, rituals, and routines that were a part of parish life essentially relied on the sisters to pull them off. Even something as (apparently?) simple as having properly ironed altar linens seems virtually impossible anymore without the sisters around.
They were our catechists. They trained the altar servers. They helped staff the kitchens. They drilled the necessity of the rosary and the confessional line into every young Catholic’s skull. In many cases, they even mowed the grass.
Today, like in our schools, we have to pay lay staffs and it is costing us a fortune. These days we pull in to parishes way more money than we ever did, and yet we can barely make our budgets because each year our health insurance premiums go up.
Pastors are schooled in the seminary to hand on all the Tridentine essentials of the faith (things like Holy Hours, First Communions, and funeral Masses), but no one tells them that they will have to spend most of their priesthood trying to find qualified lay staff to help them pull all of that off because hardly anyone is sufficiently formed in all of those old Catholic particulars anymore.
The parish rhythm of life that has come down to us relied upon fathers (priests) and mothers (sisters) to maintain it. Now we have a bunch of single parent households by default (a pastor is required canonically), or, as in our schools, we are having to pay a fortune to maintain lay parish staffs to try and be the mothers the sisters always were. And, like in our schools, as wonderful as so many of our lay staff members are, there is just no substituting for a religious sister.
The result is that parish life is fraying around the edges all over the place and a lot of it is beginning to unravel. Bad timing because we need strong parish households more than ever in the face of the pop cultural onslaught of sensory driven, emotionally-hyped, individualistic sensibilities that are over taking every facet of life, including religion.
More Change is Coming
While it is true that some women’s religious orders are enjoying amazing growth and are a beacon of light in an otherwise dying vocation in America, the fact is that it will be a long time (if ever) before we have the kind of numbers of sisters that we once did.
What that simply means is that the nature of our parishes and our schools will continue to change and evolve whether we like it or not. They must do so because an essential piece of their foundation is missing, and therefore they cannot be anymore what they once were.
To the extent that a general decline in our overall religious expression and sense of faith is responsible for all of these changes (see my post “Returning to the Old Evangelization”), there is indeed cause for lamentation. Strong fervor and faith has always led to the creation of flourishing religious institutions. Their wane today is indicative of our deeper crisis of Catholic identity in this country.
At the same time, while it is true that we are missing our mothers, it is also true that God has remarkable plans in mind for the Church in America. All of these changes are an invitation to deepen our trust in Him and to open our hearts to the new possibilities that He wants to show us. God never wastes a loss, or a decline, or a fall- they are all potential pathways to deeper holiness and re-birth if we are paying attention.
I think it is time for another religious revival on a grand scale in America. We’ve had them before in different eras, same with Europe. Really, only God can bring them about. And maybe He is letting all the old ways crumble so that He can build them new again in the fullness of time.