Women Religious and the Intellectual Life: The North American Achievement

Puzon, Bridget, ed. Women Religious and the Intellectual Life: The North American Achievement. San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1996

In the 1960s a new awareness of the necessity of social justice caught the imagination of communities of women religious. The conviction that action is more important than reflection was reinforced by a growing distrust of institutions and their established ministries, especially that of education. By the late 1980s, however, many sisters had begun to re-think the direction their communities had taken regarding the intellectual life, and were concerned that it was being dangerously undervalued. Women Religious and the Intellectual Life concentrates on the intellectual qualities women religious find central to their ministries and lives, identifies those that are in danger of being lost, and describes the experiences of a highly educated class of women as they work to recover a vision of the intellectual life. Bridget Puzon sets the stage for the six essays collected here by sketching the history of "the Brookland Commission," the name taken by a group of scholars assembled to address concerns initially expressed by Jeanne Knoerle about the present vitality and future prospects of the intellectual life among communities of women religious. Katarina Schuth undertakes the task of exploring how contemporary women religious value the intellectual life. Schuth collected data from constitutions and mission statements, a national survey of over one-thousand major superiors and members, and personal interviews with fifty women religious. This rich body of data allowed Schuth to confirm the assumptions about women religious that originally brought the Brookland Commission into being: 1) that the recent movement away from staffing schools has been accompanied by a devaluation of intellectual life and liberal learning; 2) that this diminishing emphasis on intellectual life, and its consequences, has received insufficient analysis within communities; 3) that women religious need to gain the capacity to consciously intervene in this ongoing development if they wish to retain control over the direction their lives and ministries will be taking in the future. Mary Cooke and Mary Chinery offer a statistical breakdown of the doctoral degrees earned by women religious in the United States between 1907 and 1992. Karen Kennelly traces currents of anti-intellectualism among women religious from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, but finds that the pragmatic attitude women religious held toward education for most of this period laid a remarkably strong institutional foundation for intellectual formation. Maria Riley examines the complex role played by feminism in the intellectual life of women religious, and concludes that its effect has been important but uneven, and that women religious are, in general, insufficiently grounded in the diverse forms of feminist theory. Finally, Mary Frohlich undertakes a statement on the theology of the religious and intellectual life in the North American context. She concludes that communities of women religious hold promising potential for nurturing a praxis-oriented intellectual life in the postmodern context.