Anita Caspary, the former superior of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters who led 315 sisters out of religious life in 1970, died Oct. 5 at the age of 95.
Caspary’s influence lives on, however, for she was the first modern sister to publicly challenge the Church hierarchy and the Vatican about the nature of religious life. She, in fact, pioneered a trend prevalent in women’s religious orders today: “birthing” new forms of religious life.
Obituary writers have been lavish in praising Caspary’s accomplishments, but many of those obituaries simply repeat misinformation and propaganda and fail to probe the actual events that have had a profound and lasting impact on religious life.
The storyline crafted by Caspary and her supporters was that the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters — a highly respected teaching and health-care order — were simply following Vatican II mandates to renew. As the story goes, the sisters were thwarted by Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles, who was painted as one who was opposed to renewal. The sisters were hailed as heroines for standing up for their rights, being obedient to Vatican II, and defying the male hierarchy. A 1969 Newsweek headline about the IHMS’ struggle proclaimed: “Battling for ‘Nuns’ Rights.”
Of course, activists who want a more democratic Church jumped on Caspary’s bandwagon, with some calling for nonviolent resistance to “abusive” male hierarchical authority. Others asserted that Church guidelines on religious life were an affront to the dignity of women, and Caspary became a heroine of the women’s movement and a champion of those who prefer their own interpretation of Vatican II.
That same storyline has lived on for decades and is reflected in the Oct. 16 Los Angeles Times obituary , which claimed that the sisters merely were responding to the Vatican II call to modernize, but were blocked by “conservative” Cardinal McIntyre. The Oct. 18 New York Times obituary for Caspary reported that she felt the IHMS were “being asked to forsake the promise of Vatican II.”
An examination of the facts, however, tells a different story.
First, the sisters’ interpretation of the renewal called for by Vatican II was highly questionable. The order’s renewal decrees of 1967 stated, among other things, that sisters could choose whatever work they wanted, dispense with regular community prayer schedules, and wear any style of clothing.
However, the 1965 Vatican II decree on the “Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life” (Perfectae Caritatis) said nothing of the sort, but, rather, called for orders to adjust their rules and customs to help them carry out “the apostolate for which they were founded.” The decree also affirmed the “importance of common life, as expressed in prayer” and called the habit a symbol of consecration.
Cardinal McIntyre reminded the order about these requirements and was backed up by the Vatican. However, many of the sisters were heavily influenced by the women’s liberation movement and the popular psychology of the 1960s. The entire order had engaged in sensitivity training with Carl Rogers and William Coulson, and Coulson later regretted his participation and blamed these workshops for the demise of the order.
The workshops, Coulson concluded, had convinced the sisters to free themselves from Catholic doctrine and make their own rules.
Caspary herself admitted in her 2003 autobiography, Witness to Integrity, “Religious life of the past, we felt certain, had to develop into new forms” and “a new theology of the life itself, a pattern of themes, had to be established.” On behalf of the order she had even written Pope Paul VI in 1967, asking him to allow them to experiment with “a new form of religious life.”
If that permission was not given, she told the Pope, “ … at least 80% of our community will withdraw from religious life … in order to live a new form of consecrated life outside the canonical structure of religious life or of other ecclesiastically recognized groups.”
This effort to weaken or even dissolve the ecclesial ties to religious institutes was rejected by Church authorities, and, in February of 1970, 315 sisters sought dispensation from their vows, with most of them joining Caspary in forming the independent lay ecumenical Immaculate Heart Community. Clearly, this was a difficult decision for many of the sisters, who followed Caspary out of a sense of loyalty and because they were convinced their order’s decrees were valid.
Again, some Caspary obituaries, like The New York Times, were incorrect in citing this event as “the largest single exodus of nuns from the Roman Catholic Church.” Some sisters may have left the Church, but some clearly did not.
Thirty-seven sisters left the congregation altogether. Another 50 chose to remain canonically connected to the Church as IHM Sisters, but they wound up without any of the order’s property, a fact not mentioned in the Caspary obituaries.
Before she renounced her religious vows, Caspary had transferred ownership of the order’s college, hospital, high school and retreat house to secular corporations held by the new lay community.
That was illicit alienation of property under canon law, but Cardinal Timothy Manning, Cardinal McIntyre’s successor, did not want to take on a nasty and protracted civil lawsuit, according to his biographer, Msgr. Francis Weber. This left the canonical sisters with virtually no assets, but Cardinal Manning forged an agreement for them to receive $275,000 of the former order’s assets, and he provided them with a residence.
For decades, the IHM-Caspary story has served as a cautionary tale for bishops and Church authorities, who would not welcome a mass exodus of sisters, adverse publicity and loss of Church assets. At the same time, the Caspary affair has served to embolden some other women religious to push the envelope on the definition of religious life, to blur the boundaries between religious and laity, and to challenge Church authority.