Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia by Jo Ann Kay McNamara (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 751 pages, Paperback $11.95, Hardcover $18.95)

Nuns seem to be an “in” topic these days, judging from the number of books currently being served up for the inquiring public. As the number of religious women decreases, talk about them proliferates.

In the front ranks, if for no other reason than its impressive size, Jo Ann Kay McNamara's contribution to the pile takes a prominent position. Her 750-page panorama of nuns through the millennia is like a medieval tale portrayed in a series of hanging tapestries, intricate, colorful, rich in detail, and pleasingly accented with bright wit in the telling. Or to update the assessment, perhaps we should speak of the technological precision of an account which includes a near to infinite number of incidents and personalities criss-crossing the centuries at jet speed to leave us breathless on the doorstep of A.D. 2000.

This is a well-crafted treatment of the historical, psychological, and sociological elements which make up the fascinating mix of motivation and praxis to be found in a history of this kind. There is much to be said for the evident scholarship behind such an extended effort, the persevering research that obviously went into such a challenging project, and the bonus of a lively style which keeps the reader turning the pages. Admittedly, the book is proposed as a historical overview, driven by an authentic feminist agenda. A few quotes at random will illustrate this.

“The leaders [of the Jerusalem community, in Acts] “could have been resisting the recruitment of additional women, hoping to restrict the group to the original followers of Jesus … already the outlines of a male priesthood were appearing with the inevitable result of limiting the usefulness of women.”

“Women [of the third century], however admirable or even masculine, were condemned by virtue of their gender to a secondary state from which no degree of sanctity would lift them.”.

“The reformation and regulation of female communities [in the 9th century] was carried out by men who made no discernible effort to consult the women concerned.”

“The substitution of the Mass for the gender inclusive chant [at the time of the Cluniac reform] was but a single step in the redefinition of the Church as a body of professional male clergy encompassing monks but not nuns.”

“The clergy [of the high Middle Ages] accepted the burden of the cura mulierum grudgingly, with the proviso that the women be self-sufficient and not drain resources needed for the Church's more important responsibilities. Men agreed that women needed less material wealth than men and that self-mortification was especially becoming to the vainer sex.”

“Immoral priests [in the Middle Ages] could still deliver good sacraments, but nuns had to be personally holy to keep their patrons [benefactors].”

“Neither do they [Sisters in professional careers] wish to be confined by that separate, complementary feminine nature to which Pope John Paul II clings in his recent efforts to put the female genie back into her bottle.”

“The Church's own monolithic face cracked as various factions debated its role in the late twentieth-century world.”

We have, therefore, in Sisters in Arms a detailed history of nuns as seen through a feminist prism. While such a slant mars the objectivity and credibility of the story, a more serious flaw is the absence of a complete picture. The “truth” thus becomes the enemy of the whole truth. McNamara tells us in her preface that she has become, like Voltaire, a secular humanist. May we pose the possibility that this is not enough? So much has been given: could we not have hoped for more? So many pages on the nuns, but basically there is not a clue as to who they really are. Secular humanism lowers the ceiling to the point where we are left gasping for air.

In recent decades popes and theologians have made serious and responsible efforts to define the evolving concept of consecrated life in contemporary terms. Religious women do well to open themselves to these documents and explore them in depth, even as they retain the valued lessons of the past. In their study, they can indeed profit by the historical background which McNamara offers, with the caveat that it is only a part, and a small part, of the whole picture.

Their venture cannot be pursued on purely natural terms. Nor can it be understood or evaluated by purely natural criteria. To be specific, no man or woman can choose the religious life as a vocation. God does the choosing. The man or woman is chosen. The Lord made this point quite simply to his apostles: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” Truth's word remains true through the millennia, and beyond. Avocation is an act of God. It is best understood from his point of view. A study that overlooks this is like a body without a soul.

Sister Mary Thomas Noble is a Dominican nun in Buffalo, New York.