Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

Contesting the Spiritual Space: Patriarchy, Nureaucracy, and the Gendering of Women's Religious Orders

Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

Contesting the Spiritual Space: Patriarchy, Nureaucracy, and the Gendering of Women's Religious Orders

Article excerpt

Contesting the Spiritual Space: Patriarchy, Nureaucracy, and the tendering of Women's Religious Orders[1]


This paper focuses on (Catholic) women's religious orders and relates the legacy of their evolution, and the external forces which shaped them, to the present crises (of meaning, of an aging and decreasing number of members, and a dwindling number of new recruits) being experienced in such organizations. Drawing upon rules theory (Clegg, 1981; Helms Mills & Mills, 2000; Mills, 1988) and feminist postmodernist analysis (Acker, 1992; Burrell, 1992; Ferguson, 1984), the paper sets out (i) to analyse the relationship between the organizational crises experienced by the women's religious orders and their etiology, rooted as they are in male-dominant worldviews and bureaucratic structures; and (ii) to identify processes and practices which contribute to the ability of such orders to develop change strategies that are more in line with their spiritual, as opposed to their organizational, roots. The paper draws conclusions not only for women inside Catholic religious orders, but for our understanding of management and organizing in general. It concludes that the Roman Catholic Church has profoundly influenced our notions of management and of the organization as a corporate entity, and in ways that are deeply gendered. It also argues

that for female religious, a strategy of change may lie in developing their own discourses in ways that contribute to a redefined liminal space.


Women's religious orders are among the oldest, if not the oldest, forms of women-only organizations in the West. Throughout history, they have played a significant part in providing liberated environments for the women who joined them (Byrne, 1984; Sheldrake, 1991; Williamson, 1979). Present-day examples of these organizations, however, experience an increasing divergence between compliance (Etzioni, 1975) with the church's patriarchal legal system (Burrell, 1992; Sheldrake, 1991) and the freedom to choose structures and develop organizational and management styles which are more relevant both for the members and the organizational environment of the late twentieth-century. This has led to crisis in women's religious orders as members have sought to reconcile changing environmental realities with established religious laws embedded within the very structures of their orders.

The history of women's religious orders is one of contest and reconciliation with male dominated Church hierarchies. The growth of women's groups, in terms of both adherents and influence, began to be significant at around the time when the Church hierarchies were beginning to feel a need for legislation to control practices and behaviours both by clergy and laity, and the body of material now known as Canon Law was drawn up (Ireland, 1995). The monastic model of religious life was widely adopted and women's groups were strongly encouraged to take it up; indeed, they were required, for patriarchal concerns rather than the original motive of `safeguarding spiritual space' (Sheldrake, 1991), to adopt enclosure. Gradually, greater powers were given to (male) church authorities to govern the lives of religious institutes, particularly those of women, than had been the case in previous times. This process had a cumulative effect so that eventually clerical men effectively controlled the lifestyle, honorarium, and structure of religious institutes. The consequences of this were farreaching for women's groups, because the very minutiae of their lives were laid down in ways which did not happen for men's groups.

There are many women's religious institutes which have had to adopt a structure that diverge from the model preferred at the time of foundation. For those which were forced to make radical changes, there are many more whose founders simply reworked what they knew was within the bounds of acceptability, submitting to greater restrictions on mobility and lifestyle than they would have liked. …

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