Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s

Article excerpt

The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s. By Amy L. Koehlinger. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2007. Pp. x, 304. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-67402-473-1.)

In this innovative study, Amy Koehlinger combines the methodologies of history and anthropology to examine how "in just a few short years sisters had transformed themselves from virtual inmates of their own religious institutions into public activists agitating for the liberation of others" (p. 2). In the 1950s Pope Pius XII urged sisterhoods worldwide to modernize and streamline their rules to improve their relevance and effectiveness in their apostolates.The Sister Formation Conference within the United States emphasized expanding educational opportunities for sisters. These prefatory reform efforts prepared American sisters to capitalize on the unique opportunities that the historic confluence of the second Vatican Council, the civil rights movement, and the Johnson Administration's War on Poverty presented them to engage the world in transformative ways.

Koehlinger identifies the Department of Educational Services (DES) of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice (NCCIJ) as the primary agency responsible for implementing racial-justice programs for the sisters and facilitating their placement in specific projects.The DES focused on racial justice between 1965 and 1968. She argues that by 1972, clerical opposition to the sisters' apostolic innovations preoccupied the DES, which "simply and graduaEy shifted its focus away from racial justice in American society and toward gendered oppression within the Church and by extension, away from African Americans and back toward sisters themselves" (p. 121).

Koehlinger's efforts to obfuscate the racial identity of the new nuns pose a problem. Her use of such phrases as "the inconclusive race of sisters in Selma" (p. 154), "Sisters' sense of nonwhiteness" (p. 155), "racial passing" (p. 157), and her bold assertion that "[n]either white nor black, ... sisters then constituted a third racial category, the category of 'sistah'" (p. 239) prove unpersuasive. Was the sisters' actual racial identity in question or their experience of their whiteness? …

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