Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Showdown at the O.K. Corral



A panoramic view of Cincinnati.

Last Thursday’s posting related how in the fall of 1967, nearly a year after I moved to Dayton on a leave of absence from the convent, I sent a letter to Rome asking to be released from my final—solemn—vows. The Roman prelate refused my request because of its vacillation. Then, in the spring of 1968, the archbishop of Cincinnati set up a meeting for the following Saturday morning.
A friend picked me up in his Volkswagen beetle. George had studied for the priesthood, but had left before ordination. So he and I shared a mutual interest in the religious life as well as the arts. Our conversation never lagged as he drove the fifty miles from Dayton to the larger city.  


The cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in downtown Cincinnati.

After entering the downtown area of Cincinnati and passing the cathedral, which occupied the corner of 8th and Plum, we came to the chancery. George waited in the car as I went inside. Upon entering the bishop’s office, I kissed his ring and then, at his request, sat on the sofa while he stood in front of his desk. I do not remember the exact words exchanged between us. Thus, the dialogue that follows gives you only the gist of our conversation.
To begin he asked, “How did you get here today? By bus?”
“A friend brought me.”
“Male or female.”
“Male.”
“You’re dating?”
“I have but I’m not dating now.”
“What about your vow of chastity?”
That startled me. This will be hard to believe, but in the fifteen months I’d been out of the convent on a leave of absence I hadn’t once thought about my vows and about the fact that I hadn’t been released from them. Even when I wrote the letter asking to be released from my vows it didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to be living them. And yet that’s what a leave of absence was: I was away from the convent, but I hadn’t left my vows behind.
I spent a moment berating myself: How could I have been so dense? But then my common sense took hold and I said, “How can I decide if I want to return to the convent if I don’t date and enjoy a normal life outside?”
“You don’t need to date to lead a normal life. Stop dating until you’ve been released from your vows.”
He continued his interrogation. “Do you have a job?”
“I worked for Pflaum Publishing for a year and now I’m teaching religion at Julianne Academy.” (Julianne was a Catholic high school for girls in Dayton.)
“So why haven’t we received your paychecks all this time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your paychecks should be sent here to the chancery.”
“Why?” I asked. “I need money for clothes. Rent. Utilities. Transportation around Dayton. All kinds of things.”
“I remind you again—you are under vows. You made a vow of poverty. Have Julianne send your paychecks here and we will give you a stipend to live on.”
Something within me rebelled. Abruptly I rose from the sofa and moved a step closer. “No. I’m saving for grad school. I will not ask Julianne to send you my checks.”
“You will. You’ve broken your vows of chastity and poverty already. And now you’re refusing to follow my orders. This is a serious breach of your vow of obedience.”
I simply stared at him. What he said was true: I’d forgotten I was still under vows. Yet I’d done nothing wrong. In many ways I was still living both the vows of chastity and poverty because deep down I had long ago, even before entering the convent, found contentment in living simply. Once again, however, the vow of obedience was proving difficult. 


Cassock worn by Roman Catholic bishops.

When I didn’t respond to his command, the bishop pointed his right index finger at the floor in front of where he stood and said, “Kneel. I want you to recommit to your vows. Your checks will come here. You will do no more dating or driving in cars with men. You will obey my dictates. And you will come back here every month and report to me.”
I didn’t move. I could feel myself crossing the Rubicon.
“Kneel!” he said, his voice rising.
I picked up my purse and walked toward the door.
“Come back here and kneel down,” he commanded.
I turned toward him and said, “I’m never coming here again. And if you have trouble with that then get in touch with the prelate for Benedictine convents in Rome and denounce me. Maybe then I’ll be released from my vows.”
With those parting words, I left the chancery. George drove me back to my apartment in Dayton. I cried; he sympathized. I never again heard from the bishop. But it took two more years to finalize my decision. That’s next week’s post.


A 1966 Volkswagen Beetle.

Photographs from Wikipedia.

48 comments:

  1. What a harsh lesson you learned.

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    1. Dear LadyFi, I"m not sure what lesson I learned. I think the bishop was dealing with a new phenomenon in the Church and really didn't know how to handle it. Peace.

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  2. Wow! What a meeting. You are brave.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, I was startled by much of what happened and I think the bishop was also. Women had just started to leave a convent. At the time there was just a trickle. And the hierarchy truly didn't know what to make of this. Peace.

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  3. OOoh my... I suffered guilt from quitting the church, but nothing like you must have. Oooh the control, the guilt... In 2000, I tried going back to the Catholic church~just couldn't do it. 14 years later, I still think about the church. This is why I consider myself a recovering Catholic. hugs to you...

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    1. Dear Turquoisemoon, I, too, felt guilty about leaving, wondering why the other women could stay and be obedient and I couldn't. I felt like a quitter. I no longer think of myself as a Roman Catholic but Catholicism is really bred in my bones. My awareness of social justice comes from my Mom and from the Church teachings. The Church has done a tremendous amount of good throughout the centuries. But it has also fallen into harsh ways at times that are not a reflection of the Gospels. Peace.

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  4. Oh Dee. What an arrogant, inflexible, uncaring man. And congratulations for having the strength to say no.
    How you had grown. And I love it.

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    1. Dear Sue, as I said in a couple of earlier comments, I think the bishop was just trying to stem the tide that was swelling--the tide of women leaving the convent. Perhaps I was the first nun he'd met who was considering being released from vows. And he simply didn't know how to handle it. I doubt if the Roman curia had handed down any directives. So he was winging it and he "winged" badly. Peace.

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  5. Oh I loved how you handled yourself. I actually felt like applauding, but my husband would have given me one of those looks. How on earth did he expect you to survive in the world without your paycheck?

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    1. Dear Dee, I left the chancery feeling both triumphant and ashamed. I'd never really ever spoken to anyone like that before. No, that's not true. I'd also spoken forcefully to the first psychiatrist I saw in Dayton. I posted about that back in early August. Peace.

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  6. Good for you! It was the only right thing to do, and you did it, even though I'm sure you suffered mightily for your bravery. Congratulations on becoming your own person. And thank you for doing it! Yay for you, Dee. :-)

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    1. Dear DJan, the only other person to whom I'd spoken like that in all my life had been the first psychiatrist I saw in Dayton. I'd walked out of his office also. And so I felt somewhat ashamed of myself and a little fearful that the bishop might do something--I didn't know what--that would deny me my leave. Peace.

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  7. What strength. I suppose righteous anger goes a long way. Two more years; how interesting.

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    1. Dear Joanne, I just felt he was being unreasonable. But as I've said in several other responses to comments, I don't think the bishop meant to be contrary. I think he was in over his head. Peace.

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  8. I am stunned almost speechless. I had no idea of the control they attempted to hold over you or tried to. I am so impressed with your courage and strength. I wonder how many caved to those demands.

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    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, I suspect that I might have been the first of my kind whom the bishop met. I was one of the earliest women to leave the Benedictine convent in Kansas and while women were leaving all the orders it wasn't until a year or two later that the big exodus truly begin. So I was sort of a test case for him and I think that he and other bishops probably began to realize that they couldn't hold back the flood. Peace.

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  9. Wow, taking strict to a whole new level. Good for you to go out of there and never go back.

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    1. Dear Pat, of course, I was still under vows and it took two more years to be released from them. And I really had shown that I couldn't live the vow of obedience. I wondered at the time what might happen because of what I'd said. But nothing happened. Peace.

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  10. I agree with all the comments above. What ARROGANCE the Church had!!

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    1. Dear Fishducky, I don't know about the Church and arrogance, but I do know that this bishop seemed arrogant. But as I've said to others in my responses, I think he was truly befuddled by having women begin to leave the religious life. He was out of his depth. Peace.

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  11. That account had me holding my breath in disbelief at the man's arrogance! Very well done, Dee -- you managed to get your head straight at least long enough to head for the door and walk out...

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    1. Dear Broad, on that day I was thinking straight--sort of "damn the torpedoes." But much of the time I waffled between the idealistic vision I had of monasticism and my own desire for freedom. I had enjoyed much of my eight-and-a-half years in the convent, and yet I'd turned my back on it. So I was an emotional mess! Peace.

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  12. As I've said before, Dee, you have a great deal of courage and strength, even when you think you didn't.

    As I read this, anger burned in me; for you and the countless others who were so bullied by the church, and not just the Catholic church. I also found myself feeling a bit of hope for the compassion we should be extending to all in whatever our spiritual life is and how Pope Francis is stirring things up (in a positive way in my opinion).

    I always contend that money is the root of most problems, and so it is with dealing in faith. I look forward to your next installment, Dee.

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    1. Dear Penny, the thing with any church--be it the Roman Catholic or and other Christian denomination or any spiritual path in which there are teachers--is that sometimes a few people begin to want the surety of rules and laws. And so they begin to build a structure that can restrict the movement of the Spirit.

      And I think the Pope Francis is, like Pope John the 23rd back in the sixties, trying to open the window of that structure and let in the winds of change. Peace.

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  13. I am not that surprised by the bishops reaction to your request. They thought they had the right to have all power and control over those in the faith. When we read the news of the past decade we have to wonder how many of them kept their vows.

    How wonderful that you stood up to his demands. Here you were struggling on your own while he lived in a mansion with people waiting on his every wish. Your story made me so angry, but relieved that you were able to walk away stronger than when you entered the convent.

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    1. Dear Arleen, I know that most of you reading this posting see me as brave and strong, but most of the time I was living a life of trying to please people. I thought of myself as a milquetoast kind of person.

      But whenever I saw injustice or unfairness or bias or prejudice or heard unkind words or saw others being hurt, I had to step forward. My mom and the social teachings of the Church as expounded by Pope Leo back in the late 19th century had taught me to stand up for others. But with this bishop I stood up for myself and so I was proud of that at the time. Peace.

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  14. Your account, Dee, is so interesting. I feel for you and applaud you for holding your own. I'm also struck by the difference between your experience and what I've learned so far as an Orthodox Christian (having been one three years) about the life of monastics. Of course, I haven't sought to be a monastic, I've never been Catholic, and I read books from an Orthodox perspective, but the basic difference here would have to do with personal freedom. Yes, an Orthodox monastic makes vows, but this is done without coercion, in personal freedom. It was the same for me in deciding to become Orthodox. Several Orthodox people asked me, in loving concern, at different times if I felt forced in any way. "Obedience" in the Orthodox mindset is understood as "listening" (the words are related in Greek), and the most important thing in life is to listen to Christ, so that is what monastics are attempting. And they are learning about this in "obedience," a listening attitude, to those who are more experienced.

    I've heard of one male monastic who decided not to be a monk anymore. I didn't know him. The people I talked to who did were sorry he made this decision, but they held no animosity against him. Maybe things have changed in the Catholic world since your story happened, and maybe your experience was not the same one other nuns had, but it sure sounds like loving freedom of choice was not a part of your experience.

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    1. Dear Deanna, no one in the convent ever tired to coerce me into making first or final vows. I was free to do so or not. And I could have left at any time if I'd been more sure of myself. The truth really is, as the second Dayton psychiatrist said, that I was emotionally thirteen and so I stayed in the convent because I loved the idea of monasticism and was like a very young teenager. Peace.

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    2. Thank you, Dee, for clarifying; I'm sorry for my misunderstanding, and it's good to know you weren't treated badly overall. This again is part of life and the gift in your writings: the recognition of our limitations as people in trying to deal with one another. There's always a challenge in learning to forgive another's limitations and living with our own. Thanks for taking on these issues.

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    3. Dear Deanna, the convent was an important time in my life as it helped me learn to pray and to live in the present. But I didn't do well with obedience because I had such an independent streak that came I think from childhood traumas. Peace.

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  15. WOW! You are a trail brazer although I didn't think you wanted to be one.

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com/?s=The+Adventures+of+Fuzzy+and+Boomer&submit=Search
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

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    1. Dear Linda, I surely didn't feel like a "trail blazer." I felt more like a cat lost in a forest. Too many trees. Too much underbrush. Too far from whatever and wherever was home. Peace.

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  16. I've never been a nun, but I have felt the way you felt at more than one time in my life. I've always thought of it as God speaking to me to let me know I'm not yet where I'm supposed to be.

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    1. Dear Carol, thanks for sharing your thoughts on situations like this. It took me a long time to discover what fulfilled me and brought peace and contentment. Peace.

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  17. Dee, I assumed it was emotionally difficult for yo to leave the convent, but it never occurred to me that it was so hard for you to be released! Until you began to share your story I thought you simply "resigned" and walked out! How naive I have been. It would take incredible courage for you to stand up to the bishop. I can only imagine how upsetting it must have been to find everything you'd previously respected begin to disintegrate. I look forward to learning more and hearing when it was you finally found yourself free to explore what it was you were looking for in creating a whole new life! ox Debra

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    1. Dear Debra, the Church has made many mistakes in its 2,000-year history but it's also done great good for civilization. And I truly believe that the clergy/prelates/bishops wanted only to be assured that I was sure in myself about what I wanted. The name Sister Innocence fit me well for I was a naive young woman. And remember I was only 13 emotionally and so my letters to Rome were such that the prelate worried about me. I believe this; I'm not just being a Pollyanna.

      It did take courage to stand up to the bishop but once I got back in the Beetle with my friend George I realized that the bishop was in a totally new situation for him and he didn't know how to response and so he fell back on power. Peace.

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  18. How far away from the simple life of Jesus that bishop had strayed. I too didn't realize that you couldn't just walk away, resign from your vows. It sounds like nuns were indentured servants to the church and bishops like this one. Good for you, you were very brave, you did the right thing. My mind is a mess after reading this and thinking of all the people who still are in that church.

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    1. Dear Inger, I have many friends who are still in the convent and my brother and his wife are still practicing Catholics and I know many others who also continue to belong to the Church. I admire them for following their own belief in community.

      And while the recent history of the Church with the scandal of the abuse of children is tragic and despicable and indefensible this new pope gives me hope that the Church is entering the 21st century in a new way. Not in a defensive way but open to possibilities for growth in the Spirit of the Gospels.

      There is, you and I both know, a great difference between religion and spirituality. The latter has been my foundation for many years, but the former speaks to many people who embrace the social justice of the Catholic Church.

      And so I'm just happy that I am where I am today, and that my friends still in the convent are where they are because they are liberal thinkers who embrace social justice and have gotten involved in many issues important to them and to me. I wonder sometimes why I wasn't patient enough to wait for change. For change was in the air when I left the convent. Peace.

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  19. You are so courageous and so consistent. I love your ability to stop and examine your own thought biases in the moment with clarity and non-judgment, and your presence of mind to stick up for yourself. What a glaring example of the fact that this bishop had no idea what it was like to live in the "real" world and have to pay rent and make your way through life without the confines of the church. I love this story!

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    1. Dear Kari, thank you for believing in me but I've seldom seen myself as courageous and I find myself surprised today as I think of the bishop and me. I guess I really was courageous in that instance. But later I just felt sorry for him because all the change happening in the Church was so new and he didn't know how to respond. Peace.

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  20. Your strength and bravery are impressive. What a bully he was! No compassion, just a a man who thought he had the right to choose FOR you. I am so impressed even more by your determination.

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    1. Dear Susan, I had a shaky determination. I was really just listening to my body. Peace.

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  21. Dee
    I cannot believe this is the attitude of the church.....but yes I can. How extraordinary that you found your voice. I can't even say what my thoughts are for that bishop as it would make the computer smolder. Corruption, arrogance and greed have nothing to do with the spirit.

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    1. Dear Manzanita, I don't know whether he was corrupt or truly arrogant or greedy. I really do believe that he was like the little Dutch boy who put his finger in the hold in the dike so as to keep the turbulent North Sea from flooding his homeland. A great change was coming for the Church and I seemed to him, I think, the precursor and he needed to stop this change if he could. Peace.

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  22. I'm so glad you found the courage to speak up for yourself in that painful meeting, Dee. However, like you, I feel sorry for the bishop who was obviously completely out of his depth in this new situation and who was himself a product of his training and experience. It doesn't excuse the way he behaved, but perhaps helps to explain it. It must have felt to him as though the foundations were cracking and your courage and determination certainly reinforced the challenge to his authority. Poor man and poor you, but you were eventually the winner.

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    1. Dear Perpetua, I so agree with your explanation. As you say, it doesn't excuse his behavior but it does put it in context. I do think he felt that the foundations of the Church were crumbling and he had to hold the stones in place. Peace.

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  23. That's horrifying...that attitude. While the bishops, prelates, etc. live in luxury, you were supposed to forfeit your pay to them? I'm so glad you were able to stand up for yourself and walk out of there, Dee. What a terrible experience for you! I had no idea that being released from final vows could be such an ordeal!

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    1. Dear Kathy, as the song from that era goes, "The times they were achangin'" and the bishop was caught off guard, afraid I think of change and what it would do to the Church. Peace.

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