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Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millenia
by Jo Ann Kay McNamara.
Harvard University Press, 751 pages, $35.

This is a book to be reckoned with. After all the objections to the author’s agenda and technique have been registered, the fact remains that Jo Ann Kay McNamara, former nun and current history professor at Hunter College, has written the first definitive history of women religious. It is a history worth knowing.

As if to redress singlehandedly the real and perceived neglect of women’s contributions to the Catholic Church, McNamara gives us an exhaustively researched, comprehensively presented, and splendidly written history, from clandestine Roman days to the present, of the women who were consecrated to the lay apostolate or the contemplative life. Although clearly writing from a feminist perspective, McNamara is, for the most part, an unexpected voice of reason. The scholar’s moderation, intelligence, and own understanding of the spiritual life temper any unreasoned feminist rage.

What emanates from this detailed history, in fact, is a deep love of the consecrated and monastic life both on the part of the author and on the part of the many generations of women religious who fought to maintain and nurture a recognized place within the Church for those who, by choice, necessity, or family imperative, found themselves “brides of Christ.”

But McNamara is a feminist, and where a feminist construct imposes itself is in the author’s use of the concept of syneisactism ––”men and women living together chastely without regard for gender differences”––as the standard against which all religious life is judged. When the religious or monastic life seems to achieve such genderless equality, as in ancient Rome and in the early Middle Ages before religious life was greatly institutionalized by the Church, the author is celebratory; this surely is what a spiritual community should be. When monastic life is not characterized by such cooperation and equality, it is often portrayed as oppressive, legalistic, and even brutal.

According to McNamara, it was in the twelfth century that the ideal of syneisactism came under serious attack: “By mid-century, clerical observers had already begun to attack the syneisactism that joined religious men and women in a common enterprise and that defied the carefully nurtured fear of women at the base of clerical reform. By the thirteenth century, the forces of separation had successfully equated syneisactism with heresy.”

While McNamara recounts a history of repeated efforts on the part of the Church hierarchy to cloister women both from the world and male clerics, thus preventing any participation in sacramental or authoritative roles, her account also tells the story of countless women religious who endured, thrived, and often achieved renown despite such restrictive efforts.

Syneisactism, as the author characterizes it, really represents much more than the comingling of men and women and the abandonment of gender roles. Syneisactism characterized male and female monastic orders at a time when the Church took a deinstitutionalized and decentralized approach to the development and daily life of such orders. In other words, when men and women religious were allowed by historical necessity, political crisis, or neglect to exist as small autonomous communities bound by a particularly tailored “rule,” syneisactism revealed itself. When the Church chose to assert a centralized authority, syneisactism died.

The reader can easily see where the recurring theme of syneisactism and the attendant characterizations of the Catholic hierarchy eventually will lead as the account reaches the modern era and today’s Church. The author clearly hopes that the ideal of male and female religious who move beyond gender roles to form small faith communities liberated from a centrally organized clergy is something we can finally realize. Such communities would recall, McNamara believes, the true, pure Christian communities of the earliest Church before women were denied equal leadership. And it is these kinds of religious vocations which, not surprisingly, she believes would best serve the modern Church. And, of course, the all-male clergy is a nearly two-thousand-year deviation from the spirit and intentions of the early Church.

To her credit, Ms. McNamara does not allow these reflections a disproportionate share of the book, does not reduce her study to a polemic advocating for a female clergy, and does not marshal her research and analysis in the service of a single political theme. Her sympathies and prejudices are merely undisguised. And while they influence her account, they do not, I think, entirely overtake her scholarship.

Indeed, it is not in her scholarly skills that the author seems to reveal a rare lapse, but in her sense of irony and incongruity. Ms. McNamara invokes syneisactism and an “ungendered” population of religious as the apparent ideal, but she does it against her own well-rendered backdrop of passion, intensity, devotion, transcendence, and spiritual and physical heroism of every kind. Against such a backdrop, the image of a dutiful, passionless monastic population of muted gender seems almost boring. It seems not to have occurred to the author that docile men and women willing to renounce the claims and privileges of gender might not be the kind of men and women drawn to the demands and drama of religious life––and the life she depicts was demanding and dramatic. They also might not be the kind of men and women equipped to defend religious life, often a heroic defense. Further, it has always been tacitly understood in the Church that the achievements of religious life were, and are, often the result of a romantic passion rechanneled, not renounced. The image of syneisactism is, in fact, inadequate to the very history that McNamara has so diligently uncovered and so intelligently documented.

M. S. Leach is an aide to a U.S. Senator

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