Fascination, mystery, intrigue? Boring, Janet Hughes

Vows: Nuns and Priests Speak Out
Denis Edwards
Penguin, $24.95.
ISBN 0 140 27159 7

This small book represents two trends apparent in recent publishing. One is the vogue for oral history — Vows consists of edited interview material, the voice of the questioner elided so that only occasionally can one infer the question from the response. Stylistically this is more satisfying than raw transcripts. All these pieces read very fluently — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since so many of the subjects are trained in teaching or preaching. Some are lively and engaging, full of anecdote and example. Others are singularly dull and most fall somewhere in the middle; even having allowed for the fact that some religious, like the rest of us, have duller jobs than others, I found myself wondering at times whether the invisible interviewer had always asked the right questions or achieved any rapport with his subject.

Two interviews stood out and not only, I think, because the two women concerned had interesting occupations — prison chaplain, and community worker in south Auckland. They made absorbing reading because of the commitment and conviction and compassion of the speakers and the sturdy individuality of their voices. Similarly distinctive voices also emerged in two interviews with refugees from religious orders but they are animated primarily by degrees of indignation over what had proved to be an unsatisfactory commitment of years of their lives. Animated indeed; only a few others manage to be so vigorous and colourful. Taken all together, the interviews offer a kind of sampler, depicting the satisfactions, the frustrations and above all the sheer variety of the religious life. Whether this satisfies particular readers will depend, I suspect, heavily on their expectations.

The other trend this book reflects is the recent flurry of works about Catholicism in New Zealand and in the context of an apparently heightened interest in the church among general readers, the issue of audience expectations takes on some importance. The book’s title seems to embrace the whole spectrum of the religious life and it fastens on to the vows taken by religious, which represent a focus of popular fascination. The subtitle apparently promises outspoken revelations. I wonder whether the volume’s orientation to both subject and audience has been properly thought through.

Consider the way the book is represented to its prospective readers. The title and subtitle seem to be pitched at those outside Catholicism who are curious — and often ill-informed — about the church in general and the religious life in particular. The lurid cover graphic — white knuckles clutching outsize rosary beads against the folds of a habit, scarlet letters on monochrome photo — seems to cater to such curiosity, and the blurb is blatantly titillating. Here’s the first paragraph (with my italics):

Much of the fascination and mystery of Catholicism is symbolised by the religious life of nuns and priests. Their obvious sacrifice, piety and austerity intrigues, and has led to endless speculation about life in strict religious communities. Certainly their powerful influence is seen in the generations of New Zealanders irrevocably marked by Catholic education.

It’s headed “Poverty Chastity Obedience” — chastity in colour, the other two in white! As a matter of fact poverty is not mentioned in the text, except in reference to the general public; chastity is mentioned only in passing; and only two interviewees have a good grumble about obedience — a measure perhaps of the disappointments awaiting anyone attracted by the cover’s ploys. Only one subject has been a member of a community with a strict rule and most of them are living and working outside communities in the ordinary sense of convents or monasteries.

As someone thus “irrevocably marked” (I suppose they meant indelibly), I’m well aware that the upshot of “endless speculation” tends to be misconception and colourful supposition, fed by various sensational fictions. It would be foolish to deny that Catholicism and its religious orders have harboured excesses and abuses; but these have been aberrations in institutions that have served their various purposes for centuries. I would be delighted if someone were to set down an accessible, factual account of the religious life and explain to the curious the theological rationale underlying the privations self-imposed by religious vows, the different rules of various orders and the diverse work they accomplish. But Vows is not such a book, for two reasons.

First, its chosen focus is the post-Vatican II climate of reform. Most of the subjects are living lives and doing work quite different from those of the majority of their respective orders. It is taken for granted that the reader is aware of the way of life from which they are branching out and the rules they are reinterpreting. I doubt very much that the reader who is taken with the cover’s appeal to “fascination” with “mystery” will be equipped with that background.

Second, there is no attempt to cover the range of orders or the various kinds of religious life; and some interviewees who responded to the call to “speak out” were inevitably disaffected or aggrieved ex-members of orders. As a result the only account we get of life within a convent community comes from a still-enraged ex-novice who admits astonishment that she ever wanted to enter the religious life. Partly I suppose because of her fury and partly because the interview format is unstructured, she makes no distinction between the communal privations imposed by the rule of the order in question and punishments or acts of personal malice. All three seem to have fed her sense of grievance, which issues in an account of her novitiate as lurid as anyone could wish. A piece by a former priest is considerably more temperate but I don’t mean to suggest that the interview subjects, whose value for the reader lies in their particular experience, should necessarily have provided either background or balance.

The book, on the other hand, could have — perhaps by developing the introduction into something more substantial and pertinent. Denis Edwards makes no attempt to establish general background on the religious life or to discuss religious vows. Instead he gives us a little essay on his youth in the Catholic ghetto, mentioning religious only from, as it were, a consumer’s point of view. Though it’s engagingly written and interesting, in many respects it’s beside the point — if the point is the taking and keeping of vows, and all that this entails.

Edwards says that the book draws upon some 40 interviews, but that only 13 subjects agreed to speak for the record. Surely among them they must have provided information which could have been used without attribution to provide some larger perspective; and the framework needed to orient the whole would have been a matter of a little factual research. I recognise that the perceived problem is largely a matter of presentation and not in itself the author’s fault; but with a little more attention to balance and especially context the book might have offered more substantial satisfaction and to a wider readership.

It didn’t happen. We’re left with a book the primary appeal of which will be to Catholics or former Catholics, supposing they get past the misleading marketing pitch. Those who are titillated by this pitch will be briefly thrilled by the opening interview — complete with disgruntled ex-nun, a dysfunctional community and, yes, lesbian sex — then more or less rapidly bored or disappointed but probably not significantly enlightened.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer and scholar.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Religion and Review
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