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The Process of Transformation: Women Religious and the Study of Theology, 1955-1980

The following excerpt is taken from the newly released book Changing Habits: Women’s Religious Orders in Canada. In this introduction to her essay, Sr. Ellen Leonard begins to examine the impact of the study of theology on women religious.

This essay examines the relationship between women religious and theology from 1955 to 1980. This was a critical period for women religious that includes the years immediately before the Second Vatican Council, the years of the Council (1962-1965) and the period following the Council.

These were years of great change in the Roman Catholic Church and in the lives of women religious. They were also years of profound change in theology and in theological education, as Catholic theologians moved away from the restrictions of neo-scholasticism and began to employ other theological methods.

Theology had previously relied on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas as its dialogue partner. Implicit in this partnership was the belief that there was an unchanging body of truths to be preserved. Whereas in the thirteenth century Aquinas himself had been an innovator in his use of Aristotle as his dialogue partner, his brilliant work had later been reduced to textbook answers, often addresses to unasked questions.

During the period under study, theologians turned to contemporary philosophy, history and the social sciences. New voices emerged along with the traditional male European clerical voices, as lay people, women and men from various contexts, brought new questions and concerns to the theological enterprise.

How did the study of theology affect women religious? How did women religious introduce new theological voices to what had been a clerical preserve?

I draw upon my experience as a member of a religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, during this turbulent and exciting time, as well as my experience as a student and later as a professor in the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College. Similar studies could be done on the experiences of professors and students at Saint Paul University in Ottawa or Newman College in Edmonton as well as seminaries such as that at Laval in Quebec...

By Ellen Leonard CSJ
Excerpted from Changing Habits: Women’s Religious Orders in Canada edited by Elizabeth M Smyth. Copyright 2007 by Novalis, St. Paul University, Ottawa Can., 10 Lower Spadina  Ave. #400, Toronto, M5V 2Z2. Used with permission of the publisher.

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