It was a conflict of principles deeply held between a majority of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. For nearly three years, the nuns had demanded freedom from the traditional rules of the cloister; the Vatican and the archdiocese of Los Angeles insisted on fealty to religious discipline. Last week the dispute ended with the largest exodus from Roman Catholic religious life in recent memory.
About 315 of the 380 nuns decided to follow their president, Sister Anita Caspary, in asking for dispensation from church vows. The request will be granted. Rather than disband, they plan to form an independent secular organization devoted to "the service of man in the spirit of the Gospel."
Educated Women. Tentatively called Immaculate Heart Community, the group will be open to Roman Catholic couples as well as single people. "Many people are attracted by something bigger than themselves," explains Sister Anita. "That is the role the new lay community will be able to provide." It will continue to pursue the main tasks of the Immaculate Heart orderteaching, public health service and social work. A loosely organized communal framework to accommodate what Sister Anita calls "differing life-styles and living arrangements" will replace the traditional discipline. After receiving the dispensations, the women will be bound by vows of poverty, obedience and chastity only if they choose to make such pledges to the community. Says Sister Ruth Anne Murray, a high school religion teacher: "Our decision is a most viable way of rallying our potential as educated American women in the service of the church."
New members, whom the group hopes to attract from the laity, will work on a voluntary basis or for nominal compensation. The former nuns plan to continue to operate a hospital near Los Angeles and a conference center in Santa Barbara. In addition, they hope to retain a high school and Immaculate Heart College on the 13-acre site in Los Angeles. A settlement is still to be worked out, however. Some members, following Sister Eileen MacDonald, are remaining in the order and may attempt to hold some of the property now under the control of Sister Anita's group.
Ironically, the decision to leave the church came shortly after the nuns' archantagonist, conservative James Francis Cardinal Mclntyre, 83, was replaced by the more liberal Timothy J. Manning, 60, as Archbishop of Los Angeles (TIME, Feb. 2). Many, even in Rome, felt that a more flexible prelate than Mclntyre could have avoided the break. When the nuns started to wear secular clothing in the fall of 1967, McIntyre barred them from teaching in archdiocesan schools. The nuns refused to take up the habit again or to modify other changesincluding the elimination of compulsory daily prayer.