1967's most annoying question for women in Catholic ministry
November 27, 2017 5:57 AM   Subscribe

Fifty years ago, Sister Marie Augusta Neal, SND conducted The Sister Survey, a 649-question survey of nearly 140,000 American women in Catholic ministry. It gathered data on sisters' theological beliefs and readiness for social change (and for Vatican II reforms). The dataset's newly available online, and Nicole (@leffel on GitLab) analyzes it to find which question led the most respondents to choose "The statement is so annoying to me that I cannot answer." (The answer: 3702 sisters (3%) chose that response when asked to agree or disagree with: “Christian virginity goes all the way along a road on which marriage stops half way.”)
posted by brainwane (40 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is an awesome post, both for the subject matter and because the blog post is a great walkthrough of some of the technical issues you almost always run into when dealing with messy, badly formatted data. (Going from 27 minutes to 1 minute for inscrutable reasons involving converting string formats is definitely an experience I can empathize with!)
posted by vogon_poet at 6:05 AM on November 27 [2 favorites]


Ah, I see a mention of Recurse Center at the bottom of the post. This makes sense. I'll always resent them a little for rejecting my application (back when they were still Hacker School). But they do seem to inspire people to do really cool work.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:13 AM on November 27 [2 favorites]


vogon_poet, glad you like the post! Yay narratives of messy data cleanup and massive speedups thanks to string munging. :)

I'm a Recurse Center alumna (I found @leffel's post through RC and found all the other stuff in this post via her) and yeah, RC does seem to inspire a lot of folks (including me) to do cool work. In case you didn't already know, a rejection is not permanent -- they are interested in people applying again, especially if it's been at least a few months since your last application (since you mention the Hacker School->Recurse Center name change it must have been at least a few years).

Separately: as soon as I saw this topic I thought "I need to post about this on MeFi and I hope Eyebrows McGee likes this."
posted by brainwane at 6:27 AM on November 27 [4 favorites]


Man, I don't know who thought it was a good idea to annoy that many nuns.

I hope they're okay.
posted by Naberius at 6:27 AM on November 27 [10 favorites]


“Christian virginity goes all the way along a road on which marriage stops half way.”

Who even thinks of a question like that? I'm annoyed by it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:30 AM on November 27 [32 favorites]


I don't even understand what that question means.

Can someone explain it?
posted by mephron at 6:46 AM on November 27 [28 favorites]


It's ambiguous but there is a hint of Only His Organ Can Pull Out All the Stops.
posted by hawthorne at 6:53 AM on November 27 [21 favorites]


Who even thinks of a question like that

People who know they're banging anyway.
posted by rhizome at 6:57 AM on November 27 [3 favorites]


mephron, I think what they're getting at is that "Christian virginity" would mean lifelong chastity, while otherwise you commit to chastity until marriage. So really the sisters are most annoyed by the suggestion that their religious path is in some way better than the religious path of people who get married.

I did go to 12 years of Catholic school but I came out an atheist, so. Determine from that what you will.
posted by Emmy Rae at 6:59 AM on November 27 [15 favorites]


I LOVE this. Data analysis! Python! Religious history! Nuns! Recurse Center! (I am unlikely to go, but I've met a lot of their alums and it seems like an awesome place.) So many of my favourites in one place. <3
posted by daisyk at 7:04 AM on November 27 [2 favorites]


High five, EmmyRae. I did seven years of Catholic school and came out an atheist who enjoys getting pedantic about Catholicism. :D
posted by daisyk at 7:06 AM on November 27 [11 favorites]


Yeah, there are a lot of us as it turns out, ready to leap in and let someone know that they're wrong about the immaculate conception.

I am also annoyed at the question.
posted by ODiV at 7:21 AM on November 27 [9 favorites]


They should have asked the nuns why they thought Billie Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
posted by thelonius at 7:24 AM on November 27 [14 favorites]


"Christian virginity goes all the way along a road on which marriage stops half way."

Christian virginity: join now, and help us work to wipe out the entire human race!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:33 AM on November 27 [5 favorites]


I <3 "learning Python" posts. I'd love to see this redone as a Jupyter notebook.
posted by Nelson at 7:41 AM on November 27 [1 favorite]


Damn, as a Catholic, this fascinates me!

I never would have thought that anyone (by which I mean "any old dudes") in the hierarchy cared about the nuns as people back then. Was this ever done again? Did they also survey religious brothers, or Jesuits? How about talking in this depth to lay people?

Man, I would love to see how these responses shift over time, within and among the various communities. Heck, I would be interested to see it done for any religion.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:58 AM on November 27 [5 favorites]


"Can someone explain it?"

Okay, I looked up the survey, and YES. It's in the context of about a dozen questions centered around different theologies of chastity and virginity, trying to suss out which proposed theologies (some quite ancient and some quite modern; some fully orthodox and others a bit hinky) the sisters agree with, to wit:

  • The vow to remain a virgin provides a specific structure for living a unique kind of love; it provides a frame for being present to the other, for counter, for communication with another that can increase trust and reduce anxiety
  • The great dignity of Christian chastity and its particular requirements are derived from a fundamental privilege: virgins are the brides of the Word made flesh
  • As Mary accepted the role of universal motherhood at the Incarnation, so the sister, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, consecrates her love to God for universal motherhood
  • If a sister shuns involvement with persons I think she betrays the purpose of her vow of chastity
  • Chastity is the renunciation of all partial loves in order to embrace the perfection of love in a mystical union with Christ
  • The virgin so consecrated by vow in religious life possesses a means for coming to know the meaning of love, a love that finds fulfillment in dispensing the love of Christ to His people
  • The life of virginity is an angelic life on earth
  • Christian virginity goes all the way along a road on which marriage stops half way
  • The traditional way of presenting chastity in religious life has allowed for the development of isolation and false mysticism among sisters
  • The sister must be willing to take the risk involved in forming deeply personal and truly human relationships

    So that specific statement -- Christian virginity goes all the way along a road on which marriage stops half way -- is referencing a theology of chastity and of religious life that dates back to St. Paul. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul talks about the various sexual situations of the Corinthians, and says that while obviously celibacy is best, if you're gonna have sex, get married and that's pretty good although not as good as celibacy. There's a lot to unpack about Paul's teachings there, and many arguments to be had, but, ultra-short version: We're pretty sure that at that time, Paul still thought the Parousia (second coming) was imminent (and these virginity questions in the survey come right after the Parousia questions, so I think they're definitely being asked as part of that eschatological frame) and would occur in his lifetime. The letter was written about 20 years after the crucifixion, and early Christian communities were still in a lot of theological flux, and there was still a lot of "mystery cult" stuff going on -- Christianity was a small group, it was fervent, it was extreme, and it hadn't sorted out its orthopraxy (right practices -- how to live and be) yet. They knew what they believed (more or less), but they were sorting out what that meant about how to live in the world. So, believing Jesus's return was imminent (1 Cor 7:29), many early Christians taught that men and women should remain celibate if possible, so they would be less attached to earthly things and more focused on Jesus-y things, "without distraction" (1 Cor 7:35). But if not possible, marriage was a good second-best.

    Eventually it becomes clear Jesus is NOT going to BRB but that Christians are going to have to be in it for the long haul, and the theology and praxis around marriage and family develops considerably. But baked in very early, by the most fervent communities of Christians, was this lionization of celibacy and virginity. So in the early monastic movements you have a lot of emphasis on it. But the early Christians -- including priests -- are married and boning and having kids. This goes on for quite a while, with the more fervent and mystical sorts (St. Augustine) seeking celibacy, and monastic orders devoted to it, but the vast bulk of Christians married. Then the middle ages happen and property law gets more serious and all these married priests are leaving church property (and in some cases, the right to collect church taxes! Things are feudal, they're complicated) to their children and various reforms occur and most priests can no longer marry, and then suddenly Holy Virginity becomes a huge big thing again. Then Martin Luther pushes back and gets married himself, then Vatican II, then the sexual revolution, etc etc etc.

    ANYWAY, the official teaching is that all people are called to be "chaste" but what "chastity" is depends on your "state of life." If you're a nun, chastity is celibacy. If you're married, chastity is a healthy sex life with your spouse. (If you dig into the more complete teachings on chastity, you'd see a lot of stuff that MetaFilter would like ... like chastity is an important component of authentic friendship, if you're a dude who only befriends ladies you want to bone, you are a bad friend, and if you complain about being friendzoned, Jesus would like to have words with you. Men who complain about women being temptresses are failing at chastity-qua-self-control; the problem isn't what women are wearing or doing or whatever, it's that the man is allowing his lust free reign and failing to recognize the women as people deserving of respect and authentic human connection. So in the larger sense it's about how sexuality is an inherent part of humanity, and the ways in which we're obligated not to be creepers in order to respect each other as fully human, and the ways in which it's good and right to express sexuality.)

    So a strain of thought about Christian celibacy is that virgins are MORE HOLY or closer to God than married people, but that's been largely theologically deprecated for a long time now; the "chaste within your station of life whatever it may be" is a lot more true to the radical equality of Christ, whereas God Prefers Virgins puts a hierarchy of God's love on Christian people. (A hierarchy of authority is okay, but not a hierarchy of love.) All pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others, as they say. And yet the folk belief persists that virginity is better and it leads to a fetishization of monastics and monasticism, a denigration of married life and family life and normal human sexuality, and (as a practical matter) some people with super-disordered attitudes towards sex fleeing to monasteries which is not, like, where you go to hide from sex.

    So, yeah, the nuns generally disagree with this formulation, and 3% of them find it flatly irritating to even be asked, I'm guessing because it expresses a pretty pernicious -- but widespread! -- attitude about consecrated virginity that people actually living lives of consecrated virginity are unlikely to hold.

    SO MUCH MORE THAN YOU NEEDED TO KNOW.

    It's a really interesting survey! Because the 649 questions really break down 20th century Catholic theology into a lot of tiny strands and try to tease out which strands are popular and which are not, regardless of their orthodoxy.

    (In the chastity explanation I have skimmed over the sex lives of unmarried, non-monastic people, aka The Chastity Battleground of the 21st Century, as some theologians think you can be chaste while having pre-marital sex as long as it's respectful and consenty, while others are like Nope, Marriage only! and it would make this novel of a comment into an encyclopedia)

  • posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:06 AM on November 27 [165 favorites]


    wenestvedt, you should totally look more into Sr. Neal's other work.

    I've started skimming the questions which are thought-provoking. Watch out -- some are questions about racist/anti-Semitic attitudes. And questions 61-69 are in particular about chastity and virginity, by the way.
    posted by brainwane at 8:12 AM on November 27 [1 favorite]


    Eventually it becomes clear Jesus is NOT going to BRB

    Such an evocative phrase -- I am 12 again, standing outside the comics shop which has had a "Back in 5 min" sign taped to the door for the last 20 minutes...

    (The rest of the comment was pretty great too!)
    posted by aws17576 at 8:37 AM on November 27 [2 favorites]


    Eyebrows McGee did a great overview of early Christian thought on virginity. I would just add a couple of things 1) there is at least a healthy minority of scholars who do not think that Paul expected the imminent return of Jesus, and that the "impending crisis" of 1 Corinthians 7:26 was likely one of the anti-Christian persecutions that made avoiding marriage and children a smart move. I lean toward that view, but there are arguments either way. 2) It appears that there may have been a faction in Corinthian who were pretty radical on the pro-perpetual virginity front--Paul quotes them as saying "It is good for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Corinthians 7:1)--and while Paul affirms that, yep, holy virginity is really good if you can manage it, it appears that he's actually moderating a radical anti-marriage view among some of the Corinthians. (Not all--the pros and cons of marriage and virginity was one of several controversial issues that had written to him about, asking for guidance.)

    Finally, although there was a ideal of holy virginity from the beginning, it really kicked into gear after Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313. Before then, the most revered saints of the church were those who suffered or died during persecutions--the cult of the martyrs was strong. But after Constantine made Christianity a legally sanctioned religion, that sort of persecution ended completely. That left a gap in church life for a sort of "super Christian" exemplar that the martyrs used to be. The replacement? Celibate monastics, who gave up the pleasures of this life for mystical union with Christ in prayer and holy living. It was then that perpetual virginity became ensconced as the highest form of Christian living, barring an actual instance of dying for the faith.
    posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:02 AM on November 27 [36 favorites]


    Eyebrows, can I just say that I *love* your contributions to these sorts of threads? I'm a lapsed Catholic but (or perhaps as a result of that) I love reading well-explained and contextualized explanations of theology.
    posted by dismas at 9:22 AM on November 27 [7 favorites]


    Eyebrows that comment was amazing and now I am quoting bits of it to my friends.
    posted by quaking fajita at 9:38 AM on November 27 [2 favorites]


    Celibacy and virginity are very different things. There are many nuns who took their vows after their children grew up and their husbands died. In that position, I would find the question annoying, too.
    posted by Miss Cellania at 9:38 AM on November 27 [12 favorites]


    The great dignity of Christian chastity and its particular requirements are derived from a fundamental privilege: virgins are the brides of the Word made flesh

    And the one in the post was MORE annoying? Wow.
    posted by salvia at 9:46 AM on November 27 [1 favorite]


    My life would be better if I could respond "The statement is so annoying to me that I cannot answer" in most situations. In fact, teen-aged me would like that on a t-shirt, please.
    posted by mcduff at 10:05 AM on November 27 [28 favorites]


    It would be interesting to see what kinds of structure live in that data, e.g. factor analysis on the questions to see the more-or-less-independent areas of belief.
    posted by Jpfed at 10:34 AM on November 27 [1 favorite]


    My life would be better if I could respond "The statement is so annoying to me that I cannot answer" in most situations. In fact, teen-aged me would like that on a t-shirt, please.

    I'm deeply tempted to set it up as a quick step in Outlook so that I can send it as a reply to emails with a touch of a button. Sadly I am expected to be a responsible and helpful professional so I will have to stick with my current method of swearing out loud and replying with as much passive aggressiveness as I feel is proportional and I can get away with...
    posted by *becca* at 11:17 AM on November 27 [5 favorites]


    @Jpfed -- also to check what correlates with answers to v249, on whether or not the respondent has seen Batman, enjoyed it, or wants to see it.
    posted by brainwane at 11:24 AM on November 27 [2 favorites]


    Metafilter: the statement is so annoying to me that I cannot answer.
    posted by randomkeystrike at 11:27 AM on November 27 [8 favorites]


    Now I want to write to the wonderful sisters I worked with in AmeriCorps and see if they remember this survey! They were SNDs too, though not very technologically apt. Oh, I miss them.
    posted by epj at 11:50 AM on November 27


    MetaFilter: SO MUCH MORE THAN YOU NEEDED TO KNOW.
    posted by GenjiandProust at 12:11 PM on November 27 [5 favorites]


    Chastity is the renunciation of all partial loves in order to embrace the perfection of love in a mystical union with Christ
    The virgin so consecrated by vow in religious life possesses a means for coming to know the meaning of love, a love that finds fulfillment in dispensing the love of Christ to His people


    I think that's how Mary Tyler Moore explained it to Elvis in Change of Habit.
    posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:11 PM on November 27 [2 favorites]


    So, believing Jesus's return was imminent (1 Cor 7:29), many early Christians taught that men and women should remain celibate if possible, so they would be less attached to earthly things and more focused on Jesus-y things, "without distraction" (1 Cor 7:35). But if not possible, marriage was a good second-best.

    Many religious or spiritual movements preach/practice something akin to celibacy/abstinence. Although it makes for a good story it's simply not as contingent on the immanence of the eschaton as that.
    posted by dmh at 2:36 PM on November 27


    They should have asked the nuns why they thought Billie Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
    "Ode to Billy Joe" came out in July 1967 and the song - with its depiction of a family's nonchallant approach to discussing suicide right in front of somebody directly involved - would have been a great question to ask nuns IMHO. It remains so.
    posted by rongorongo at 11:17 PM on November 27


    This is fascinating. Does anyone know if you can still become a nun now, even if you've been married and had kids? (Asking for a friend. As a mother to young rowdy kids, the peace and quiet and reflection nuns must have sounds AMAZING.)
    posted by Jubey at 4:38 AM on November 28


    Jubey- Unless something has changed in the 20 years since I left a Catholic religious order (and the Church), widows/widowers are welcome to follow a calling to the consecrated life as long as they have no dependents (minor children or relatives requiring full-time care).
    posted by KingEdRa at 5:23 AM on November 28 [1 favorite]


    ?? hi folks - i am the author of the original blog post!

    @vogon_poet: to brainwane’s point, my first application was also rejected back when it was still Hacker School :)

    @wenestvedt: I read a few of the other articles floating around about The Sister Survey, and I think I can speak to this a tiny bit! From what I gathered from reading different articles floating around, while Sr. Marie Augusta Neal conducted many surveys in the course of her research, this one was entirely in its own class in terms of its scale and impact.

    She conducted followup surveys to the Sister Survey later, though I don’t think that data has been anonymized and made accessible, and possibly it hasn’t even been digitized. It seems like you can actually see a list of where the data is in Notre Dame’s storage if you check in this finding aid!

    In response to its cultural significance, pretty much every resource I came across indicated that it definitely shook things up! This article quotes a professor saying that survey was “the first time individual sisters had been asked their personal opinion” and that it “impacted their own sense of identity within their religious orders.”

    idk if there are other massive religious surveys out there for other religious demographics, especially ones that were so effectively ~lost to time~ until recently. Makes you wonder how much other mid-century sociological data is bound up in magnetic tapes somewhere. ??

    @Eyebrows McGee: I do not have the words to adequately express my gratitude for the time and care you put into providing context for this question! Every single person I told about this project had the same reaction - “What the heck does this question even mean?” - and having someone with that knowledge generously step in feels like magic. Thank you so so much!

    For all assembled, I thought I’d also mention a couple more things about the survey and its author!

    First off, the finding aid (which I hadn't discovered until yesterday) has a lot of info, including a breakdown of each section in the survey and type of questions in it:
    • I. Statements about Beliefs - 60 items
    • II. Vows and Apostolate - 40 items
    • III. Structural Changes Introduced - 15 items
    • IV. Attitudes - 65 items
    • V. Census Data and Community - 241 items
    • VI. Current Conditions: Community & Communication - 36 items
    • VII. General Opinions - 83 items
    • VIII. Opinions for Future Plans - 38 items
    • IX. Social Assessment - 16 items
    • X. Assessment of Structure - 16 items
    • XI. Proposals on Structure - 31 items
    • XII. Conclusions - 8 items
    Secondly, I just want to emphasize what a major badass Sister Neal was! Here is a quote from her obit:
    A November 1997 Globe story credited Sister Neal for a strong voice that took on the church's most charged issues, including questions of patriarchy. "I remember speeches she gave in which people walked out in droves because they just did not want to hear it," Kip Tiernan, founder of Rosie's Place, a Boston area shelter for homeless women, said in the story. "But she wasn't a revolutionary. She was and is an angry daughter of Christ."
    And lastly, just, thanks for all your wonderful feedback (and jokes ??) it really meant a lot to see people engaging with something I worked on!

    ps. I thought about this gif a lot while playing with this question.
    posted by leffel at 8:09 AM on November 28 [25 favorites]


    Hi leffel, and welcome to MetaFilter! I hope you'll stay. :D
    posted by daisyk at 11:14 AM on November 28 [2 favorites]


    I want to thank Eyebrows McGee for that incredible explanation, and leffel for making me feel good about asking the question in the first place.
    posted by mephron at 3:46 PM on November 28 [2 favorites]


    Many religious or spiritual movements preach/practice something akin to celibacy/abstinence. Although it makes for a good story it's simply not as contingent on the immanence of the eschaton as that.

    Sure, but the New Testament doesn't really have much to say on the topic of celibacy. The most extensive consideration of the topic is the one Eyebrows mentions to in the First Letter to the Corinthians which is pretty ambivalent about it and pretty much concludes, "This isn't a good time to be making changes in your marital status one way or the other, so I'd advise you to remain as you are, and marriage is a lot of responsibility, but whatever." From Chapter 7:
    25 Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. 29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

    32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.
    posted by straight at 1:55 AM on November 29


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