The Many Reformations of Catholic Women’s Religious Life

Susan Rakoczy


One of the last enactments of the bishops, as the Council of Trent ended in 1563, was to mandate enclosure for all consecrated women. This reflects a prohibition against the first steps toward apostolic, non-cloistered women’s religious life, which was occurring at that time. This article examines some of the various “reformations” of women’s apostolic religious life from the 16th century to the 21st century in South Africa. A case study is presented of Mary Ward’s attempts to found a women’s apostolic congregation and her persecution in the light of Trent’s decree. The initiatives of Francis de Sales and Jeanne Frances de Chantal were also thwarted, but Louise de Marillac and the Daughters of Charity survived. Two significant reformations were the growth of apostolic congregations beginning in the mid-17th century and women’s responses to the theology of the renewal of religious life of Vatican II, including its impact in South Africa. Because women’s religious life came to Africa in Western structures and theology, principles of inculturation which guide the initiatives of making religious life African, are presented. The historical narrative is analysed through the lenses of women’s agency and women’s voice. Although male church authorities consistently tried to limit women’s initiatives to shape new forms of religious life, which frequently caused immense suffering, women’s apostolic religious life has evolved to be a very vibrant part of the life of the Catholic Church, including Africa, in the 21st century


Council of Trent; inculturation; Mary Ward; women’s religious life; South African women’s religious life; Vatican II; women’s agency; women’s voice

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Copyright (c) 2017 Susan Rakoczy

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