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Corita Kent, "o'life",1983, screenprint, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles, CA. © Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles. Used with permission under educational use.
Catholic Re-Visions

Corita Kent and “A Sort of Growing Up”

This essay presents some historical sources for tracing and understanding Corita Kent’s departure from Catholic religious life and the institutional Catholic church. This effort to make sense of Corita’s spiritual trajectory sheds light on wider trends in Post-Vatican II U.S. Catholic life.

I now question the value of people living in institutions, with restrictions imposed by others. To mature you need to impose your own. We are in a great transition time moving from the group to the responsibility of the individual.

Corita Kent

In 1974, almost six years after “unjoining” the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and ending her formal practice of Roman Catholicism, Corita Kent shared these words with a writer from the Los Angeles Times. Corita (she preferred to use just her first name) made few public comments about her departure as it was happening in 1968, but she did tell the National Catholic Reporter “I don’t want my action to stand as an example–only in the sense that each person should do what he thinks he should do.”[1]

Corita was among the brightest stars of the Catholic 1960s. Upon her departure from her order, John Cogley, onetime religion editor of The New York Times, called her “the best known religious in the United States and the walking symbol of the ‘new nun.’”[2] Over the course of the ‘50s, her career had gained steam as she created whimsical, often Biblically-tinged silkscreens and served as a beloved art teacher at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. Corita burst into the national consciousness in the ‘60s after adopting the Pop Art style pioneered by Andy Warhol. She was eventually asked to design a forty-foot-long banner for the Vatican pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Corita’s community of nuns was habitually at the forefront of the ongoing “renewal of religious life” among women religious in the United States jumpstarted by Madaleva Wolff and the founding of the Sister Formation Conference in the ‘50s and given further sanction by Vatican II’s Perfectae caritatis. By 1968, however, “things had just become too big,” and during a sabbatical summer on Cape Cod, she decided to leave religious life behind.

Corita provided deeper insight into the character of her motivations in a brief letter she wrote to her IHM sisters on the occasion of her leaving. Her decision was not only radically personal but also deeply spiritual. She told her former community, “It is very hard to say where I have come to in my own life which leads me to say I can no longer have those initials after my name…I can honestly say that those good words we have known for a long time, God’s will, are the words that ring true. It would be even more true to say the words – God’s will for me – because I feel this is only my decision about me now – not for any other person or any other time.”[3] But how could it be possible for a Catholic nun, especially one formed mainly during the staid 1930s and 40s, to believe that God willed her departure from religious life and the Catholic Church?

Two sources dear to Corita make this claim a bit more intelligible: The decrees of the Second Vatican Council and Harvey Cox’s landmark book The Secular City. As Catherine Osborne notes, these were but two of the most prominent “efforts to encourage ‘this-worldly’ religious observance,” which were eagerly received by Catholics in the 1960s (152). Corita, in particular, had a special connection to both. In the early-60s, the IHMs were pioneers in their efforts to engage the documents of Vatican II and put their messages into action. Later in that decade, Corita eagerly read The Secular City and befriended Cox. The duo planned happenings together, including one in Boston with the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan and folk singer Judy Collins. When Corita died in 1986, Cox penned her obituary for Commonweal.

Vatican II

Vatican II was convened in 1962 with the intention of considering an aggiornamento (“updating”) in the life of the Roman Catholic Church globally. Fittingly, in 1966, James Stevenson of The New Yorker deemed Corita “a one woman aggiornamento.”

Two of the council’s major documents emphasized the importance of social action and “this worldly” practice as essential to authentic faith. Gaudium et spes (“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) urged that Christians see their action in society as constitutive of their faith and specifically criticized any separation of religious belief and secular duty. It states, “They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities.” (❡43)

Lumen gentium(“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) considered the relationship between Catholics in various states of life, including bishops, clergy, religious, and laity. Itarticulated a “universal call to holiness.” Its authors offered a statement about how the laity pursue their distinctive form of holiness, one different from, but not lesser than, that pursued by ordained Catholics and those in religious life. It declared that “laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” The laity “live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations” and “work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” (❡31)

For many Catholics, the main takeaway from these documents was something like this: one could attain authentic holiness and pursue a genuine Christian vocation by working daily “in the world” just as surely as one could by joining a religious order or becoming a priest. This, in turn, made the highly institutionalized Catholicism of otherworldly-piousness and world-denial, broadly characteristic of the most influential strain of pre-Vatican II U.S. Catholicism, far less attractive. One example: When bishops decreed that eating meat on Fridays was no longer a mortal sin and that Catholics could consider expressing penance in a way more fitting to their own circumstances, most Catholics began eating meat on Fridays and very few adopted any practice to replace it. The message on holiness seems to have been thoroughly and deeply received, but with ironic consequences.

Harvey Cox

Harvey Cox’s bestselling book The Secular City arrived later and from further afield relative to Corita’s home at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. It fit well, though, with the religious and spiritual trajectory on which she was moving. Cox describes secularization straightforwardly as “the loosing of the world from religious and quasi-religious understandings of itself, the dispelling of all closed world-views, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” This process, distinct from secularism, is not so much a threat to Christianity as an opportunity. “Secularization is man turning his attention away from worlds beyond and toward this world and this time.” This, for Cox, presents a world-historical opportunity for authentic Christian living, freed from attachment to the structures of state power and the moribund mores of bygone ages. He echoes Corita’s own language of maturity in describing secularization as “what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944 called ‘man’s coming of age’” (2).

Cox argues for the Gospel as “a call to imaginative urbanity and mature secularity.” “It is not a call to man to abandon his interest in the problems of this world,” he continues, “but an invitation to accept the full weight of this world’s problems as the gift of its Maker…seeking to make it a human habitation for all who live within it” (100). Foreshadowing the sort of approach Corita would take to social issues in the 1970s and ‘80s, he highlights the fact that this dismantling of the status quo opens the door to, even demands, a new spirit of inventiveness among Christians in working to meet the demands of the Gospel. Cox states:

Freed from these fantasies man is expected to assume the status of sonship, maturity, and responsible stewardship. His response to the call must include a willingness to participate in the constant improvisation of social and cultural arrangements which will be changed again and again in the future. The acceptance of provisionality is part of maturity. So is the need to exert one’s own originality. No one supplies the steward with a handbook in which to look up procedures by which to cope with every problem in the garden. He must be original. No one provides secular man with sure-fire solutions to the ever-new problems thrown up by the tireless historical process. He must devise them himself

Cox, The Secular City, 144-145.

The author of The Secular City was also alert to the convergences between his work, Vatican II, and Catholic religious life. In a new introduction to the 2013 edition of the book, he admitted that “My timing was…lucky” in that the book arrived shortly after Vatican II. Moreover, Cox recalls that “Nuns, always at the forefront, or even ahead of, Catholic theology, took to [the book] with special enthusiasm” (xiii). In brief, then, these two sources provide a window into important movements in the post-conciliar U.S. Catholic world, movements which were to shape Corita’s own journey.

After the Exodus

Undoubtedly, the most dramatic factor propelling Corita’s exodus from the Catholic Church was the persistent harassment she experienced from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, led by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre. The Cardinal was habitually frustrated by the efforts of the IHMs to renew and refine their common life and mission, and Corita’s artwork appears to have been especially distasteful to a man who found many things distasteful. (McIntyre is reported as having termed the 1965 Watts uprisings “inhuman, almost bestial.”) While this portion of Corita’s life has been well covered, Corita’s post-1968 life has received less attention.

Over the course of the 1960s, Corita’s artwork became increasingly political, reaching a crescendo in the series she produced in 1968 and 1969, heroes and sheroes. These serigraphs highlight figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and her good friend Daniel Berrigan, and they address social issues including racism and the war in Vietnam. Though her artwork took a noticeably inward turn during the 1970s and ‘80s, she continued supporting causes like environmental protection and nuclear disarmament.

The theme of her 1986 dedication speech for the Reynolds Gallery at Westmont College was the necessity of creative action and self-making for the common good. She said, “As adults we must still maintain our personal lives creatively. But now we become responsible for taking care of others as well—helping them to create their lives as we were helped.” This obligation to others was not merely interpersonal. She continued, “As the society in which we do this work has matured, we have moved beyond the tribal world…Now it is necessary to grow into an adulthood where our outlook is global, where our outlook includes the well-being of the whole human family and the care of the whole planet.”

She asked her audience to stay informed, especially by supporting groups including Physicians for Social Responsibility, for which she created an anti-war billboard that she termed “the most religious thing I’ve ever done.” Something of her socially-active post-Catholic spirituality was expressed in her claim that everyone is an artist and that creative activism is, in fact, an artistic act. “If the job is done well,” she elaborated, “the work of art gives us an experience of wholeness called ecstasy—a moment of rising above our usual feelings of separateness, competition, divisiveness to ‘a state of exalted delight in which normal understanding is felt to be surpassed.’”[4]

This artistic, spiritual, and socially-committed evolution was, for Corita, not so idiosyncratic as she had initially represented it. She told the Boston Globe in 1981 that her departure from Catholicism was a personal decision, that “there just came a time when it seemed I could operate better without all that.” She concluded, “It was just a natural growth.” However, while this was her personal path, she added, “I see it as a sort of growing up we are all being asked to do.”[5]

[1] Lucie Kay Scheuer, “A Time of Transition for Corita Kent,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1974.

[2] John Cogley, “Corita: Another Symbol is Gone,” National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1968.

[3] Corita Kent to Anita Capsary, undated [presumably Fall 1968], “Press clippings binder (1967-1979),” Corita collection, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community. 

[4] Corita Kent, “Corita Kent Dedication Speech, Reynolds Gallery – Westmont College,” January 19, 1986, available in “Speaking engagements (1950s-1980s),” Box 12.1, Corita collection, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community.

[5] Nina McCain, “The World is Her Paint Brush—And Her Colors Are Bright,” Boston Globe, August 15, 1981, “Clippings – 1980-1984,” Box 29.7, Corita collection, Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community.

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Corita Kent and “A Sort of Growing Up”

This essay presents some historical sources for tracing and understanding Corita Kent’s departure from Catholic religious life and the institutional Catholic church. This effort to make sense of Corita’s spiritual trajectory sheds light on wider trends in Post-Vatican II U.S. Catholic life.

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