October 21, 2009 at 10:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you may have noticed, I am somewhat preoccupied with the cross (see book cover on right!). So a recent post on the Commonweal webpage grabbed my attention. It’s called “Cross Examination,”  and addresses the recent “visitation” of American Catholic sisters by the Vatican, and the accompanying investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for possible doctrinal irregularities. It’s written by “Sister X.”

Truth in advertising requires me to begin by saying that I have boundless respect for American Catholic sisters. These women built the American church with virtually no compensation.  One of my great heroes is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur,  Mary Daniel Turner, who was, in fact, the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious during the renewal of religious life after Vatican II. The LCWR has been a model of collegiality and commitment to the Gospel for decades. I find the idea of their being examined for doctrinal irregularities scandalous.

Sister X’s article is a deeply thoughtful “examination” of these developments. She begins by stating her desire to believe in the good will of the institutional church. Nonetheless, she “feel(s) that American women religious are being bullied.” This is the case in particular because the visitation is funded by anonymous donors and the report at the end of the investigation will be kept secret.

Sister X’s situation of the visitation and investigation in wider church contexts is particularly insightful.  One of the ostensible doctrinal lapses of the LCWR is its support of women’s ordination. Indeed, Catholic sisters were a driving force behind the first US women’s ordination conference in 1975. But Sister X extends this trajectory: the Vatican dismissal of the possibility of women’s ordination in 1976 “shut down any formal discussion of women’s equality in the church. For many women religious, the emphasis shifted then to justice concerns.”

She also hypothesizes that the American bishops who initially called for the visitation are trying to reclaim the moral authority lost in the sex abuse scandals by exercising power over women religious.  And she  wonders whether visitation questions about the “quality of life” of American sisters (whether they live in community, pray together enough, wear habits) are not best understood as part of the larger battle in the church over the meaning of Vatican II–the church as “fortress” vs the church as the pilgrim people of God in service to others.

For me, the last part of the article is most memorable, however. When news of the investigations first came out, I commented to a friend that the Vatican was wasting its money because in twenty years, the vast majority of American Catholic sisters will be dead. Sister X’s treatment of this side of the investigations is both lyric and mournful. If the Vatican wants to know about sisters’ “quality of life,” she riffs, “let me tell you about a common form of liturgical life in our community”–the burial of a sister, in a service without a priest because priests are in such short supply. (If the Vatican is really concerned about sisters’ quality of life, she adds, they should ponder the relationship between their own decision not to ordain women and what the resultant lack of priests does to the sacramental quality of sister’s lives.)

The woman whose burial Sister X describes had been a “hospital nun. “At the motherhouse you could always tell which sisters had been hospital nuns,” Sister X tells us, because “they were the fastest eaters at any table–a speed developed over years of eating in hospital dining rooms. You didn’t linger when you had other nurses to supervise and patients to tend.”

As she stands at the grave, Sister X thinks about the rows of nuns’ tombstones in that cemetery and across the United States,  “the many thousands of nuns who faithfully served the church for a lifetime, building up its schools and hospitals. They kept their vows. They didn’t cost the church $2 billion in legal settlements. Their gravestones don’t memorialize ecclesiastical appointments, ministerial accomplishments, educational degrees, or elected congregational positions. For religious women the headstone notes date of birth,  date of profession of vows, and date of death The facts of lifelong fidelity are simple and few.”

Ultimately, the burial gives Sister X another idea about the reason for the investigations. What Rome is really asking, she ventures, is ‘”Why don’t you have more  nuns to bury? What aren’t there more of you?”

She then answers their question: “Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions.”


(This post is dedicated to Sister Teresa McElwee, SNDdeN, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday.)



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  1. I love Marian Ronan’s writing. She is always on target.


  2. as always, marian has it right. these months have been grim in so many ways. the depth of insight and compassion expressed in the blog reminds those of us under investigation that we are neither alone or isolated.


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