Bringing the Nuns to Heel

April 24, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments
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By now, it’s hard to imagine anybody who hasn’t heard about the Vatican’s doctrinal condemnation of the main umbrella organization of Catholic sisters in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and its appointment of a conservative archbishop to control the organization’s future actions. The New York Times reported on the Vatican statement April 18, the day it was issued, and the next day, it published an editorial in support of the nuns. The PBS NewsHour covered it, interviewing one of the fine Catholic theologians of the rising generation, Fordham’s Jeannine Hill Fletcher. The National Catholic Reporter, the liberal Catholic paper of record, has published multiple articles about the condemnation. Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, one of the best known Catholic sisters in the US , has spoken out strongly against it. US Catholic, a distinctly middle-of-the-road Catholic magazine, published an article on its website detailing the ways in which the Vatican statement is misleading if not downright dishonest, and showing how some of the report’s ostensibly damning quotations of a speaker at an LCWR assembly are taken out of context. And Scott Appleby of Notre Dame University, a dean of American Catholic historians, discusses and models in an on-line interview the pastoral care the Vatican should have but did not exemplify in its treatment of the LCWR.

Virtually everyone I know is upset over this blatant abuse of US Catholic sisters by the Vatican, but I am more or less beside myself. This is the case not only because, like literally millions of other US Catholics baby-boomers, I was educated almost exclusively by Catholic sisters for fourteen years, the first twelve of them without charge, and had my life transformed by the experience.

It’s also because over the last decade I have been researching the life of an American Catholic sister, Mary Daniel Turner SNDdeN, who was for most of the 1970s the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the group currently under attack. As executive director, Sister Mary Daniel spearheaded many of the changes that have made the LCWR the model of democratic governance and commitment to the Gospel that it is today. In the course of my research on Sister Mary Daniel, I interviewed a good number of the women who are currently in the leadership of the LCWR, or are LCWR members by virtue of leadership roles in their respective congregations (or orders). I have rarely met women who impressed me more. The idea of these utterly dedicated and highly educated women coming under this kind of attack for exercising their freedom of conscience by sometimes disagreeing with the American bishops drives me nuts.

Because I have been researching and thinking about these women and their incalculable contributions to church and society for ten years, I am going to write several posts in the next week or so in response to the Vatican’s attack on the LCWR. I list below some of the directions I propose to explore in hopes that you will check back in from time to time:

1) The Vatican caused this problem. In the 1950s, it ordered US women’ religious congregations to begin meeting together. The nuns didn’t want to but they obeyed orders. Be careful what you wish for, fellas.

2) One of the reasons for US Catholic sisters expressing themselves on various issues is because they are some of the most highly educated women in the country. This, too, was the Vatican’s doing: already in the 1950s, it ordered the nuns to get more educated so they could respond more effectively to the modern world. See last sentence in item #1.

3) There is nothing new about the bishops and the pope going after the nuns. This sort of attack has occurred repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity, though this history makes the current attack no less horrifying. The difference is that in previous centuries and millenia, the attacks were on individual congregations and groups who lacked the power to fight back. Today, the nuns are organized, thanks to the wisdom of the Vatican. See last sentence in item #1.

4)The Vatican, and particularly the US Catholic bishops, may not grasp the effect that this move against US sisters is going to have. In recent years there has been, of course, a considerable decline in the number of white-ethnic Catholics in the American church. But an astonishing number of us have plodded on, despite the institution’s condemnation of our need to limit the size of our families, forbidding us to so much as talk about women’s ordination, and describing the sexual expression of some of our children, our siblings, our friends and ourselves as “intrinsically disordered.” Even before the Vatican condemnation of the LCWR, however, more and more of my faithful Catholic women friends had taken to saying that they don’t know how much more they can take. And now the Vatican and the bishops have set out to bring our spiritual mothers to heel. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.



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  1. I heard about this as I was driving to South Bend to meet with lots of other (mostly) Catholic feminist women… was a sad day. Looking forward to hearing what else you have to say; great start!


  2. Thanks, Marian! One of my co-workers, a young Jewish woman, asked me about this issue yesterday, and I said, “I am not going to read any more about it till my friend Marian posts on her blog”.
    I look forward to more posts.


  3. Marian, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of this terrible “dissing” of women religious in the US by the church’s hierarchy. We all know that women religious were the ones that carried Catholic education and healthcare in the 19th and 20th centuries. I don’t recall the Pope EVER coming out with a condemnation of the priests during the entire pedophilia scandal. This certainly smells like anothe anti-woman attack.


    • Thanks for your response, Judy. We need to work together to resist this outrageous action by the guys in power.


  4. Marian, Many thanks for dividing your response into 4 parts. I find it painful to recall the many blows women, especially women religious, have received. I began to learn about the gulf between the religious women and priests as a little girl seeing the sisters who taught in parochial schools struggling with their pastors. I heard about it recently when an extremely competent school principal in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had to re-apply for her position because of a decree that all principals had to be re-evaluated by an Archdiocesan appointed committee.

    Mary E. Gindhart, 4-24-2012


    • Thanks, Mary. These stories about the historical as well as current mistreatment of sisters provides a context for understanding this entire sorry business. One sister I know says the Vatican’s primary motivation is getting control of the nuns’ property, but myself, I think it’s just plain keeping in their place the only women they still have any control over.


  5. Marian’s comments are admirable. Here’s something that isn’t— according to at least one organization, in round numbers there are 7 billion people in the world now and, of that number, an estimated 925 million are hungry, or 13 percent, almost 1 in 7 people are hungry. I’m sure there can be lots of debate on the numbers but put generally, this is gruesomely awful. I don’t know whether Stephen Pinker is right that we are somehow “better off” in this regard (at least on a percentage basis) than we were historically–i.e., whether when we were all being chased by sabre toothed tigers, and there weren’t so many of us, the relative percentage of the hungry to the total population was higher. Since the number of hungry people appears to be almost 1 billion now, that doesn’t make me feel all that much better. Also, I cannot say how many of the hungry people are gay or in same-sex relationships (or would be if they were not so hungry) or what their position is on abortion (some may wish they had never been born, does that violate anything?). I will say that perhaps the august bishops might more profitably spend their time on these issues than on brow-beating women (whose average age is what– 90?) who have spent their lives in (generally unpaid) service to their faith.


    • I agree with you completely.

      The median age of US Catholic sisters is around 75. It’s hard to find an exact current number. One commentator estimated that it’s 167, but that seems high. It’s lower in Africa, of course.


  6. Thank you, Marian, for this post. Being raised a Southern Baptist, my first real contact with Catholic women was through the Grail, and it changed my life. Over the years, I have worked with many communities of nuns and know the many contributions they have made to the betterment of the world. This action of control and suppression is outrageous and I cannot imagine that they will take it quietly. One of my niece’s, in response to the NYT story on this, wrote to me saying, “The Vatican is incompatible with my Catholic faith.” This kind of action is, indeed, incompatible with a life of faith, justice, mercy and beauty! Thank you, Marian, for helping us think about it. Nancy Richardson


    • Thank you, Nancy. I agree with you and your niece.

      At least two Catholic pastors in Manhattan, both members of religious orders, disagreed with the Vatican statement from the pulpit on Sunday. In one of the churches, the congregation gave the pastor a standing ovation. A parish member, on his way out after Mass, said to the other one, “I had decided to leave the church over this, but on hearing your sermon, I’ve changed my mind.”

      But diocesan priests are less brave, so lots of others of us may not be motivated to change our minds. As Rembert Weakland writes in his memoir, the oppression of women means “the loss of the future” for the RCC.


  7. Marian, your piece caused me to dig up a deep memory–buried for many years with almost all the other unpleasant memories gathered from my days at St. Mary of the Presentation Catholic School. When I was 6, our Pastor Fr. FK began to visit all the classrooms once a year. The nun were crazy with anxiety for days before. We were instructed to wear our best clothing and exhibit the best of behavior. When “He” came to our room, we handed him our best art, our cupcakes brought from home for this big occasion, our shining faces and our newly learned songs. I always wondered why we didn’t do it for the nuns–they were the ones who did all the hard work. During these visits, every year, the priest made us all promise to “Love God above all others.” One year, maybe in second grade, I asked the priest, “You mean–I have to love God MORE than my Mom and Dad?” He answered solemnly, “Absolutely.” And I responded, “No way.”


    • Here I am, just after breakfast, laughing out loud! Thanks, Mary Ann!


  8. I am really sad about the report as well. But I guess I wish I were more surprised. Are others surprised? Did people really think the visitation & then investigation of LCWR would not come around to something like this eventually, in the current climate? This is a genuine question. If it’s not a surprise, but rather just more of the same, then it seems that those who have stayed this long have already found ways to “be church” regardless of such curial actions. Certainly this includes the sisters. So, why do you think there’s surprise or a linchpin feel about the moment? Is it just because the sisters pack such an emotional wallop, which they do, because they are collectively such important, cutting-edge Christians? Or is it the accumulation of curial actions? Or something I’m not getting.


  9. Marian. Thanks for committing to explore this in several posts. The whole situation is so troubling that I’m really wrestling to wrap my head around it. One of the comments posted to you speaks of priests speaking their dissent from the pulpit, which is encouraging. But among the most distressing points in the document is precisely that women religious cannot dissent — not publicly, not in private letters to the magisterium, not in personal theological explorations. If you could help us get a handle on what the CDF is afraid of I’d be grateful.


  10. Thanks, Marian, for your thoughtful analysis — and for the ones you promise in future blogs! — and for your support. It is very hard. One of the things I have learned over the past 8 years as a leader in a religious community is the prayerful, thoughtful way difficult situations are discussed, prayed over and discerned together about, until a response in keeping with our deepest principles (the leaders call it “acting out of our integrity”) can be articulated. Let’s all pray for that grace in this situation.
    Thanks also for that list of responses; I hadn’t heard about some of them and will look them up.
    and finally — Happy Birthday, rather late!!!


  11. Marian,
    Thanks for the links. Sorry I took so long to communicate -my overstuffed life. I am watching
    this space


    • Thank you, Judy. And comments are always welcome, even weeks later!!


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