Pope Francis and Those Disloyal U.S. Nuns

August 14, 2013 at 10:42 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Earlier this month the environmental columnist Sharon Abercrombie posted an article on the National Catholic Reporter‘s Eco Catholic blog page, “Francis’ Call for Amazon Protection Echoes Work of Sr. Dorothy Stang.”  I find it provocative for several reasons.

Sister “Dot” Stang  was an American sister who spent forty years in Brazil, working with indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon Basin, as Abercrombie reminds us, comprises forty percent of Latin America and produces twenty percent of the world’s oxygen, a non-optional substance. Sister Dorothy worked to help the indigenous people of the rainforest in Brazil to learn sustainable farming practices. She also got them into contact with lawyers to defend them against loggers and ranchers intent on driving them off their land in order to clearcut the rainforest and raise huge herds of livestock there. In February of 2005 Sister Dorothy was shot dead by killers hired by just such loggers and ranchers. They were angered by her efforts to protect the people and the rainforest. In the years since her death, the situation in the Amazon has grown even worse due to government-sanctioned agribusiness and the construction of hydroelectric dams and mining infrastructure.

Abercrombie’s article suggests that during his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis emphasized the same values that Sister Dorothy lived and died for, telling the Brazilian bishops that the defense of the Amazon is relevant not only for the future of the church but of the whole society. He met with and encouraged some of the same indigenous peoples that Sister Dorothy served.

I am glad that the pope highlighted protection of the Amazon during his visit to Brazil. The church, in my opinion, spends far too little time stressing the environment as a “right to life” issue. Yet as the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)  begins its annual meeting this week, I can’t help reflecting somewhat sardonically on the connections between the Pope’s words about the Amazon, Sister Dorothy’s work, and the current situation of the LCWR.

First of all, let’s recall that although she held dual US-Brazilian citizenship, Sister Dorothy was a member of a U.S. province of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a group that belongs to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Now, in point of fact, as Abercrombie mentions, Sister Dorothy did spend some of her time in Brazil “organizing religious services and spiritual formation classes for children and adults alike.” But a major emphasis, and the cause of her martyrdom, was her political-environmental work against ranchers and loggers doing enormous harm to the Brazilian rainforest, actions Sister Dorothy understood to contradict Catholic social teaching.  She seems to have spent little (or no) time denouncing homosexuality and abortion.

In other words, Sister Dorothy was exactly the kind of U.S. Catholic sister whom the Vatican condemned in the “doctrinal assessment” it issued in April of 2012–a document which the current pope declined to rescind or even modify. The archbishop whom Pope Benedict sicced on U.S. sisters is still overseeing their meeting this week in Orlando, Florida.

Yet the values that this emblematic U.S. Catholic sister died for are precisely the values expressed by the new pope during his recent visit to Sister Dorothy’s adopted country. And commentators have remarked that this pope has said very little about the pelvic issues that have obsessed the Vatican and the hierarchy since Vatican II– something the sisters were also criticized for in the doctrinal assessment. Pope Francis had better be careful, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be issuing a negative assessment of him before long.



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  1. Thank you for another incisive article. As Sr. Dorothy did, so do we all need to do, to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not worry what to say or do, but trust that the Spirit will give us the words and show us the way, no matter what the consequences. As Pope Francis said on Pentecost, not ‘Francesco’ (or Paul or Apollos) but Jesus!


  2. I’m so proud to have been an SND and to have played a part in your education.  We are indeed proud of you, too.   E.


  3. Wisdom proves her children…


  4. Like you, I have been greatly inspired by Sr. Dorothy Stang! What a great saint, and a woman totally dedicated both to God and to environmental justice for all, especially the poor Amazon peoples.
    Pope Francis has a very different tone than his predecessor, so I have hope that the whole condemnation of LCWR will gradually disappear, as he learns more about what it entails. Let us pray for a meeting between LCWR leadershop and Pope Francis, without intermediaries presenting only their slant on the process!


  5. Terrific, Marian, send to the Pope.


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