My New Book Is Out!

September 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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Well, my new book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, came out on Saturday. It’s available for sale on;  an eBook version will also be available there in a week or so.

And just to whet your appetite, here’s the description. Y’all come!

In April of 2012 the Vatican issued a harsh “doctrinal assessment” of the largest organization of Catholic sisters in the U.S., the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The “assessment” was the culmination of a three-year investigation. Simultaneously, the Vatican had been conducting a visitation of 340 active (non-cloistered) congregations of U.S sisters. What do these developments mean?

This is the question Catholic scholar and activist Marian Ronan sets out to answer in Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns, her galvanizing collection of articles about the investigations, the doctrinal assessment, and the issues that connect them.

In the first section of Sister Trouble, Ronan chronicles the conflict from the 2009 launch of the investigations to the 2012 actions of bishops appointed to oversee the Leadership Conference. She also examines the condemnation of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book, the link between the sisters’ support for the Affordable Care Act and the Vatican crackdown, and the dispute over the ultimate meaning of the Second Vatican Council that underlies the conflict. The articles sizzle with Ronan’s distinctive and sometimes acerbic humor.

Readers curious about the Vatican crackdown will learn a good deal from this first section of Sister Trouble. But the talk that comprises the second section provides much-needed context for understanding the conflict. Here the author examines in particular the treatment of dedicated celibate women throughout church history and the threat they have always posed to the supposedly absolute gender boundaries with which male leaders justify their domination of the church.

Finally, in the concluding section, Ronan makes clear her reasons for undertaking Sister Trouble—because she cares so deeply about Catholic sisters. In the first article, she uses a statue of Joan of Arc to trace a genealogy from one U.S. Catholic sister to another and finally to herself. Then she draws on Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain to explore how the sisters shaped the lives and characters of generations of Catholic women. And in the final essay, Ronan steps beyond the current conflict to bid farewell to three recently deceased sisters whose lives of commitment profoundly influenced her own.

As theologian Tania Oldenhage has written, Sister Trouble is an “urgent, clear-sighted and deeply moving account” of the conflict between the Vatican and the nuns. It’s also a testimony to the legacy of Catholic sisters throughout the ages.


Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

September 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The following is a somewhat revised version of my article that appeared on Religion Dispatches last night. There’s a reason I’m an academic and not a journalist: attending to the twenty-four hour news cycle makes me a nervous wreck. Minutes after I mailed my article to RD,  in which I suggested that Pope Francis’s Latin American upbringing might have contributed to his attitude toward women, an email appeared announcing that Francis had denounced machismo in his interview published in fifteen Jesuit publications last week. Once this post is up, I’m going back to my research.

Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

 Soon, many optimistic, not to say naïve, Catholics—and Protestants—will be shocked to learn that the kindly new Pope Francis has excommunicated an Australian priest for supporting women’s ordination. Perhaps it’s all right to be obsessed with some pelvic issues after all.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Rev. Gregory Reynolds, of Melbourne, was notified on September 18 that he had “incurred latae sententiae excommunication for throwing away the consecrated host or retaining it ‘for a sacrilegious purpose’” (Somebody in Reynolds’s small Eucharistic community had apparently given the host to a dog) as well as for “speaking publicly against church teaching.” A letter to the priests of the archdiocese clarified that Reynolds’s support of women’s ordination was a primary reason for his excommunication.

I am not among those shocked by this development. As enthusiastic commentary about the new pope flowed out from the media in recent weeks, I was reminded of a comment my husband used to make about the police in Philadelphia back when we lived there. Some poor kid shoplifted something and BAM, there’d be three police cars surrounding him. “These boys don’t play,” my hubby would say. Neither do popes and cardinals, no matter how benign they seem.

Other Catholic feminists—Mary Hunt, for example—expressed wariness of the new pope even before Reynolds’s excommunication. It was not lost on us that even in the first interview, on the plane from Brazil, Pope Francis drew the line at women’s ordination. Indeed, the clear hierarchical distinction between genders underpinned by the refusal to ordain women has been the line in the sand since just after the Roman persecution of the church. But since John Paul II’s 1994 statement declaring women’s ordination absolutely off-limits, it’s been a twofer: something the church “has always taught,” and an example of “papal infallibility.” Never mind that papal infallibility applies only to church doctrine; no pope is going to undercut his own authority.

Of course, the boys’ declaring women’s ordination the line in the sand is something just this side of a death wish for the church. Despite attempts to obscure the fact, the men now in seminaries can’t begin to replace the priests retiring and dying, or to reverse the parish closings that necessarily follow. I have been arguing for forty years that women’s ordination is a fundamentally conservative issue; I cannot tell you how many Catholic women I know who would have been perfectly happy living their lives as grunt parish priests, baptizing and marrying and burying people. Instead, they’re picketing cathedrals, or writing articles for Religion Dispatches.

Of course, Pope Francis’s position on women’s ordination doesn’t mean he won’t initiate other more moderate reforms in the Catholic church. Indeed, his position on this issue may well be an olive branch to the conservative wing of the church so as to be able to introduce other changes. Pope Bergoglio is a strategic centrist; in Argentina he proposed civil unions as a compromise between the right-wing bishops on one side and the Kirchner government’s efforts to legalize gay marriage on the other

Then again, describing Pope Francis as a “strategic centrist” may credit him and the rest of the institutional church with more coherence than is warranted. I concluded a previous version of this article with speculation that Pope Francis’s origins in a machismo culture played some role in his excommunication of Rev. Reynolds. Just after I mailed it to Religion Dispatches,, an NCR blog by Phyllis Zagano appeared in my inbox. Francis had apparently spoken negatively about machismo in the original Italian version of his famous interview published last week by fifteen Jesuit journals. But somehow, the English version published in the Jesuits’ America magazine omitted the statement. Since then, America has apologized.

Maybe the pope sucker punched us by excommunicating Father Reynolds. Maybe he knew nothing about it. Maybe we’ll get a kiss tomorrow. Stay tuned.

My Solar Sisters

September 11, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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In 1961, when I was 14, my family moved from the tiny stucco house in which my brother and I had shared a bedroom for seven years to a bigger stucco house a few miles south. A number of noteworthy changes accompanied the move: finally being able to have my wooden dresser, previously out in the hall, inside the room where I, and I alone, slept; the crabapple tree in the yard that bloomed for my birthday every spring; and the regional rail line, with a stop at the bottom of the hill, that carried me to the museums and bookstores and libraries of Philadelphia.

Another change was less welcome: instead of going to Archbishop Prendergast, the Catholic girls’ high school where my parochial school classmates went, I was forced to enroll at Notre Dame Moylan, staffed not by the order of sisters at my grade school, the West Chester IHMs, or even some of the other familiar archdiocesan orders–the Chestnut Hill SSJs, or the Glen Riddle Franciscans–but by an order of nuns I’d never heard of, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. What I couldn’t get over was that if we had bought a house on the opposite side of the street, we’d have become members of the next parish north, St. Madeline’s, whose girls went to “Prendie,” as we called it. But we were on the Saint Rose of Lima side of the street. So I started taking the bus every day out Rose Valley Road to Notre Dame.

As it turns out, this bizarre wrong-side-of-the street development was one of the most significant of my life.  The “Ess-En-Dees,” as we called them, turned out to be the most educated and internationally sophisticated adults I had ever met, introducing me to literature, music, world events, and equally to the point, to a progressive, justice-oriented Catholicism  about which I had never dreamed. My years at Notre Dame overlapped with the Second Vatican Council, of course, so I wasn’t the only white-ethnic working-class Catholic being introduced to a renewed, mission-oriented church. But the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur introduced us in a galvanizing, unforgettable way. I have been grateful to them, and in communication with them, ever since.

Forward-fast the DVR forty years or so and picture me in another house, this one a few blocks from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Graduate Theological Union, where my husband and I are teaching. It’s the height of the real estate boom, 2005, and my brother the tax attorney informs us that if we are going to sell that house, we should sell it right now. So we do. And we make a sock of money. I won’t go into the details except to say that when the fourteen outrageous offers, each double what we paid for the place, come in, I say to my esteemed companion,” Keith, I’m not sure it’s ethical to sell this house for so much,” to which he replied, “Oh, for God’s sake, Marian, if we sell it for less, somebody will buy it and then resell it for that much.” We did, however, undertake a certain kind of penance for making such a killing–we gave a chunk of it away.

And this is where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur came back into the picture. I learned from one of their newsletters that the congregation, which is international in scope, had undertaken a photovoltaic–that is, solar–project to make electricity available to the schools, clinics and hospitals they staff in The Democratic Republic of Congo and in Nigeria. Launched in 2005, the SND African Photovoltaic Project now provides electricity, clean water, and internet access in Fugarand and Awkunanaw, Nigeria, as well as in Ngidinga, Lemfu, Kitende and Pelende, Congo. In the last three of these locations alone, the photovoltaic project serves 1100 hundred primary school students, 840 secondary students, and 220 people in hospitals and clinics.

These figures are impressive, of course, but perhaps a tad abstract for Euro-Americans like me (like us?) whose lives are almost incomprehensibly easier than those of the people of central Africa.  Until the photovoltaic project began operating in Ngidinga, Congo, in 2008, for example, the x-ray machine in the sisters’ hospital had never been used, for lack of electricity. And one of the major obstacles to women and girls being educated in Africa is that they spend huge amounts of time hauling clean water over long distances; because of the clean water provided by the photovoltaic project, women and girls can not only come to school–they can learn to use Microsoft Word on a computer, and can watch educational videos over the internet for the first time in their lives.

Each of the six photovoltaic systems cost $300,000, an amazing amount of money for a congregation of Catholic sisters to raise. And Keith and I are proud to have played a small part in that. The six systems  are now in place, but that’s just the beginning of the effort. Among the sisters’ goals for the future are to

  • Maintain and grow the systems in Nigeria and Congo

  • Educate sisters and co-workers in skills related to the project, such as: electrical engineering, business management, construction, oversight etc.

Having invested in this transformative endeavor, it only makes sense that we would support the sisters as they continue their work for the health and education of the people of Nigeria and Congo. Please won’t you join me?

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