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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