Farewell, Dear Sisters

January 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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When I began writing about the two Vatican investigations of US Catholic sisters that began in 2009, my first post was a response to an article in Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine. It was written by a Catholic sister whose pen name, “Sister X,” indicates how dangerous she considered it  to say what she was going to say. She titled the piece “Cross-Examination.”*

There was much about “Cross Examination” that I found meaningful, but what moved me most deeply were Sister’s X’s reflections on the frequent experience of burying her sisters. “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 short supply.” This thought gives her an idea about the cause of the visitation of women’s religious congregations and the doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious: ‘What Rome is really asking,’ she ventures, is ‘Why don’t you have more  nuns to bury? What aren’t there more of you?'”

My strong response to this thread in “Cross Examined” was more than theoretical. Catholic sisters, especially the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who taught me in the 1960s at Notre Dame High School in Moylan PA and at Trinity College in Washington, have been some of the most influential figures in my life .  Catholic women in those years often entered the convent at age 18 and so some of the Sisters of Notre Dame at my high school were only ten or twelve years older than I was and are still going strong.

But many of them were older, and like the women in Sister X’s community, have in recent years, left us. The first of the deaths that really registered with me was that of Sister Claire McCormick, the high school Latin teacher from whom I learned that sometimes being clever just isn’t enough; sometimes you really have to study. In 2008, in her eighties, in what seemed pretty good health, Sister Claire sustained a stress fracture in her spine, developed pneumonia, and died within a week. I still can’t believe it.

Then, in 2010, came the death of Sister Mary Daniel Turner, one of the influential leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who had become a hero to me when I did a series of interviews with her between 2003 and 2006. Sister Mary Daniel died of cancer, so she left us a bit more slowly than Sister Claire did, but her loss was very hard nonetheless. As she said, there was a lot she still wanted to do. I continue to miss her.

And most recently, in early December, Sister Helen James John died at the age of 82. As her obituary in the Washington Post notes, Sister influenced very many students as she taught philosophy for four decades at Trinity Washington University (formerly Trinity College). She was also a vigorous outdoors-woman and fought for justice in civil rights demonstrations and at her own institution.

What Sister Helen James did for me, though, was to help me to believe, for the first time, that I could be the scholar and intellectual I dreamed of becoming. I had done fairly well in school previously, but during the first semester of my sophomore year, I took Sister Helen James’s honors metaphysics class, a pre-requisite for further study in philosophy and theology. The class was a ferocious encounter with the works of the great metaphysicians–Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and more–and when I got an A at the end of the semester, I felt I had arrived. I also took a number of memorable walks around the campus with Sister Helen James; on one outing, we decided that “being” is better than “doing,” an insight that, as you may know, I certainly do not embody!  Not long ago I came across a copy of a reference Sister Helen James wrote for me when I was applying to a Ph.D program. It’s thoroughness and thoughtfulness take my breath away.

We’re all going to die, of course, and living into one’s eighties is a whole lot better than dying young, as recent events have reminded us. But the passing of these Catholic sisters marks not only their end, but, in a certain sense, the end of a way of life, at least here in the US. The median age of US Catholic sisters is 74. At a conference on women’s religious life at Fordham Lincoln Center in December, a sociologist reported that 1200 women are currently in formation to become sisters here in the US. This figure may not sound particularly low till we consider that it comprises slightly less than 2% of the sisters in the US today.

I could go an a rant about the ways in which mistreatment of US sisters by the Vatican and the hierarchy has contributed to this decline. In “Cross Examination,” Sister X writes of the Vatican, ”Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions.”

But perhaps this is not the time for such a rant. Perhaps, as the winter wind  blows outside my window, it’s time simply to be grateful for these splendid women and the incalculable difference they made in so many of our lives.

*Sister X’s article is now only available in the Commonweal archives for a fee, but my 2009 blog post summarizes it.

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.


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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