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The True Radicalism of Catholic Sisters

Whatever the sisters might have done to cross invisible lines of vowed obedience according to Church rules, they have done so with courage and conviction. They deserve reverence, not retribution.
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Good heavens, what have the nuns done now? No less than the Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei (the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF) has issued a scathing "assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the association of 57,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S., accusing them, among other things of being too vocal about some issues while remaining silent on others, all a result, apparently, of "radical feminism."


For many Catholics of bygone eras, nuns were our teachers, our mentors, our band leaders, our choir directors, our camp counselors, our nurses, at times, our tormentors on the hot asphalt schoolyards of the May Procession practices of long lost childhood memories. They made sure we knew the answers to the Catechism questions and the haunting Latin verses of Tantum Ergo. Especially for Catholic schoolchildren in the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s, they were the most important women in our lives next to our mothers, their co-conspirators in the relentless effort to form our characters, educate our brains and save our souls.

Harm the nuns, harm our mothers.

Catholic religious women -- many dislike the word "nun" as a simplistic "Sound of Music" stereotype of religious life -- were the most powerful representatives of the Church in the lives of many American Catholics in the last century. They built the Catholic schools, nearly half of the Catholic colleges and virtually all of the Catholic hospitals and healthcare systems in this country. The writer Abigail McCarthy once noted in her essay "A Luminous Minority" (1985, ACCU) that Catholic religious women "built the most far-flung and accessible system of higher education for women the world has ever known."

Now, that's radical. Even more radical, the nuns did it by working for free. The great educational and healthcare systems of the Catholic Church in America were built upon "contributed services" meaning the free labor of women who took vows of poverty. The total value of contributed services of Catholic nuns must run to the incalculable billions.

How radical! No wonder the Church takes these women so seriously. They had, and still have, the power of influence, particularly that influence that comes through teaching and the example of selfless daily ministry to the fathomless needs of humanity.

In the early 1960s, nearly 180,000 women were in this amazing corps of leaders and teachers for the faith. At a time when women were not welcome in professional life and leadership, Catholic religious women were a notable exception in their own institutions. In the 1950s and 1960s or earlier, if a young woman wanted to be a CEO or leader of influence, she had to join the convent. For example, according to an American Council on Education study of the academic presidency, in 1970, only 5 percent of all college presidents were women, but 90 percent of those 5 percent were Catholic nuns.

No longer. Today, the population of religious sisters is about 55,000, with an average age close to 75. Few young women choose religious life, in large part because women's opportunities have changed dramatically since the days when a young woman of ambition had to join the convent to have a position of influence, authority and leadership not only in the Church, but in all of secular life as well.

Because of the loss of so much free labor, the decline in women's vocations caused a massive economic crisis for Church institutions, forcing the closures of Catholic schools in cities across the nation because the impoverished families in urban centers could not afford to pay the real cost of lay teachers and administrators. When the Church lost its most radical women -- those who devoted their entire lives to teaching without taking a nickel for themselves -- it could no longer afford to be present to the neediest families in our cities. Perhaps the Congregatio could spend a little bit of its copious time thinking about how to restore the pastoral presence of the Church in the city.

Largely hidden from public view is the equally serious economic and eldercare crisis faced by the increasingly elderly population of retired sisters. Having poured out their talent and energy and devotion for decades on behalf of the pastoral mission of the Church, without asking for any monetary reward, they now find themselves living on the margins. Many Catholics, to say nothing of people of other faiths, are often shocked to learn that the Church, itself, does not fund the religious orders of women and does not extend any financial support to the care of elderly nuns. The sisters, as they always have, must figure it out for themselves.

Now come some bishops, miters in high pique, arrayed across the line of Church authority known as the Magisterium, staring down this increasingly small, elderly and impoverished group of determined, dignified religious women. Rather than reaching out to say, "How can we help you, sisters?" in these declining years -- How can we begin to repay you for all that you contributed to the life of the Church and her flock? -- the men have nailed an indictment high on the cloister door, damning the nuns for being, somehow, disobedient, suspiciously feminist, radically unfaithful to the Magisterium, a word that appears often enough in the indictment to tell us that they really mean business.

Trouble between the men and women of the Church is as old as the tensions between Mary Magdalene and the disciples. History gives us numerous examples of feisty religious women like Julie Billiart, a French peasant who founded a religious order to educate poor girls orphaned by the French Revolution. When her bishop in Amiens, France ordered her to be less vigorous in pursuit of her ministry, she promptly picked up stakes and moved her nuns to Namur, Belgium, where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur grew and flourished. Julie is now Saint Julie, proving that the tide of history does not always run against the women, and her SNDs can claim a powerful legacy of schools, colleges and universities including Trinity College (now known as Trinity Washington University).

At Trinity, where we celebrate Founders Day this week in honor of the courageous religious women who established this great college, our history also reveals the power of women to stare down ecclesiastical opposition. In 1897, when the SNDs were getting Trinity underway, some right-wing clerics appealed to Rome to stop the founding of the college on the grounds that it was part of the heresy of Americanism -- educating women was a heresy! The nuns did not go away; instead, they stood their ground, made their case and eventually won the pope's approval. Talk about radical feminists! The most radical document by a religious woman I have ever read is Sr. Mary Euphrasia's 1897 defense of the right of women to get a first class college education.

Common sense tells me that the Vatican Congregation must have some good reason for taking the nuns to task at this late date in the aging of religious life, but reading the Vatican document offers few compelling clues. So there was some issue about a statement on women's ordination in 1977 that was never refuted. Some sister spoke about options for the future in which she uses the phrase "moving beyond the Church" on page 17 of a 28 page speech. Some religious women complain about patriarchy. Really, now, not only is there no "smoking gun" visible in this indictment, it's hard to find a mere spitball.

Some commentators speculate that the "assessment" is payback for the fact that LCWR stood firmly in favor of the Obama Administration's healthcare reform legislation, in opposition to the bishops. Perhaps, but the problems cited in the document seem far more ancient, mostly related to various speeches and statements over the years. Perhaps a universal vow of silence would solve the problem.

I look at the Sisters of Notre Dame at Trinity today, the greatest of teachers across many generations, now largely retired yet still active in pastoral ministry to our campus community. They have had their say about many issues, notably, the importance of giving women their voices to do some of the most important work of the world, to serve others as part of God's plan for his creation. The work most often involves the hard, manual labor of ministering to the needs of others, but sometimes the work also involves speaking out on issues of justice and charity, including issues within the Church, itself. So radical!

These women deserve our respect and veneration. If they have used their voices to express challenges and even doubts, from time to time, they have earned the right to do so. The men of the Church might be more open to the wisdom of the women, and less fearful for perceived threats to their positional authority.

The men are aging out, too. To the rest of the world, including many faithful lay Catholics, the hierarchy's current preoccupations seem obtuse, an inwardly focused race to stanch the bleeding of modernity into this ancient institution. The fights are really not about faith, at all -- Catholics across the spectrum of political belief remain fairly ardent about their faith -- but about organizational issues that often seem arcane, even irrelevant in the face of the awesome challenges of contemporary life on this planet.

We live in a world of pain. Why must the Church fathers inflict even more on the very people who have devoted their entire lives to trying to heal the pain?

Certainly, if there is a need for dialogue about differences, have that dialogue in earnest and in private. But it must be a dialogue, not a threat, and dialogue assumes that both sides are open to hearing the other and even learning from the other.

Whatever the sisters might have done to cross invisible lines of vowed obedience according to Church rules, they have done so with courage and conviction. They deserve reverence, not retribution.

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