Nuns pushing back

The disobedient nuns had their annual meeting last week in St Louis. (How appropriate. I wonder if they always hold their meetings in a saintly or otherwise piously-named city. They have a lot to choose from – St Paul, San Antonio, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Santa Fe, Providence…)

They’re not defying, but they’re not giving in, either. Maybe they’re just playing for time.

American nuns described as dissenters in a Vatican report that ordered an overhaul of their group said Friday they will talk with church leaders about potential changes but will not compromise on the sisters’ mission.

Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, called the Vatican assessment of the organization a “misrepresentation.” But she said the more than 900 women who attended the group’s national assembly this week decided they would for now stay open to discussion with three bishops the Vatican appointed to oversee them.

The thing about that of course is that it’s not discussion that the Vatican intends. The Vatican doesn’t consider itself a partner in dialogue with a buncha nuns. The Vatican is telling them what’s what, not chatting.

The nuns must know that, but the plan seems to be to pretend they don’t. The bishops helpfully spell it out for them every chance they get, but the nuns go on pretending (or really not understanding, but that seems hard to credit).

“The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission,” Farrell said at a news conference, where she declined to discuss specifics.

“As long as possible” – playing for time.

The St. Louis meeting was the group’s first national gathering since a Vatican review concluded the sisters had “serious doctrinal problems” and promoted “certain radical feminist themes” that undermine Catholic teaching on all-male priesthood, birth control and homosexuality. The nuns also were criticized for remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion.

Radical feminist – me, Rebecca, and the nuns.

“I think what we want is to finally, at some end stage of the process, to be recognized and understood as equal in the church, that our form of religious life can be respected and affirmed,” Farrell said Friday.

She said she wanted to create [a] church environment that allows them to “openly and honestly search for truth together, to talk about issues that are very complicated and there is not that climate right now.”

No there isn’t, but then that’s the nature of the Catholic church.


  1. Randomfactor says

    Women are increasingly voting with their feet against the church. Despite population gains, the number of nuns today is a fraction of what it was in the 60’s Fewer monks, too.

    Their slave labor force is drying up.

  2. jamessweet says

    Taking as a given that they want to remain Catholic (god knows why, but I think we have to take that as a given) then I think the LCWR is playing this perfectly. They are forcing the Vatican to make the next move. If they strike back forcefully at the patriarchal dickholes, then they lose a lot of their goodwill with the Catholic laity. Instead they just say, “Hmmm, yes, that’s interesting, tell us more,” forcing Pope Palpatine and his stormtroopers to either a) drop the issue, or b) make the PR-implosive move of attacking a busload of nuns for being too helpful to the homeless. Seriously, there’s like five people in the whole world who won’t find something in the bolded phrase that pisses them off, and four of them already work at the Vatican.

    Kudos to the nuns. They’d be better off, you know, just leaving, but granting that we know they won’t do that, they are playing this beautifully.

  3. Kes says

    I’m no Catholic, not even a lapsed one, but I did attend Catholic school for six years (complete with nuns!) and come from one of the most Catholic areas of the US (greater Boston area). And here’s my personal-anecdata-based opinion on the decline of the Monastic Orders: gay Catholics don’t have to join the Church to find a place in society anymore.

    All (and I do mean *all*) the nuns I’ve *ever* met were unmistakeably gay. I spoke with several about why they chose Holy Orders, and they said it just seemed like God was calling them to serve. And that they knew they could/would never have families. Life as a nun offered them a role, an alternative to being an old spinster. Since monastic-style communal living is no longer necessary in modern America, the nuns rightfully changed their approach and became a service-oriented organization and left lifestyle considerations in the past, where they belonged.

    No amount of kicking, screaming or breath-holding on the part of the delicate old queens in the Vatican is going to change the demographic and cultural realities that the US nuns have taken in stride. I say, kick off the ties to Mother Church and become your own group. You’d all be better off.

  4. eric says

    Sounds like the nuns are reformers protesting some RCC practice. I wonder if there’s a term for what the change they are trying to enact? Heh.

  5. maureen.brian says

    This is beginning to remind me of the olden times when the male clerics were so busy having minor wars about their own status and splitting hairs about imperceptible points of doctrine that the women religious got on with their own networking, education, good management only to become major powers in society at large. (And in the church.)

    Think Hildegard von Bingen and the many like her. It doesn’t solve the immediate problem but the very notion is comforting.

  6. John the Drunkard says

    Leadership Conference of Women Religious?

    How about Leadership Conference of Jewish Nazis?
    Leadership Conference of Wahhabi Feminists?
    Leadership Conference of Honest Televangelists?

    These just off the cuff.

  7. sambarge says

    Kes @ 5

    All (and I do mean *all*) the nuns I’ve *ever* met were unmistakeably gay. I spoke with several about why they chose Holy Orders, and they said it just seemed like God was calling them to serve.

    I don’t doubt that unacknowledged homosexuality (or any sexual desire outside the Church’s narrow definition of sexuality) drove many to the seminary or convent. It stands to reason, doesn’t it?

    I also went to Catholic school (although I was actually Catholic at the time) and the nuns I knew were, almost to a woman, the eldest daughters in immigrant families who had raised all their siblings and joined the Church to [1] have a career (the Church paid for the cost of their nursing or teacher education) and [2] to avoid being tied down to child-care for the rest of their lives. It was the only socially acceptable way for them to stay unmarried and certainly the only way they could get a decent job/career.

    When, during a particularly pious lent, I decided I wanted to be a nun, the sisters who taught at my school explained to me that I didn’t need to join the convent; unlike them, I would have options. It wasn’t until I grew up that I understood they meant I had access to birth control and career options.

    That advice really was for the best, since it was later that same year that I realized the Church was full of shit.

  8. frog says

    Totally agree with comment #2.

    One thing a Catholic upbringing taught me is that many nuns are experts at verbal judo. They’ve had 1500 years (give or take) to perfect how to deal with so many biases against them–being women, taking vows of poverty, an overbearing patriarchy nominally in charge of them…

    It’s really quite Jedi when you think about it. The Big Men In Charge huff and puff and just don’t understand why these weak, inferior women won’t magically fall in line. Then the women don’t give them anything to directly strike out against, and it’s a lot of swinging at shadows.

  9. sailor1031 says

    “since a Vatican review concluded the sisters had “serious doctrinal problems” and promoted “certain radical feminist themes” that undermine Catholic teaching on all-male priesthood, birth control and homosexuality. The nuns also were criticized for remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion.”

    I know the Rattenfaenger and his cohort of bishops, chosen specifically because they are as conservative as the Fuehrer himself, would like the world, and catholics in particular, to believe that what the Faenger says about female ordination, contraception, abortion, gay rights is unchangeable catholic dogma. The fact is that that is untrue. Totally untrue. There has never been an “infallible” pronouncement on any of these issues. What the Fuehrer says is his own opinion – nothing more. As such it is not binding on any catholic anywhere in the world. Unfortunately most catholics don’t know enough about catholicism to know this.

    I’m intrigued that the nuns have avowed their devotion to the decisions of Vatican II. Basically those decisions became catholic orthodoxy because they were the result of an ecumenical council – the highest of the RCC Inc’s three ‘magisteria’. Neither the Rattenfaenger nor the bishops have any authority to rescind or alter any decisions of an ecumenical council. It is the nuns who are supporting and promoting mainline catholicism and dogma. The Rattenfaenger is a liar!

    GO NUNS!!

  10. Randomfactor says

    I’m a former Catholic (and unmolested altar boy) who’s cheered by the nuns’ actions.

    I’ve long felt that what the Roman Catholic Church needed was to lose the Americans to a “North American Catholic Church” schism along the lines of what happened between the Anglicans and Episcopalians during the Revolution.

    Splitting off from Rome would give the NA crowd much greater freedom to act as their consciences decreed, and deal a strong blow against Ratzi and his crowd.

  11. Peter says

    I keep reading “Radical Feminist” used to describe positions that don’t seem to be particularly radical, or even unusual. None of the things I have read about the nuns seem to be radical or more than mildly feminist.

  12. eric says


    None of the things I have read about the nuns seem to be radical or more than mildly feminist.


    The nuns also were criticized for remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion.

    It appears the RCC’s notion of radicalism includes not fighting hard enough on a given issue.

    I guess the Vatican is sort of like a barrier troop. Their role includes shooting you in the back if you don’t advance on the enemy.

  13. 'Tis Himself says

    Benny Ratzi never spent a day as a parish priest. He has no idea what the laity and those clerics and nuns who work with the laity are concerned about. Most Catholics, certainly in the first world, could care less about contraception and same-sex marriage. They do care about social issues. Which is why the nuns have such strong support from the laity.

    Benny Ratzi and the Boys in the Vatican believe in “pray, pay and obey” for the laity. The laity has other ideas.

  14. Chakolate says

    How are convents funded, anyway? If the entire Conference of Women Religious should decide to divorce themselves from the Catholic Church, and just carry out their activities as an independent organization, would they be able to fund themselves? Most are teachers or nurses, communal living is cheap…

    Okay, I know it’s a pipe dream, but it’s a nice one, innit?

  15. says

    @jamessteet 2. “They’d be better off, you know, just leaving, ”
    I would suspect that would be the hardest thing in the world for them to have to do, as invariably they would have invested their whole lives and renounced their families when they joined up to religious orders for life. These nuns would have committed every aspect of their beings in order to serve god, whom they would see as their master, and the pope who would be his vicar on earth. They are very brave to take on the head of the religious household. I was reading in the paper the other day about the butler dressing the pope each morning, and it made me think that behind closed doors the pope has to be helped just like a little child, and yet the world buys into images of him as being all supernatural and heavenly and strong and able to sort the world out?

  16. mildlymagnificent says

    I really think the Vatican head-kickers have totally failed to comprehend how nuns work.

    They deal all day every day with people who can’t manage their own lives for various reasons – and every time they see them they say something like “Next time we meet I hope you’ll manage to ….”. And ‘next time’ the drug addict or gang member or whoever has totally failed in whatever would have made their life better. So the calm, helpful, never-say-die, absolutely relentless nun goes through it all over again. And again. And again. Day in, day out. Year in, year out.

    And they never, ever, ever give up. The Vatican has bitten off a very hard-to-chew challenge here.

  17. mildlymagnificent says

    Whoops, I forgot. I totally agree with sambarge @ 9 on why many of the 50+ age group of nuns joined.

    They grew up as good catholics but they couldn’t face marriage and child-raising in the same way as their mothers had done. The orders gave them education, careers and respectability. One nun I knew reasonably well never complained about her family, but she described some of the interactions with her father in a way that left me with the impression that, despite her obvious love for children, she’d never want to be married to a man like that.

  18. Erp says

    @16 It is my understanding if the nuns left either individually or as a group they would lose the property (houses, bank accounts, buildings used for charitable purposes) and would be destitute and without some of the tools they’ve used to help (vows of poverty would mean they don’t own property individually only the order) since the Catholic church ultimately owns all their property (the one exception might be that some of the charitable organizations may have a separate set of trustees that are not under the Church’s control).

    Even if a large portion of the US church left including a few bishops, the property would still remain with the Vatican loyal bishops (even if the Vatican had to appoint some new ones) barring special circumstances such as legal documents showing that something other than the hierarchy controlled a particular property (some universities for instance). The US court system by long tradition does not interfere with the internal workings of a church which means in a hierarchical church what the top says goes (unless it violates the law). This is playing out in the legal system with the US Episcopal church where a handful of bishops split over the ordination of gays (they were against it) and a few other issues; on the whole the Episcopal church is winning the property lawsuits.

    Note I am not a lawyer.

  19. Chakolate says

    Erp@20, Are you sure about all of that? The order doesn’t own the property? And who is the Order? I wonder about these things because one of the ways the Vatican has weaseled out of paying damages for pedo priests is that they claim that each parish or diocese is individually owned.

    Seriously, one of the reasons I want churches taxed is so that we can see who owns who and how much.

  20. mildlymagnificent says

    “The order doesn’t own the property? And who is the Order?”

    Wouldn’t know about any particular property or order but there’s a long and contentious history of disputes between various bishops and monastic or teaching/nursing/missionary orders with buildings and activities within their dioceses.

    The Vatican often has to step in and mediate or adjudicate these disputes. The Vatican appoints the bishops and it *also* gives the different orders their “papers”, for want of a better word, authorising the name they want to call themselves and the activities which they may and may not engage in.

    It can all get pretty nasty when a bishop decides to do a Vatican and exert his authority over activities that are within his diocese but not really under his total control. A local bishop going up against a Jesuit provincial superior is closely akin to a prizefight.

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