In defense of Catholic nuns

I have been beating up on the Catholic Church recently and have no regrets about doing so because that institution richly deserves it. But I think I should be a little more discriminating and point out that the immense faults of the Catholic Church can be laid almost entirely at the feet of the men in the church, and not the nuns. Not ever having been a Catholic, I have not crossed paths with many nuns in a formal capacity and so do not have much first hand knowledge of them. The few nuns I have met have been extremely nice people but there is more to this defense than personal knowledge.

Last week I wrote about the pope slapping down nuns in the report that was released after a three year investigation by the Vatican of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents 95 percent of U.S. Catholic women’s congregations.

Over two years ago, a nun who was part of that group wrote about her unhappiness with the church opening the investigation. Revealingly, she felt that she had to use a pseudonym for fear of being singled out for punishment for expressing her deeply felt concerns about the direction her institution was going. It is telling that people belonging to a church have to practice the same kind of anonymity as whistleblowers in (say) the National Security Agency or some corporate conglomerate. In fact her whole essay reveals a church whose authoritarian practices makes it indistinguishable from some of the worst examples of businesses.

Sister X writes:

Evidently, the Vatican is concerned that the LCWR has not been forthcoming about the magisterium’s teachings regarding the ordination of women, the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions, and the “intrinsically disordered” nature of homosexual acts.

Rather, the visitation exclusively targets active women religious whose centers and houses of formation are in the United States—women educated here and trained for religious life here, women who work with major health-care and educational institutions in this country, and who collaborate with one another financially on ministerial projects such as peace and justice ministries.

She wonders why the nuns are being singled out for examination when there are so many worse issues confronting the church, and provides revealing details about the secretive way it operates.

Why isn’t the priest shortage the subject of a visitation? And during the same period U.S. bishops have presided over a sexual-abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic community more than $2 billion and the episcopacy much of its moral credibility. So why no visitation for the bishops?

To put it bluntly, I feel that American women religious are being bullied. The fact that the visitation is apparently being paid for by anonymous donors, and that the leaders of our communities will not be permitted to see the investigative reports that issue from it, does not engender trust. And indeed, the dynamics of the visitation and investigation so far have been experienced by women religious as secretive, unfriendly, and one-sided.

She also describes the way that the bishops and the church go after individual nuns while covering their tracks.

And that’s not the only worry. When a bishop wants to go after an individual sister—to “make an example of that nun”—he often has some Vatican office write a letter to the superior or the president of her congregation, pressuring the leadership to “do something.” The rule is judgment first, evidence later; and if the women in leadership don’t do something to punish the allegedly wayward sister, the Vatican will move against them. It’s a form of collective punishment, and the threat keeps rank-and-file women religious silent on controversial topics—such as the visitation.

These women are members of congregations that have taught in Catholic grade schools and high schools, academies and colleges. They are the sisters who staffed hospitals and still sponsor health-care systems throughout the United States; who have pooled millions of dollars in sisterly commitment to relieve homelessness; who have formed national coalitions, partnering with local and national government, to provide and manage low-cost housing projects.

I had assumed that nuns were treated by the church the way that priests were, that in return for their loyal service their needs were met out of church funds and that when they retired they were looked after in their old age and taken care of until they died. I was shocked to realize that they are truly considered second-class people, left to fend for themselves.

Catholics often assume that “the church is taking care of them.” I have to remind people that there is no check in the mail from the Vatican or from local bishops to women religious. Residences and medical care for retired priests are taken care of by dioceses. Religious communities are on their own. Sisters who served in diocesan ministries still must provide for their own retirement and medical coverage and often suffer great hardships.

She says that it is the nuns who have taken to heart the message that their duty is to serve the world and address unmet needs.

Reflecting the call of the council, the LCWR’s sense of religious commitment is shaped by dialogue with the world and its political systems. For almost three decades, the organization’s public resolutions have reflected a focus on issues addressed by U.S. bishops: universal access to health care and economic justice for all; protection of refugees and immigrants; opposition to war-making, the death penalty, and apartheid; promotion of the human rights of women; revocation of debt for poor countries; and care for the environment. For the member communities of LCWR, vows include taking public stands on social and political issues; the group’s Web site broadcasts its mission “to advocate against poverty, racism, powerlessness, or any other form of violence or oppression.”

She concludes sadly that the Vatican seems determined to treat women as second-class citizens.

What I sense today is that the Vatican will not budge in how it thinks theologically about what it means to be a woman; nor will it consider opening positions of real ecclesial authority to women. There is simply no getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican doesn’t want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars, and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s—and that means men’s—voice and views. But we are not “men” or “mankind.” We are persons with minds and hearts and voices, who have lived lives of integrity and loyalty, and who remain loyal to this church, even when it treats us as second-class citizens and makes us beg for financial support in our old age.

Catholic scholar Gary Wills also comes to the defense of nuns and argues that the problem with his church cannot be blamed on the nuns who he says are the ones who uphold good values, using his old teacher Sister Anne O’Connor as an example.

Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.

Anne O’Connor was just the kind of nun the Vatican is now intent on punishing. She had been a social worker before she became a nun, work that she loved and went back to several times as a Dominican.

Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist). Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens.

The real Gospel must be quashed in the name of the pseudo-Gospel of papal monarchs. Poor Anne O’Connor—she thought caring for the poor was what Jesus wanted. She did not live to see that what Rome wants is all that matters.

The stereotype of the Catholic nun ranges from the cheerful and helpful singing variety in films like The Sound of Music to the stern and cruel teacher who enjoys rapping students over the knuckles with a ruler for even minor transgressions. Catholic nuns, especially those who taught in schools or ran orphanages or homes for ‘wayward’ girls (i.e., girls who had sex) have had a long history of being portrayed as mean and nasty people, and on many occasions the reputation has been well deserved. (See for example the film The Magdalene Sisters that is based on a true story.)

For them to be now seen as the good representatives of the Catholic Church shows how rotten is the male hierarchy in the church, starting right at the top with the pope.


  1. Mr.Kosta says

    Exhibit #4872037 on the case of why any self-respecting woman shouldn’t want to have anything to do with the Catlick church.

  2. bubba707 says

    The Catholic Church demands unquestioning loyalty from the nuns while happily betraying them. They should all walk out and let the Pope and his henchmen deal with it all themselves, including doing their own laundry.

  3. 'Tis Himself says

    It’s rather telling that Benny Ratzi never was a parish priest. He was a professor of theology before he became a bishop and he was a diocesan bishop for only four years before he became Lord High Inquisitor (or Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith if you prefer). His exposure to the laity and junior clergy has been minimal.

    Abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc. are important to His Popeness. Poverty, homelessness, and the rest of the “social gospel” are not important to him. His response to the clerical pedophile scandal makes it obvious he’s more concerned with the prestige and dignity of the RCC than in the welfare of children.

    So it shouldn’t be surprising that Benny is coming down on nuns who are more concerned with economic justice than whether Baby Jesus cries when a couple uses a condom. Besides, those nuns are too liberal and Benny is both socially and politically conservative.

  4. KG says

    BBC Scotland screened a documentary last night on child rape by Catholic clergy in Ireland, and the Church’s cover-up. Prominent in the latter was “Cardinal” Sean Brady, “Primate of All Ireland”, who in 1977 was, as investigator on the Church’s behalf, given the names of the now most notorious child rapist in Ireland, “Father” Brendan Smyth, and of children he was abusing. He passed the information to his bishop, but not to the police or the parents of the children concerned, and made the informant, himself one of Smyth’s victims, swear a religious oath not to tell anyone other than authorised priests. That victim continued to be abused for a further year, his sister and cousins for years after that. Not until 1988 was Brendan Smyth stopped. Brady once said he would resign if it was shown children had suffered because of anything he did, or failed to do. He now says he won’t. He refused to be interviewed – there was footage of him scuttling away, protected by his minders, as a reporter tried to get a response from him. The Vatican’s Chief Prosecutor, “Monsignor” something-or-other, refused to say whether he thought Brady should resign. So: liberal views bring down the weight of the Church hierarchy on nuns; protecting child rapists – that’s a matter for the Cardinal’s own judgement.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I remember the case of the infamous Brady. Is it any wonder that Ireland, once the flagship Catholic country in Europe, is now the one in which disbelief is growing most rapidly?

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