The new female voice of the Church
Theologian Mary Hunt agrees that Rome is stuck with a dated outlook where women and men are unequal and different.
“You can tell by the way the bishops and priests dress and act that they haven’t made many strides in their worldview,” said Hunt. “The Vatican has been discredited in this postmodern world while the nuns’ lifestyles are more authentic to the gospel.”
The dwindling power of the bishops was on full national display when President Obama announced his Affordable Care Act. To rally the passage of the health care bill, a contingent of nuns, including LCWR, sent lawmakers letters stating their support. In contrast, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the bill on the grounds that its restrictions on abortion funding were too weak.
“The Vatican saw that the nuns are not under their control anymore,” said Hunt about how the nuns had made their own independent statement contrary to the bishops.
The issue flared up again when Obama announced that the act would require Catholic organizations to provide contraceptive and reproductive products in employee’s healthcare coverage. Conservative Catholic groups and bishops were uproarious. In response, President Obama tweaked the plan so religious employers could opt out of paying for contraceptive coverage.
“When the compromise came out, the nuns said over and against the bishops that it looked good,” said Hunt. “The bishops had always been the normatively Catholic voice, but now Obama’s decision made it seem like the sisters were the voice of the church.”
Hunt says these women have no canonical rights to be the voice of the church. And so they become easy targets; all nuns and sisters are considered lay people by the church, hence the inability to protest or ward off investigations by the Vatican.
“In many ways they have all the responsibilities of a priest but none of the perks of a priest,” said Hunt.
Parishioners support the sisters
Regardless of the politics and rules of Rome, the current crackdown is a moral no-brainer for many Catholics. Parishioners are coming out in droves to show their support for the embattled women across the country. They’re holding candle light vigils and giving nuns a standing ovation at Sunday mass. At Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Chicago, they’re holding prayer services for parishioners to vent their anger. Others have chosen to respond virtually: Father Martin created a web video that pays homage to over a dozen women religious whom he’s thankful for. It’s gotten more than 34,000 views on YouTube.
The pushback against the Vatican has also grown into a burgeoning movement of nun supporters called the Nun Justice Project. Every Tuesday in 46 different cities from Anchorage to Austin, Syracuse to San Diego, hundreds of supporters gather to protest, pray, and share stories of sisters who impacted their lives.
The Nun Justice Project is also collecting signatures for a petition that demands the Vatican revoke its reprimand of LCWR. The goal is to collect 57,000 signatures – one for each sister in the United States. So far they have 52,287.
“These women religious are the backbone of the church, and we wanted to respond to the crackdown,” said Jim FitzGerald, one of the leaders who organized Nun Justice Project.
Robert Greason, wearing a seersucker suit on humid Tuesday, stood with nearly 60 other supporters in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Together they sang hymns like “We Shall Overcome” as they marched up and down Fifth Avenue. Rush hour commuters walked by while some stopped to read the posters.
“We are ALL Nuns”
“We need NUN-sense not Vatican nonsense”
“Our Nuns built the Catholic Church in America”
“They deserve the gratitude of Rome and the American bishops – not censure,” said Greason. “What the sisters are facing is a very real threat.”
And it’s a threat against the way of life for the nuns outlined in the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago, which mandated religious orders to adopt new ways of embracing the modern world, like working more on social justice issues and less on proselytizing. So sisters and nuns left the confines of convents and cathedrals, venturing into the secular world and rolling up their sleeves. They took the Second Vatican Council seriously.
The new ways not only helped those in need but also transformed the way the sisters organized collectively.
“The nuns developed ways that they would discern together by talking and praying together. The days of telling Sister Suzie that she is going to do XYZ are over,” said Hunt. “These are women who are mature, responsible and can make decisions together.”
However since the inception of Vatican II, some conservative Catholics have become wary that its reforms have radicalized the Church. Brian Burch, president of the conservative group Catholicvote.org, says the nuns – despite their dedication to good works – may have lost sight of their main commitment to the Church.
“There is a clear need for religious orders, including lay Catholics, to examine our own conscious and public actions with respect to our obligations as Catholics and to the teachings of the church,” said Burch. “We are not free to go out and teach and advocate against our Church.”
The president of LCWR will travel to Rome later this month to meet with leaders at the Vatican, then in August, the board members of LCWR will gather again to determine its final response.
LCWR was unavailable for comment, but many sisters, nuns and parishioners hope for the same outcome as former nun Eileen Sammon.
“I want the Vatican to rescind [the Doctrinal Assessment] and get the archbishop out of the picture,” said Sammon. “Leave the sisters alone and let them do their work – they certainly do good.”