What To Do About “Radical Feminist Nuns”

It’s not exactly headline-worthy news that many Catholics actually hold personal beliefs that don’t line up with church doctrine. It does get a little more interesting, however, when an umbrella group for 57,000 American nuns is called to the carpet for straying from Church teaching.

Reportedly, the nuns are promoting ideas on issues like abortion and homosexuality, among others in their programs that the Church condemns.

The ladies in black and white have gotten into some hot water with the Vatican, whose representatives claim the nuns are practicing “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The organization, called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, will have a male archbishop appointed to monitor and help overhaul the group. Though it’s a major step in ratcheting down on the nuns by the Vatican, the control will, at the moment, remain at the general organizational level.

I was speaking to a Catholic friend of mine about this, and he noted that the Catholic Church may actually find itself in an intractable bind if they’re not careful. Yes, they can rewrite the group’s statutes, require approval of speakers and monitor programs at a national level. But they may have to stop short of presenting individual nuns or local orders with ultimatums that require them to shape up or get out.

For one, the nuns technically own nothing, as the money and property under their care is a part of their order. This also means that, even if nuns have jobs that draw salaries, the paychecks have always gone to the order and not to them. Therefore, nuns don’t pay into social safety net programs like social security.

So if the Church turns a nun out by removing her from her order, she is homeless. Aside from this being an ethical minefield, it’s yet another PR cobweb that the Vatican would rather avoid all together.

Second, there’s a simple matter of supply and demand. The Catholic Church has a dire shortage of nuns to maintain the convents and programs they have in place. On top of that, the average age of those nuns still serving is often above that of the typical retiree, with far fewer young women entering the orders to replace them. So at an organizational level, the Church faces a dilemma. If they clamp down too hard on individual women or orders, they’re likely to find themselves without an order at all.

It’s an interesting crossroads for a church already in crisis. On the one hand, we have a Pope who arguably is more of a doctrinal purist than his recent predecessors. On the other, you have one of the oldest, most powerful institutions in the world’s history facing systemic decline that could be largely aggravated by their own insistence on maintaining uniformity.

Which will win out? Perhaps the more interesting question to me is how much does it matter to the rest of the world. Yes, more than 1 billion people still claim Catholicism as their faith, but watching such infighting tear at the fabric of an already beleaguered institution may cause many of the less passionately invested faithful to drift away. It won’t likely happen with loud, media-grabbing protests or dramatic splits. Rather, the traffic out the back door will continue to increase while fewer still venture through the front entrance.

Holding fast to ideology more passionately than people is a lonely endeavor. The Catholic Church seems intent to find out just how lonely it can be.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Peggy Beatty

    They dont promote abortion at all. They promote birth control and maybe pro choice. And above all they promote unconditional love of Christ which does not discrimiate and exclude. When doctrine supercedes integrity and common sense, and the doctrine power structure insists on retaining their power, I think everyone stands to lose. WWJsay?

    • Mary Kreitzer

      Don’t promote abortion? What about the one who was acting as a deathscort at an abortion mill in Illinois? Sr. Donna Quinn not only escorted women in for abortions but her superior defended what she was doing and maligned the peaceful pro-lifers who exposed what she was doing. Ultimately, the Dominicans told her to stop. What would Jesus say? “Protect those being led to the slaughter” and “Choose life that you and your children may live.”

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jan-Nep/1537508430 Jan Nep

        every day children are discarded and die in war, due to poverty and live without health care.  if you love blastocysts and want women to be controlled listen to the male heirarchy emphasis and focus on abortion.

  • Marie

    God bless these sisters for their sincere attempts to live out the gospel, love all of God’s creatures, and practice justice and compassion in all that they do.  Nuns are amazing!!! To say that nuns promote abortion or birth control is completely missing the point. Some (not all) nuns might not agree with the Catholic church’s rigid and behind-the-times stance on birth control, and might believe that women should have more power over their bodies than the church or government, but NO ONE promotes abortion. Abortion is a necessary evil. Birth control, however, is something to be promoted.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jan-Nep/1537508430 Jan Nep

    God bless the nuns.  May She enlighten the male heirarchy of the Catholic Church, who in the 21st century, continue to  exclude half of the human race in power sharing, necessarily staining their determinations with a lack of full consent and wisdom.  Men who know nothing of female bodies and wisdom must not determine women’s lives and autonomy.  All of fundamentalist religion, all of patriarchical religion, is necessarily without the wisdom of half of the human race and often deliberate in favor of male privilege and against the humanity of women.
        There is nothing more threatening to the male privilege of the Catholic Church than rights and autonomy for women and gays because if these groups gain power, the very foundations of male privilege the church is built upon will crumble – that is, as long as they hold on to the immorality of male domination.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jan-Nep/1537508430 Jan Nep

    i did

  • Guest

    What To Do About “Radical Feminist Nuns?”  Not a thing. Those ladies are tough! You sit quietly while they’re thinking, then get out of their way when they’ve decided on a course of action.  Apparently the boys at the Vatican have forgotten just how formidable they are.