Rebel Nuns: When the Faithful Stop Obeying

It seems the Sisters of North America are calling the Vatican out. When criticized by Vatican officials for taking a position too far left of center on a number of social issues, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious responded by calling the Vatican’s criticisms unsubstantiated and flawed.

Sister Theresa Kane

But the rhetoric didn’t stay at the topical level. LCWR president Theresa Kane said (according to a Huffington Post report), “”It is a matter of the men in the Vatican still thinking they can control the women. They don’t realize that we have moved to another whole point of tremendous equality and mutuality. And that we have much to say about our future and what’s going on.”

The Catholic Church, and the Pope in particular, embrace a number of socially redeeming virtues; equality and mutuality between the genders are not two of them.

There are a couple of fundamental issues at play here, from what I can see. First, and perhaps more obvious, is a struggle for the maintenance of power. It is the nature of systems – or more specifically, it’s the nature of the people who prop up those systems – to try to preserve what influence they have. It’s counter to our basic instincts to accede power to another, and some of this goes back to simple evolution.

We were inborn with a “never enough” instinct. Some call this Original Sin, but I prefer to think of it as a survival tool gone haywire. Consider a hunter-gatherer culture where resources are scarce and competition for survival is fierce. We’ve all heard of “survival of the fittest,” but sometimes it’s about more than survival. Those with more power tend to dominate those with less. They are prone to stockpiling resources and doling them out as a means to maintain their power. But as our societies have evolved, the inherent dominance of the male of the species has greatly diminished.

Today a woman can provide for her entire family from behind a corporate desk. She can Wield more power with a pen than any man could with a sword. And yet, the archaic power structures born from the male-dominated world are still all around us, and they shudder every time their sovereignty is challenged.

Second, and perhaps more subtle, is the fact that institutions, by nature, are fairly static systems. In their earlier forms, movements are nimble, flexible

Pope Benedict XVI

things that can adapt to any number of changing environments and challenges. But as the systems of communication and power get established (or even more fundamental things like physical brick-and-mortar structures get erected), it becomes increasingly harder to enact change. It’s like the difference between maneuvering a kayak down a series of rapids, and then trying to do the same thing with a battleship.

Jump ahead to today and apply the same simile to the Catholic Church. Effectively, the Vatican is a battleship trying to find its place in a world in which it is surrounded by rapids, navigated more nimbly by kayaks.

Sister Kane put it succinctly. Their bosses in Vatican City are living in a reality centuries old, while the currents of social equality are historically progressive. And given my first point about the nature of institutions, it’s no surprise that the Vatican is reluctant to change.

Maybe the most surprising thing out of the whole exchange is the sisters’ willingness to speak plainly about their disagreements with, and resistance to, orders handed down from the Church. Truth is, the Church’s faithful have long maintained their own personal views that vary widely when held up next to what they’re told to believe by the authorities. The difference is that, in general, no one says it out loud.

I find some affinity with the Sisters, not just for their bravery in speaking out with strength and conviction for what they believe is right, but also for being necessary cultural and religious translators. They speak prophetically for many faithful who can’t, or at least don’t, speak their minds to the Powers that Be.

It may be causing friction at present, but I expect that their call to be heard and respected ultimately will be a prophecy of liberation, for many more perhaps than even the Sisters themselves.

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.

  • Jim Bradford

    Christian, thanks for your timely and critical review that brings clarity
    to the conflict between the American Sisters and the Vatican.  It becomes obvious that the Vatican has
    a systemic power on their side while the American Sisters have moral power on
    their side.  Of course in the end
    moral power will win over systemic power, however long that may take.  Many times I have turned to James
    Russell Lowell’s powerful and descriptive words,  “Once to every man (and woman) and nation comes the moment to decide.”  Certainly this is the moment for the
    American Sisters, realizing that God “standeth within in the shadow, keeping
    watch above his own.”   

  • http://revericatcheson.blogspot.com/ Rev. Eric Atcheson

    I like what Stephen Prothero said over on CNN’s Belief Blog (in reference to the Vatican condemning “Just Love,” but within the larger context of the condemnation of the LCWR): “I acknowledge the right of the Roman Catholic Church to police the thinking and writing of its own.  But I will continue to be disappointed by the Vatican until it shows me that it is at least as concerned with economic and social justice as it is with masturbation and gay sex.” 

    Hits the nail on the head for what I think a lot of us are thinking.

  • Kristen Lueken

    I do admire the sisters for their strength and determination to do what they believe is right… but I think the Vatican gets an unfair rep in this. You have to take their unwillingness to change in context. In the context of a 2 centuries old church that truly believes their code comes directly from God, I think an unwillingness to amend the code everytime popular culture shifts is also admirable. If I truly believe God came down to the earth to teach people about himself and to start a church, I have to believe he would have gotten it right on his own, and would not have needed Clavin or Luther or Sister Kane to “fix it” everytime it lost a little popularity. Personally, I like my church with a little backbone, that’s not afraid to tell me I’m acting wrong or getting to big for my britches. I get that that’s not for everyone. Some people prefer a church that works for them. Sister is free to find that church. Expecting the Catholic church to embrace contraception or women clergy is like expecting Ron Paul to embrace excessive government handouts and an unbalanced budget. There are plenty of churches and politicians quite willing to form their ideas about right and wrong based on polls, or talk about the “nuances” of a situation to offend as few people as possible and get the butts in the seats (or votes). There are very few bastions left in this world that will hold firm to unwaivering principles. Whether I agree with those principles and stand by them is up to me, but I will say I admire the stuffing out of them for trying.

    • http://revericatcheson.blogspot.com/ Rev. Eric Atcheson

      Hi Kristen,

      I understand and appreciate your perspective on the Vatican–especially when I feel most of us wish our churches had more of a “backbone” on the things we believe are important.

      But may I gently suggest something?  In your argument of “expecting the Catholic Church to embrace contraception or women clergy…,” take out “contraception” and “woman clergy” and insert “heliocentrism” and “local-language Mass.”  The Catholic Church IS capable of change, even if it comes slower than molasses in January, so expecting change of it is right and just to do.

      And it isn’t that I think folks are saying that Catholic Church shouldn’t stand up for its principles…it is that the priorities demonstrated by those principles are at odds with reality.  I know I’m not the only one who thinks that before the Vatican takes the nuns down a peg, they should focus first on cleaning out their own house of pedophile priests and criminally negligent bishops.

      • tedseeber

        Funny, I thought they had already done that.  There is, after all, a reason why I have to have a background check to drop my kid off at Sunday School.

      • Aaron Minix

         Quote:  “take out ‘contraception’ and ‘woman clergy’ and insert ‘heliocentrism’ and ‘local-language Mass.’

        I don’t think this is fair–contraception and male-only clergy have (to the best of my knowledge; I’m not Catholic but I’m looking into the Church) been infallibly defined by the Magisterium. Now that means nothing to Protestants who don’t recognize such authority, but nowhere in the Catechism of the Catholic Church will you find statements declaring what the solar system looks like. There are different levels of what Catholics believe that are binding. Contraception and women clergy are two examples of things that will not change. Priestly celibacy, interestingly enough, CAN change, as it is only a discipline.

        To be succinct: not all change is created equal.

    • Mary

      Hi Kristen,

      I understand your viewpoint, but I’d like to point out that the structure of the Catholic church did not just suddenly appear from God. It evolved over centuries and is still evolving. The church was very different in the beginning and there was not a huge inflexible hierachy like there is today.

      Churches that don’t embrace change become static and are not able to minister to the needs of the people. Jesus taught that principle himself when he critisized the religious leaders of his day.

      The question to me is where should the church (any church, not just Catholic) embrace change and where should it hold fast to it’s principles? A church is like a tree, if it doesn’t bend it will break. And when it breaks the casualties are the church members who are left wondering how its teachings are relevant to the challenges of the modern world. 

  • Kristen Lueken

    PS – for clarity, Sister Kane is the FORMER LCWR president. She no longer represents the entire body of Sisters, in this respect she speaks primarily for herself.

  • tedseeber

    According to Cardinal Levada, the main sticking point that caused all this was a single American Nun going to Ireland to promote a book about same-sex marriage in a culture that is fiercely anti-homosexual.

    I’m not at all sure that the Vatican is the anti-progressive in that, seeing as how I view Same Sex Marriage as a step back in time to such long-dead cultures as Ancient Greece.  We found a better way a long time ago, and there is a reason why heterosexuality is the norm and monogamy is the way of all advanced cultures.

    I have a problem labeling regress as progress at all.


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