Radical sexist nuns flee to Rome

conventintro_000A long time ago, back in the year 1991 to be precise, a circle of six doctrinally conservative priests in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland did a very unusual thing — they published a paper reaffirming ancient Christian doctrines on a host of different subjects, including their belief that salvation was found through Jesus Christ, alone.

Well, “The Baltimore Declaration” caused quite a stir and, to say the least, did not receive applause from local Episcopal leaders. The document also made some national headlines, which is how I heard about it all the way out in Denver.

The fallout for the priests was immediate. One of them was Father R. Gary Mathewes-Green, who left the Episcopal fold to enter Eastern Orthodoxy, becoming Father Gregory Mathewes-Green. He soon became the founding priest at Holy Cross Orthodox Church and is still serving there, which, to be honest about it, means that for the better part of a decade he has been the Mattingly family’s beloved pastor.

With that out of the way, I can now mention that knowing Father Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green (yes, the author and commentator) also means moving in circles with close ties to supporters of the traditional Anglican order known as the All Saints Sisters of the Poor. In fact, former members of the order who left to convert to Orthodoxy played crucial roles in the birth, life and growth of Holy Cross Orthodox Church.

You see, the earthquake of the 1991 declaration, as well as a host of other developments in the Episcopal Church before and after that, sent aftershocks through the blessed peace and quiet of that lovely convent. The sisters have been trying to make decisions — as a body — about their future for many years now.

But that is not the story told in the recent Baltimore Sun news feature about the community’s decision to swim the Tiber and join the Roman Catholic Church. No, you’ll be shocked, shocked, to discover that the newspaper is convinced that this decision was caused by _____.

Can you guess? Suffice it to say that we are, again, wrestling with a radically truncated timeline for the Anglican Communion wars. Click here and here and here (for starters) if you want more info.

But first things first: Who wrote this strange headline?

Episcopal nuns’ exit widens rift

As sect ordains women and gays, Catonsville sisters become Catholic

Sect? I guess there would be very, very conservative Anglicans who would consider the Episcopal Church a “sect,” but I think most would still simply call the older, larger, official body linked to the Anglican Communion a “church.” Right?

But back to the top of the story, which really is quite dramatic (although the decision by the sisters has been known in other publications for several months now):

In a move that religious scholars say is unprecedented, 10 of the 12 nuns at an Episcopal convent in Catonsville left their church … to become Roman Catholics, the latest defectors from a denomination divided over the ordination of gay men and women.

The members of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor were welcomed into the Catholic Church by Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, who confirmed the women during a Mass in their chapel. Each vowed to continue the tradition of consecrated life, now as a religious institute within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

“We know our beliefs and where we are,” said Mother Christina Christie, superior of the order that came to Baltimore in 1872. “We were drifting farther apart from the more liberal road the Episcopal Church is traveling. We are now more at home in the Roman Catholic Church.” …

The women join the movement out of the nation’s sixth-largest Protestant denomination since the 2003 consecration of its first openly gay bishop thrust long-standing divisions over homosexuality out into the open. Their departure, which the sisters said they had been considering for years, comes weeks after voters at the Episcopal General Convention declared homosexuals eligible for any ordained ministry within the church and began writing prayers to bless gay unions.

So, you see, it was the issue of the ordination of women as well as the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson — openly gay, non-celibate and partnered — that pushed these sisters out of the shrinking Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism in America.

Well, maybe there were other issues, too.

The Rev. Susan Russell, president of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Integrity USA, expressed sadness on learning of the sisters’ departure.

“It grieves the heart of God whenever brother and sister Christians can’t come to agreement and someone chooses to leave a fellowship,” said Russell, an Episcopal parish priest in Pasadena, Calif. But she likened it to the past departures of members who differed with the church’s positions on segregation, the Vietnam War and the ordination of women.

AnglicanBombnighttimeThis is, of course, Russell’s opinion and it’s valid to quote these views — especially if one is convinced that homosexuality is in fact the central issue that drove the order toward Rome. Then again, perhaps it was racism or support for U.S. military policies?

The point is that no one has a chance to respond to these charges. They simply echo in the air. The sisters are quoted, a little bit, about their motives — but it’s clear that they were asked to describe their order’s doctrinal approach to those newsy sexuality issues.

It is true, however, that the Sun story notes that the work done by these sisters benefits a wide range of people.

Members of the order, who range in age from 59 to 94, wear the traditional black habit and veil and a thin gold band on the right hand. They lead a monastic lifestyle, filled with prayer and work with the terminally ill at Joseph Richey House in Baltimore, which they opened in 1987 with Mount Calvary Church, and with children and the poor.

Meanwhile, as a reader, I have all kinds of questions about the decision made by the sisters and the rite that ushered them into their new Communion.

What does it mean to say that they will be a “religious institute” in the Catholic church? As opposed to being a religious order?

Will the sisters be allowed to retain their unique and glorious tradition of Anglican rites, prayers and spirituality under the “Anglican Use” provisions? A symbolic issue: When they entered the Catholic fold, did the bishop preside at the sister’s own altar? Facing East? Or was another altar used, Vatican II style, facing the congregation? Also, what happens to the retreat house itself and the grounds? Do they now belong to the local Catholic diocese?

These questions are, of course, not related to sexuality. Sorry about that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry N

    From what I’ve seen, an Institute is an Order, which gives me reason to believe and hope that their charism and Rule will be preserved.

  • Padraic

    Jerry is correct.

    According to Canon Law, “A religious institute is a society in which, in accordance with their own law, the members pronounce public vows and live a fraternal life in common. The vows are either perpetual or temporary; if the latter, they are to be renewed when the time elapses.” (Canon Law # 607 §2)

    We’re glad to have the Sisters as part of the Church.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Yes, there is the “negative” reason these nuns became Catholic– The moral and doctrinal collapse of the Episcopal Church.
    However, in a number of media stories I have read about these nuns, their attitude seems MORE one of a positive attitude toward the Catholic Church, and the simple fact of her orthodoxy. Also, in some quotes from the Mother Superior I have read, they are apparently convinced of the role of the Holy Spirit in drawing them across the Tiber.
    Welcome sisters!

  • Lymis

    I don’t think the objection to the word sect is valid, if your preferred substitute is “church” – given that this is one of the branches of Christianity that professes that there is only one (“holy, catholic, and apostolic”) Church.

    A shift from being an Episcopalian to being a Catholic, is by those lights shifting around within the Church.

    A headline that read “As church ordains women and gays, Catonsville sisters become Catholic” could be read as hinting that it is the Catholics doing such ordaining.

    Personally, I would use “branch of Christianity” but they only had one word to work with. Not sure what would have been better. “Catonsville Episcopal sisters become Catholic in protest”?

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    To some degree I can’t fault the reporter for this, since he was misinformed by someone who should have known better, but the event is not unprecedented. The Society of the Atonement began as an Anglican order but in 1909 was accepted in toto into the RC church.

    I’ve also heard from other sources (which I must confess I’m too lazy to chase down right now) that the principal reason for the departure was that they have failed to have any novices progress to final vows for quite some time now.

    Finally, as Tmatt brushes against, there as been discussion in some online circles over the extremely conservative practice of the All Saints sisters as compared to the current American RC norm. “Full penguin” (as even the sisters refer to it) is rare, and other pictures of the chapel as it was arranged for the service show a new altar set for versus populum celebration, and I’m told that the rood has been removed from the screen. OTOH it is really too much to expect many reporters to be sensitive to this sort of detail.

  • Ed

    Is “denomination” rather than “church” an acceptable substitute for the pejorative “sect”? Sect has its place,I think, but not in the context of the article in question.

  • Julia

    I think “sect” has different connotations in different languages and cultures.

  • Jerry

    Terry, if you ever get tired of your current job, you have a future as a headline writer for the National Enquirer. The headline on this post was a classic of a certain kind.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I was a headline writer for several years at my first job, in Champaign, Ill.

    You should have seen the headline that I decided not to use.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Notice, folks, how no one has responded to the actual point of my post — which is the timeline issue at the HEART of the Sun report.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    The timeline issue is a side effect of coming to the report with the framing story that everything Anglican these days is about homosexuality. Also, if you take out the Susan Russell and Ian Douglas passages, along with a brief bit about the service, suddenly the explanation of their leaving makes a lot more sense, because this passage gets pulled into the rest of the explanation:

    The sisters said they converted for the orthodoxy, unity and leadership they said they could no longer find in their own faith.

    The story makes a lot more sense when all of the explanation is pulled together, instead of having all these digressions dropped hither and yon through it.

    One other note: this story actually appeared the day before as well, with one insignificant difference. The first version, however, ran under the following headline: Episcopal nuns join Catholic Church: Members of Catonsville convent concerned about ‘liberal road’ Episcopal church is traveling. Quite a different spin there.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    C. Wingate:

    I hear you, but the actual wars on HOMOSEXUALITY begin with the Denver General Convention in, when was that, 1980? 1982?

    And Bishop Pike? Bishop Moore?

    The timeline is simply wrong. Period.

  • Len Sullivan

    The mix of orthodoxy/Roman Catholic/Anglican-Episcopal questions and comments which cover the story of Nuns ‘now Catholic’ misses an elemental facet.

    Orthodox and Anglican bishops and their priests who can trace their lineage from a Valid Consecration or Ordination are indeed validly ordained; this does not mean that they are automatically in full union with the Catholic Church.
    The valid ordination gives them the power of the Priesthood but without the authority to exercise it. As Catholic Bishops and priests they are excluded from that Catholic union. This is a simple way to clarify the terms:
    “Valid, but illicit”.

  • Steve

    As the Episcopal Church in America drifts further from an Orthodox understanding of Christ and the Trinity, perhaps it will become fitting and proper to refer to it as a “sect” as opposed to a Christian denomination. Doctrine is important as to identity — at some point an organization ceases to have a “Christian” identity when its central affirmations deny the divinity of Christ.

  • http://college-ethics.blogspot.com Alice C. Linsley

    Great piece of reporting, Terry. Very informative! I didn’t know the earlier history behind the sisters’ decision. Thanks.

  • lome

    “It grieves the heart of God whenever brother and sister Christians can’t come to agreement and someone chooses to leave a fellowship,”

    Fellowship straight from the doctrines of Luciel!