Sisters are doing it for themselves

So President Bush (the first one) was rallying for a war with Iraq (also the first one) and Pope John Paul (the second one) issued a strongly worded condemnation of such a war as unjust.

I was in a room filled with formidable women who had themselves been opposing the march to war using much the same language the pope was now using. They were very pleased with his statement. Someone suggested they might include a quote from that statement in the group’s newsletter.

A spirited conversation followed. On the one hand, the effort to stop this war needed all the support it could get, and since the pope is quite well-known, quoting his statement might be helpful. But on the other hand, this wasn’t the only matter the pope had issued pronouncements on, and many of his other statements were decidedly less constructive. Quoting the pope in the newsletter might create the impression that the group was endorsing all of his views, reinforcing the notion that his every opinion ought to be closely followed.

This latter, more cautious, view was shared by the majority of those present, and the group decided it would be more prudent not to include the pope’s statement in the newsletter.

Such was my introduction to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The LCWR — the nuns, the sisters, the largest umbrella group for women’s orders in the U.S. — are an impressive bunch. They’re some of the smartest, toughest and holiest Christians I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting.

That these numerous orders of women religious exist at all is kind of inspiring. These are women called by God who had to build and sustain their own alternative structures, institutions and ministries just to be allowed to follow that calling. These are women who were called to ministry and called to leadership. When the Church decreed that men should enjoy a monopoly on ministry and leadership, these women went out and created a thriving black market of their own — an underground economy in which, for centuries, the hungry have been fed, the naked have been clothed, the sick have been tended and good news has been given to the poor.

It seems the male monopoly finds this threatening:

The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”*

The National Catholic Reporter brings us the response from Sr. Joan Chittister, whose views I would guess are widely shared among the LCWR and the orders it represents:

“Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this,” said Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, who has served as president of the group as well as in various leadership positions. … “They would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.

“That would be the only way to maintain growth and nourish their congregational charisms and the charism of the LCWR, which is to help religious communities assess the signs of the time. If everything you do has to be approved by somebody outside, then you’re giving your charism away, and you’re certainly demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions.”

… Chittister said she was deeply distraught at news of Sartain’s appointment and the order for LCWR to revise itself.

“When you set out to reform a people, a group, who have done nothing wrong, you have to have an intention, a motivation that is not only not morally based, but actually immoral,” she said.

“Because you are attempting to control people for one thing and one thing only — and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age … If we stop thinking, if we stop demanding the divine right to think, and to see that as a Catholic gift, then we are betraying the church no matter what the powers of the church see as an inconvenient truth in their own times.”

In attempting to take such control of people’s thinking, she said, “You make a mockery of the search for God, of the whole notion of keeping eyes on the signs of the times and of providing the people with the best possible spiritual guidance and presence you can give.

“When I was a child in this town, I was taught that it was a sin to go into a Protestant church. In my lifetime, the church, to its eternal credit, admitted that it was wrong. The scandal and the sin is that it took 400 years to do that.”

Chittister said women religious have been trying since Vatican II “to help the church avoid that kind of darkness and control … they have been a gift to the church in their leadership and their love and their continuing fidelity.

“When you set out to reform that kind of witness, remember when it’s over who doomed the church to another 400 years of darkness. It won’t be the people of the church who did it.”

Chittister’s response is rather tactful and employs a good bit of theological language and some profound theological argument. But what it boils down to is pretty much the same as Gen. McAuliffe’s terse reply to the Germans’ ultimatum at Bascogne.

More links and reactions after the jump.

Maureen Fiedler: “The ultimatum to LCWR

Last Saturday, I was privileged to attend the 40th Anniversary dinner of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby founded by nuns 40 years ago. Since 1972, this organization has done stellar work on the Hill advocating for social justice, the needs of the poor, world peace and the earth itself.

It was a wonderful gathering, and LCWR leaders were very visible and vocal in their praise of NETWORK — and well they might be. Here was a gathering of the real leaders of our church for the future, members of religious communities: nuns, co-members, associates and wonderful friends.

Now, we get news from the Vatican, appointing an archbishop to lead what they dare to call “renewal” of LCWR. When you look at the specifics, it’s more like dismantling, if LCWR actually does any of it.

Joshua J. McElwee: “Options facing LCWR stark, canon lawyers say

As the largest leadership organization for U.S. women religious begins to discern what steps to take following news Wednesday that the Vatican has ordered it to reform and to place itself under the authority of an archbishop, experts say the options available to the group are stark.

Ultimately, several canon lawyers told NCR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has two choices: Either comply with the order or face ouster as a Vatican-recognized representative of sisters in the United States.

Aphra Behn: “Nothing Says You Value Women Like Siccing the Inquisition on Nuns!

So, you’re going to discipline some of the only figures within the Catholic leadership who are (a) women and (b) consistently serving the health and defending the humanity of women? Well, that gives me all kinds of warm fuzzies about the Vatican’s care and concern for anyone who isn’t a patriarchal man-type!

… Catholic nuns are not a monolith, nor are they perfect. As individuals and as orders, religious women have participated in their fair share of religious oppressions and abuses of power, in the U.S. and around the world. But it is undeniable that Catholic religious women have also been historically one of the few female voices allowed to even speak to the male-dominated power structure of the Catholic church. While far from the “radical feminists” presented in the hostile imaginings of conservative Catholic clergy, members of the LCWR provide an important alternative to the radically misogynist and homophobic teachings of the current Catholic leadership.

That they are to be silenced for their efforts on behalf of those on the receiving end of kyriarchal oppression is profoundly depressing, and profoundly revealing.

See also:


* For Christ’s sake, what will it take before these people realize that the current crop of bishops has zero credibility and that it’s an unholy blasphemy to call such men “the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”?

If culpability in decades of child-rape doesn’t diminish the bishops’ sense of their own righteousness and moral authority, what would?

I don’t have a hyperbolic punchline there. I can’t readily think of anything worse — of anything more egregiously reprehensible and universally condemned compared to which the bishops’ years of enabling child-rape might seem relatively less evil. Nothing can make it seem so. Children were tormented. They knew this. They allowed this. For generations.

If these bishops were in prison, they would be at the bottom of the pecking order. Their fellow inmates — mere murderers, thieves, drug dealers, muggers and addicts — would all regard these bishops as their moral inferiors. They would not be wrong.

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  • P J Evans

    He doesn’t believe that women are people.
    (I seem to recall that he or maybe JP2 was arguing that women can’t be priests and so on because Jesus was a man and had only male disciples. Garry Wills was wondering if that meant that all priests must also be bearded, by the same reasoning. (Some members of the RC hierarchy seem to have turned off all of their brains north of their ears.))

  • Matri

    Some members of the RC hierarchy seem to have turned off all of their brains north of their ears.

    Only some? Most of them won’t be able to find their rears with eight arms, a map, a GPS, and a homing device.

  • As someone who most definitely would be called a “radical feminist” by these misogynists, no, that’s not quite it. Controlling our own sex lives is what makes us “radical feminists” and therefore evil. What we choose to do isn’t the issue — the issue is that we get to choose, and don’t pretend otherwise.

  • MaryKaye

    My father is a lifelong Catholic and quite devout, though much more liberal than the hierarchy.  This morning over breakfast he told me that he is seriously considering leaving the Church and becoming an Episcopalian.  “They have the same rituals–and I really love those rituals–and some of them at least are on the same page as me about other things:  birth control, homosexuality, ordination of women.  Maybe it’s time.  I’m getting so uncomfortable with what the Church is doing.”

    When someone who’s been a member of the church for 70 years is thinking of jumping ship, that’s pretty serious.  I think the single biggest trigger is that he is taking care of his best friend, who is gay, and who is currently in chemotherapy for cancer.  This situation really brings home that being good to one another is *so much more important* than these stupid theological points; and that real and beloved people are being hurt.

  • Lori


    For my education, which of the things they’re doing are the radical feminist bits?

    The gripe seems to be more with what they’re not doing. Those horrible radical feminist nuns are not speaking out against abortion and “Obamacare” enough. IWO, they’re not showing enough deference to the men who make the rules.

    There is nothing more radical than not showing enough deference to the men who make the rules.

  • Baby_Raptor

    My (a tad extremist) Baptist grandparents call me a radical feminist because I believe that rape is actually a thing. 

    Their line is “The Bible never gives women the right to say no, so rape cannot actually be real.” 

  • A tad extremist?!

  • friendly reader


    And who was Dinah? And Tamar? Not to mention all the legal discussion in Leviticus of what to do if a woman is raped?

    Are you sure they don’t mean marital rape? I’ve heard of Christian groups arguing that “submitting to your husband” precludes martial rape,* but not rape in general.

    *Because forcing your wife to have sex with you so is in line with the part about loving and cherishing her that immediately follows that passage…

  • Baby_Raptor

    Oh, I’m sure. 

    During the big deal about Sharon Angle’s “raped women should make lemonade” comment, my grandfather said that she was right “because it’s not like women have any say anyway.” Just little gems like that. 

  • Dash1

    With apologies in advance to Catholics and, oh well, everybody, I confess to being of two minds–or maybe just totally confused–with regard to people like Sr. Joan. It’s not like the Church hierarchy were fine and wonderful and supportive folks just a few decades ago and, then, all of a sudden, became a problem. So half of me wants to pump my fists and yell, “Preach it, Sister!” and go find a “Sister Joan Rocks!” t-shirt (heck, I’m an American–t-shirts are my native form of expression). But the other half wants to shrug and say, “What were you expecting?”

    And there’s a third half that wants to say something like, “While you have accomplished wonderful things, and your immediate organization, LCWR, has also apparently done some good, do you understand that a good bit of your labor has gone into enabling precisely the organization that is now biting you? Frog/scorpion.”

    And yeah, I said “two minds” and produced three. I can’t count. Also, as I said, I’m confused.

    And I reiterate the apology.

  •  This, just this.

    Catholicism is a sacramental faith. Telling Catholics that the sacraments aren’t “anything terribly spiritually important”  is like telling an able-bodied financially able Muslim that the Hajj isn’t “terribly spiritually important”.

  • AnonymousSam

    Actually the rationalization of that one is “A woman becomes part of a man when she is married by him, and a man cannot rape himself.” Alternatively, “A woman becomes a man’s property, and a man can choose to do with his property what he pleases.” Same justification for marital rape was used throughout the early 1900’s when it wasn’t considered a crime.

    And yes, it’s sickening that there are people who obviously still believe this. IIRC some states are actually repealing the laws that make it illegal.

  •  During the big deal about Sharon Angle’s “raped women should make
    lemonade” comment, my grandfather said that she was right “because it’s
    not like women have any say anyway.” Just little gems like that.

    So what did you say in response? Because in most stories I read about someone with a liberal position being offended by something grotesque that a conservative friend or relative says, the liberal just bites their tongue and says nothing rather than risk hurting anyone’s feelings.

  • Liz Coleman

    Allow me to introduce myself as well, (and I am in America). A family member is a nun, and indeed holds all kinds of horrible beliefs like “gays are ok” and “women should be priests”. One particularly snowy Christmas, my family was having dinner at her convent along with a few elderly nuns who had lost power in their homes. These were women who had spent their lives on the streets of San Francisco helping victims of AIDS.  And the hierarchy wants to delegitimize these women?

    Also: Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle:

    Hunthausen came to my church a lot as I was growing up, I think he even confirmed me, and when I reached my teens and started to question and despise my faith, I assumed that he was just another dickish patriarch. I didn’t know there were people within Catholicism who were like that. If I had known that, it might not have taken me a decade to start calling myself Catholic again.

    Yes, there are lots of culture warriors among the Catholics (e.g., Rick Santorum) but there also lots of equally motivated people who know there are more important things to worry about. When I’m around my aunt and her sisters, I feel perfectly safe, even though I hold some pretty darned unorthodox beliefs. They don’t preach hellfire* and hatred, or make excuses.  Probably plenty of them do believe that abortion or that gay sex is wrong, but they don’t make a big deal about it, and they know that universal love is the highest virtue.

    *When I went to church with a friend in Northern Ireland, where the priest was particularly frothy in his homily, I suddenly realized why people had the image they do of Catholicism.

  • dxmachina

    Lord Acton, who is the source for ‘”power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, turns out to have been a notable English Catholic.

    I wonder whom he was thinking about when he said it.

  • The hierarchy ought to be informed that this sort of thing, and the timing, just makes them look like a child throwing a tantrum after his XBox was taken away.

    Only the XBox in this case is “little boys”.

  • Tricksterson

    If the Church continues in this direction as i suspect it will expect to have a lot more company there.

  • Tricksterson

    Ifrankly I don’t see why  women would feel any loyalty to an institution where they have no representation in the halls of authority and, for the foreseeable future, no hope of acheiving any.

  • Tricksterson

    I wonder if it was a coincidence that Brooks had Torquemada surround himself with a chorus line of young attractive monks?

  • Tricksterson

    If there was any chance of him reaching a conclusion the bishops and cardinals didn’t want he wouldn’t have been appointed.

  • Tricksterson

    The Quakers come to mind.

  • Tricksterson

    I’d start with the part where they think they can have opinions that weren’t directly handed to them by the Catholic hierarchy and take it from there.

  • Tricksterson

    Wait, if they had eight arms, woldn’t that make them closet Hindu deities?

  • Tricksterson

    Have an internet for having made my jaw drop.  Every time I think I’ve reached the limits of my belief in how wretched and stupid people can be I come across a nugget like this.

  • Tricksterson

    What do you think he would have to say about this?  Or is he still alive?

  • AnonymousSam

    As much as I hate the way atheists bandy about the word “indoctrinated” with the same undertones as the word “brainwashed”…

    Actually, that’s not entirely fair. I’m sure plenty of them are in it for the same reasons any Christian is a part of their faith. Unfortunately, the Catholic church holds its own existence to be of greater value to that of faith itself, and that is why it is not truly a Christian organization.

  • P J Evans

     It’s a very long-lived bureaucracy, and it’s forgotten that it can die, just like everything else.

  • He’s still alive. He was just promoted to overseeing a monastery in Montana after some church politics…

  • You know, the mental image of a habit-clad schoolteacher smacking Benedict XVI across his popesterior with a yardstick for insolence seems to be pretty appropriate for what I think of what should happen here.  

  • Baby_Raptor

    I wanted to ask him how much it burned that reality didn’t match up with his delusion, but I went a somewhat more polite (and more effective against him personally) route and instead pointed out that the only verses he’d ever used to back up his view were from a book that he mostly ignored. As such, he was just being a huge hypocrite and letting his sexism show.  

    He never has a response to that one. 

  • Better response – find the verses where rape is condemned. They aren’t the most edifying but they definitely make it clear that non-consensual sex is forbidden. The reason they aren’t especially edifying is that they set the bar on proving lack of consent way too high and thus indulge in victim blaming.

  • Tricksterson

    That anything like being sent to the Antarctic brach of the Justice League?

  • Exactly like that. Which is why it happened.