Garry Wills on ‘Bullying the Nuns’

Garry Wills on ‘Bullying the Nuns’ April 24, 2012

From the current New York Review of Books, Garry Wills on “Bullying the Nuns“:

The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.

… Anne O’Connor was just the kind of nun the Vatican is now intent on punishing. She had been a social worker before she became a nun, work that she loved and went back to several times as a Dominican. She was quick to shed the old habit (which was designed to disguise the fact that there was a woman somewhere in that voluminous disguising of hair, breasts, and hips), and quick to take back her own name. After she took on several high offices in her order, she became the mother provincial of the California branch of the Dominican order during the 1960s, coping with the changes of that volatile era on her college campuses.

Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist). Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people — which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens.

Read the whole thing.

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  • Twig

    The level of arrogant, self-righteous, tone-deaf, unrealistic, uncompassionate, greedy, grasping, selfish, pointless hypocritcal dickery on the part of the Vatican – the Vatican, who were already lowered to standards well past the bedrock before this nonsense – has left me feeling like I’ve been buried in a pile of those troll faces from 4 chan.

    Vatican 2012:  What is this, I can’t even.

  • Katie

    The sad thing is that none of this is new.  Finding out that I wasn’t allowed  to be a altar server was the first wedge that pushed me away from being Catholic.

  • Tricksterson

    I wonder how much it will take before the nuns sever their ties to the Vatican.  Oir will they submit?  I hope not.  if so I wonder if they will find a home among Episcopalians or liberal Lutherans.  IIRC both groups have orders of nuns, correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Kirala

    Dear heavens. When the Biblical church, spread and mingled with a culture that shamelessly valued women as livestock, is more egalitarian and loving than a church mingled with a culture which tries to at least seem to value women as human…

    I’m curious. Are they now going to start following 1 Timothy 3,which (at least in the King James, and therefore I suspect in the Latin) describes bishops as the husband of one wife? I get that the marriage isn’t required, but the clear Biblical principle is that bishops ought to be at least allowed marriage. And perhaps if there were more married men, there would be more men who respect women.

  • Becca Stareyes

     And perhaps if there were more married men, there would be more men who respect women.

    I would point to the Protestant section of the Religious Right as a counter-example that shows that marriage (or the ability to marry) does not necessarily make a man a feminist ally. 

  • Tonio

     Perhaps this would be the key. When I read the arguments used by apologists for Catholicism and fundamentalism to justify a second-class status for women, I have difficulty imagining any father with a conscience being able to look his daughter in the eye and tell her that his god loves males more than females.

  • Kirala

    What Tonio said. And while marriage by no means guarantees allies, it at least opens the field a bit. Presumably the rate of people who like women is at least slightly higher in the rate of people who choose to spend their lives in partnership with them. Also, I find that many marriages which theoretically are headed by men are in fact headed by women – and these tend to be the most horrified by the idea of diminishing women’s rights. (Example: my denomination forbids female ordination, and has considered forbidding women teaching Sunday school. Our church follows the former rule, but would probably leave and actually be willing to consider female ordination if the denomination started forbidding female teaching. ) Strong women in a complementarian setting may be negated for advances in women’s rights, but they sure help prevent setbacks.

  • Lori

    I have difficulty imagining any father with a conscience being able to look his daughter in the eye and tell her that his god loves males more
    than females.  

    I suppose “with a conscience” can be taken as a broad qualifier, but really fathers do this to their daughters every day. They frequently don’t acknowledge that’s what they’re doing, but they are.

  • And yet we have Rick Santorum…

    Still, he’s an anomaly. My father was already liberal and of course a supporter of women’s rights before I was born (or my mother wouldn’t have dated him), but since I’ve been a teenager, he’s progressed until now he’s as feminist as I am. I think he was more outraged by Limbaugh’s latest rant about women who have sex being sluts than I was. After all, how many men are okay with other men calling their daughters sluts and demanding said daughters be raped on camera for the amusement of the second group of men? More than there should be, but far fewer than Limbaugh expected.

  • ReverendRef

     I don’t know about the Lutherans, but I can verify that there are orders of nuns within the Episcopal church.

  • Tricksterson

    There’s also apparently at least one ecumenical order as well. 

  • Nequam
  • Matri

    About time someone told those jackanapes off.

  • Raj1point618

    Sinful nuns! How dare you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned! Follow the Bible, damnit!

  • charliegirl

    I think there is a lot of anger in the commentators.  The sisters need to honor vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  If they cannot honor their vows, they have lost something of themselves.  Of course they should feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned…we all need to examine our motives, without anger, and see where pride has taken root in our lives.  

  • Kirala

     Charliegirl, perhaps it’s just that I’m a Protestant rather than a Catholic, but I cannot see pledging obedience to another human over obedience to conscience. I could promise to think really really hard about what my leader had to say, but ultimately, it would be between me and God. (Notice that Paul confronted Peter when Peter was clearly in the wrong – because the more-liberal Paul knew he was right. Peter, at least, was godly enough to recognize and recant when he was found to be mistaken. Humility and obedience are more important among the leaders than the followers, because the leaders have less incentive to remember those qualities.)

  • Oh no! Not anger! *pearl clutch* 

    We all know that no one should ever show anger! 

    I really don’t care one bit about nuns obeying vows, particularly the three you listed, particularly the “obedience” part, particularly when it’s “obedience” to people who are demonstrably misogynistic, homophobic, rapist-shielding hypocrites.

  • Beroli


    The sisters need to honor vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  If
    they cannot honor their vows, they have lost something of themselves.
     Of course they should feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the
    sick and imprisoned…we all need to examine our motives, without anger,
    and see where pride has taken root in our lives.   

    Why do I think, from your phrasing, that you’re far more interested in the nuns scrutinizing their motives for “pride” than in bishops and the Pope doing so?

  • friendly reader

    They’re called The Deaconess Community, but they’re not like nuns, really – no specific vows of celibacy, poverty, or obedience. There’s also a Diaconal Ministry Community for men.

    These Communities also don’t have a role for contemplative (versus socially-oriented) orders. Luther was very much against the idea that holy people should keep themselves apart from the world; if you’re a good person, you should be out doing good for other people. There are some monastic orders in Catholicism that are still primarily concerned with prayer rather than social ministry, and they would be a much harder fit in Lutheranism’s worldview.

  • JonathanPelikan

    You’re the third person in a relatively short amount of time to wash up amongst this community about a religious issue and say practically the same thing, so I’ve got a relatively simple answer for you. It’s been refined with the help of the last two folks who came here and told us that being mad at Hitler makes you Hitler +2:

    Go fuck yourself.

  • Tonio

     That’s amazing, because the Episcopal church does ordain female priests. I would have thought that with ordination open to both genders, having nuns would be superfluous. Or at least the church would have “nun” as simply the name used for female priests, but that seems too much like “separate but equal.” My perception of the role of nun in Catholicism is all of the responsibility but none of the authority.

  • ReverendRef

     The answer to your comment, at least within the Episcopal church, is that it’s all about discernment.  What is God calling you to do?  Just because you feel called to religious orders does not mean you are being called to the priesthood.  Nuns do different things than deacons who do different things than priests who do different things than bishops who do different things than laity.  We are working to recover the idea that all people are called to ministry — we just need to discern what and where that role is.

    For legal reasons, we are a hierarchical church (I made a promise to obey my bishop).  Practically speaking, though, we try to work toward an egalitarian church which recognizes the value of all people in all ministries.  So in that respect we differ from your view of nuns in Catholicism (“all of the responsibility but none of the authority”).

    This is a bit like football (it all comes back to church and football).  Officials on the field have different responsibilities, but all are equal and have equal say in those conferences you see on TV; eventually, though, someone needs to make a final decision, and that’s the guy in the white hat.  The bishop eventually may have to make a final decision, and that’s why he/she wears the pointy hat.

  • Mary Kaye

    “Nun” is not the feminine of “priest,” it’s the feminine of “monk.”  Priests are generally supposed to be running a church, whereas nuns and monks are doing something else:  social work, teaching, and/or contemplation.

  • My perception of the role of nun in Catholicism is all of the responsibility but none of the authority.

    None of the institutional authority, maybe.

    Nuns aren’t priestesses; they’re nuns. Life under vows is a consecrated life separate from the hierarchy – radically so if you’re a woman, because you can’t be ordained. (In particular, they don’t have THE responsibility of the priesthood, which is administering the sacraments.)

    Nuns’ authority is charismatic, not institutional. Now that the hierarchy’s lost its respectability, that charisma counts for MUCH more. It’s part of why the power struggle is happening.

  • Tricksterson

    As a veteran of twelve years of parochial school I could have told the pope that you don’t mess witth nuns.

  • Tricksterson

    Maybe you should adress this to the Vatican instead, along with the biblical quote about not criticizing the mote in your neibors eye before dealing with the beam in your own.

  • Episcopal nuns can also be priests, same as monks can also be priests.  The roles can overlap but it’s not required.  Many Episcopal holy orders are listed at

    Episcopal priests can also be married.  

  • VMink

    Wow.  I’m sure the RCC hierarchy will be doing its best to debase and humble them.  But right now this is actually really uplifting.

  • Tonio

    Thanks for the background. I wasn’t condemning the idea of hierarchy in religious organizations, just the rule in some of them that women can only be at the bottom.

  • I have said before and I will say again, I would love to see a nun give the pope a few disciplinary whacks with a yardstick.

  • Shane

    I think people are entering into a fundamental misreading of this situation; the Vatican is not angry that they are focusing on Social Justice, only that the emphasis on that has been divorced from the rest of Catholic teaching.  There are also doctrinal issues with theological topics that have been advocated by groups within the LCWR, such as the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex unions.  Such runs against the Catholic theological tradition.  I have no doubt, and I have a strong feeling that neither does the Vatican or the CDF, that the nuns do great work for the “least of these”.  But such work cannot be separated from the rest of Catholic teaching by a Catholic religious organization.  Catholics are required to submit to the authority of the Magisterium; one doesn’t get to make Catholicism up.