They run hospitals, schools, and social programs. They are stalwart leaders in many spiritual communities. And they are contributing vital insights to the Christian theological discussion. If nuns went on strike, many of the institutions of the Catholic Church would grind to a standstill.
Sure, a work stoppage of this sort is a long shot. But I’d love to see it. Having witnessed both priests and nuns in action, there’s no doubt in my mind which group dominates in the getting-shit-done department. It would be a fine show watching the bishops try to scramble and pick up the slack if the sisters said “enough.”
Certainly, the nuns would have good reason to do so. A storm has been brewing since April, when the Vatican released a statement condemning American nuns for showing too much independence of thought and not adequately deferring to the bishops, who, Rome tells us, “are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” A remarkable June 1 story in the New York Times recounted how the Vatican criticized the sisters for “focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping ‘silent’ on abortion and same-sex marriage.”
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Then there’s this transgression: “During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference [of Women Religious], signed a statement supporting it—support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.”
For such grave sins as spending too much time with the poor, the Vatican has put a bishop (needless to say, a man) in charge of restructuring the nuns’ conference, picking through its handbooks, and approving any speakers it has at its public events—a process scheduled to take up to five years.
In short, the Vatican has made a parody of itself, pulling out its most retrograde positions and doubling down on them. That the Pope is accusing nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes” only shows how out of touch he is with radical feminism.
Last week, just after the nuns decided to publicly speak up in protest, calling their censure “unsubstantiated” and “flawed,” Rome went further by condemning a book by seventy-seven-year-old theologian Sister Margaret Farley. Even though the text in question did not claim to represent official Church teachings, it was dubbed heretical because of its defense of remarriage by divorcees and masturbation (the horror!), not to mention same-sex relationships. Pro-choice advocates have long contended that the attack on reproductive rights doesn’t stop at abortion; it’s a crusade against contraception, sexual freedom, and women’s rights as a whole. Rome has gone far in proving their point.
In a sharp response, Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote:
The denunciation of Sister Farley’s book is based on the fact that she deals with the modern world as it is. She refuses to fall in line with a Vatican rigidly clinging to an inbred, illusory world where men rule with no backtalk from women, gays are deviants, the divorced can’t remarry, men and women can’t use contraception, masturbation is a grave disorder and celibacy is enshrined, even as a global pedophilia scandal rages.
Of course, the sisters are amply able to speak for themselves. On June 18, a group of them will embark on a bus tour crossing nine states, in which they will visit food pantries, homeless shelters, and charity ministries. It is a striking and unusual form of civil disobedience within the institution of the Church.
Since he became Pope, Benedict XVI’s gambit has been to create a Catholic Church that is smaller but, in his view, more devout and obedient. That means deciding that certain Catholics are expendable. Little did we know that women would be one of the groups he would be willing to purge in his misguided quest for purification.