Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nuns On The Bus!

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who had come under fire from the Vatican for doing the actual work that Jesus called on his followers to do.  After working on yesterday's post -  thinking about how difficult it was to leave the church I was born into, and how hard it must be for other closeted atheists who, like me, hoped to bring about change from within their churches rather than be forced to leave it because of irreconcilable moral and philosophical differences - I decided to follow up on the story.

And what a story it is turning out to be!

Women coming together to fight
social injustice.
Short recap: The Vatican, displeased with the social work of U.S. women religious, launched an inquisition into their leadership and activities. At the conclusion of the investigation, the Vatican issued a public reprimand of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and announced that its leadership would be assumed by a group of bishops, headed by Archbishop J.Peter Sartain of Seattle, who would be tasked with chastizing, reorganizing and "reforming" the orders of women religious who had been active in the social justice causes which had so disgusted Rome. Garry Wills recites a short list of the sisters' "misconduct": 

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. -- Garry Wills, NYRB, April, 2012.

After a brief period of stunned silence, the LCWR responded:

“The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusion of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We were taken by surprise by the gravity of the mandate. This is a brief moment of great import for religious life in the wider Church. We ask your prayers as we meet with the LCWR national board within the coming month to review the mandate and prepare a response.”-- Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

LCWR supporters in Louisville, KY
Far from retreating into chastened silence after the Pope's reprimand, as was the expected response (certainly by the men of the cloth in Rome), the LCWR has refused to be silenced - gently and respectfully to be sure, but with steadfast determination. Moreover, encouraged by the quiet groundswell of support they have received from progressive Catholics and other moderate religious people who share their social conscience and support their work, they took the unprecedented step of challenging the Vatican assessment of them and their work.

The harsh reprimand from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith felt to the sisters like getting a "punch in the stomach". I suppose they should not have been so surprised. Previously known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition (also known as the Roman Inquisition or Holy Inquisition, names popularly used in reference to the brutal 16th century "tribunals" investigating alleged witchcraft and heresy), the VCDF has a long history of exactly this sort of activity. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

After a brief period of prayerful regrouping, the sisters embarked on something truly surprising and not a little inspiring. Signaling that they are standing by their principles and they intend to continue standing up for the most vulnerable people in society - even at the risk of losing everything - the LCWR has decided they are all in.  They have devoted their lives to fighting for social justice and they seem prepared to go on fighting. They painted a bus, planned a route and launched the Nuns on the Bus campaign to raise awareness of their mission to fight for social justice.
Sr. Mary Wendlen greets supporters near Chicago.

Jim Winkler, minister of the church, was the first to take the podium at the July 2 noontime press conference in sweltering 95-degree heat, just days after millions in the area had lost electric power during a brutal storm.
"They have been traveling across this nation to speak out for a faithful budget," said Winkler, "and they are here today as our rock stars!"
This was the final stop on the "Nuns on the Bus" tour, which started in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 17 and ended about two weeks later in Washington, D.C., with this press conference.
The tour's stated mission was to stir up outrage over what the nuns called the immorality of lowering taxes for the wealthy while attacking the poor through cutting food stamps and Medicaid, as outlined in the budget plan crafted by Paul Ryan, a Republican representing Wisconsin's 1st District in Congress.
But the tour, which took place in the aftermath of Vatican censure of the nuns' leadership group, was about more than the national budget.
It was also, intrinsically, a demonstration of how devoutly the nuns refused to be muffled.--Samantha Kimmey, WomensEnews, July 12, 2012. (emphasis mine).

I cannot stress strongly enough just how unusual and ground-breaking this is for women religious in the Catholic church. Historically, women have been relegated to silence and invisibility in the church.  Even after Vatican ll allowed for the expansion of their mission and increased self-direction, it was unthinkable for women religious to appear to defy the male church hierarchy. From the meanest Parish priest to the Congregation of the Faith in Rome, all it has ever taken was a look, a word or a secret reprimand to bring an individual nun or order of nuns back into line. 

Oh, those uppity radical feminists!
The defiance of these women religious will not be without great cost - they may endure further censure,  even excommunication and will almost certainly face the withdrawal of financial and pastoral support. In short, they may essentially be unilaterally "divorced" by the church and thrown out of their homes and livelihoods at one stroke of the papal pen. Yet, they are not backing down. 

"Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences."—Susan B. Anthony

Keep your eyes on these women religious, folks. I hope we will see much more of them in the coming months and years. They embody all that was hopeful and inspiring about the post-Vatican ll church. They restore one's faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, in spite of all its flaws, fragility and failures: they have shown the courage and the will to fight for what is right. How telling it is that, in order to do what is right, the sisters will have to fight the church.  

"Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead." —Louisa May Alcott

Read all about it!

Vatican Harangue Makes Stars of 'Nuns on the Bus', Samantha Kimmey, Women'sEnews, July 12, 2012.

Bullying the Nuns, Garry Wills, New York Review of Books Blog, April 24, 2012.

Nuns and the Vatican, A Clash Decades in the Making, Scott Neuman, NPR news, May 3, 2012.

The Vatican's Attack on America's Women Religious, StateOfBelief, May 9, 2012 (transcript of enlightening interview between Rev. Welton Gaddy and Sr. Simone Campbell).

U.S. nuns reject Vatican criticism and reform efforts, BBC news, June 2012 (links to several articles).

Help a Sister Out: Protesters Call for Vatican Support, Not Censure, of U.S. Nuns, Felipa Rodrigues, Mario Jacinto and Reshma Kirpalani, KUTnewsAustin, May 15, 2012.

Nuns Gone Wild, Catholicism in America,  The Economist, April 26, 2012.

LCWR, Leadership Council of Women Religious.

Network, A national Catholic social justice lobby.

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. -- Margaret Mead

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