US sisters are doing it for themselves
THIS SUMMER, a group of nuns boarded a bus and undertook to travel to nine states in the US. The bus was painted an unmissable sky-blue, complete with clouds, and it bore their message in large letters. “Nuns on the bus,” it announced, beside the slogan that read more tamely: “Nuns drive for faith, family fairness”.
The purpose of the trip was to highlight the work of a group of religious sisters, but implicitly it was also a protest. In April, the Vatican published its doctrinal assessment, in which it complained that many American nuns did not adequately promote Catholic Church teachings on abortion and homosexuality but focused instead on social work. To many in the church, this looked like a crackdown on nuns in the US.
Last Monday, the largest canonically approved organisation for Catholic sisters in America, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), gathered in St Louis, Missouri, for its annual week-long meeting, at which its members will consider their response.
A preliminary statement, published on its website, said the assessment process had lacked transparency. The report, the nuns said, “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarisation”.
The doctrinal assessment issued a verdict on the LCWR, which represents 80 per cent of the 57,000 nuns in the US. In an eight-page document, the Vatican thanked them for their contributions to schools and hospitals, but faulted them for staying silent on homosexuality, and avoiding what it called the “lively public debate” about abortion and euthanasia.
It detected “radical feminist themes” in their midst. And it singled out Network, a smaller national Catholic social-justice lobby based in Washington, for additional criticism.
In response, the sisters of Network organised the bus tour as a way of highlighting their work and their causes. “We’re not used to having the spotlight on us and we’re always looking for ways to say ‘It’s not about us, it’s about our mission’,” Sr Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, told The Irish Times.
Among many nuns, a sense of quiet rebellion is palpable. Sr Campbell is an associate member of the LCWR and does not have voting rights but she is attending the meeting in St Louis this week. “It appears that the Vatican doesn’t understand our lives; how we live in a democratic culture, and why, as educated women, we engage in significant conversations,” she says. “We ask ourselves hard questions and we ask others hard questions. And it seems like the leadership in the Vatican isn’t used to that.”
The past several years have been a period of drama for the church in the US, which has frequently split on issues of gender, sex and politics. In 2010, representatives of Network and LCWR wrote letters to every member of Congress urging them to support Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but the bishops denounced the act, arguing that by forcing Catholic institutions to give their employees health insurance that might cover contraception, it impinged on their religious freedom.