by Kathleen A. O’Shea
In the latest show of force, the Vatican is attempting to control and punish nuns and all women who think for themselves — the most radical wave of feminism ever to wash over the Rock of Peter. As a former nun who loved being a nun, I concur with president of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious (LCWR), who said of the latest decision by Rome, “We’re stunned.”
Since 2008 the LCWR, the body representing over 56,000 nuns in the U.S. today, has been living with an enforced investigation initiated by the Vatican of communities (or “orders” as they once were called) of Religious women in th e U.S. Communities were told they had to participate because of “doctrinally problematic” statements at their annual assemblies of nuns and for “prolonged silence in the face of such errors.”
There has never been an equivalent investigation of communities of religious men or priests. Rather, after more than ten years of revelations of sexual abuse of children for which no priest has ever been excommunicated, the current pope actually declared 2011 as “The Year of the Priest.”
Two weeks ago in what is, perhaps, the most convoluted misogynistic edict yet, the pope struck again. In his latest attempt to preserve what Angela Bonavoglia rightly termed “Gender Apartheid” in the Catholic Church, the pope has condemned nuns for what they are not doing.
The things that made the Vatican hit list this time are not speaking out about things that the Catholic Church vehemently opposes: abortion, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, euthanasia, ordination of women, contraception — and President Obama’s health care plan. Undoubtedly, nuns are out of control. As further proof, the pope emphasized that the nuns have been introducing radical feminist themes and challenging church teachings.
But Sister Donna Quinn did speak out about abortion. A Dominican sister in the Chicago Archdiocese who volunteered as an escort at the ACU Health Center in Hinsdale, IL, she received a letter from the Cardinal Francis George, condemning her “pro-abortion” activity, which he called a public scandal.
Sister Donna Quinn was not silent. In an attempt to engage the Cardinal in dialogue, she said worked as a peacekeeper to ensure safety for women as they entered the clinic. Groups, often led by priests, appear daily to harass women.
And, surely, the pope remembers Sister Margaret McBride. After all, he allowed Bishop Thomas Olmsted to excommunicate her for not only speaking out, but for making an administrative decision at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix in May, 2010 to approve the abortion of a woman who was gravely ill. The doctors had told the woman, 27 years old and 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child, that her risk of mortality was close to 100 percent if she continued with the pregnancy. The woman decided on an abortion, and Sister Margaret approved it. According to Lisa Sowle Cahill, a theology teacher at Boston College, “The official Church position would mandate that the correct solution would be to let both the mother and the child die.” Sister Margaret did not keep silence.
A recent addition to the criteria for investigation was failure by nuns to speak out against President Obama’s health care insurance law. This may have been in response to Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby, NETWORK. It advocated for the reform before Congress, emphasizing that the Affordable Care Act “does not provide federal funding for abortions” but that “tens of thousands of people are dying each year because they don’t have access to healthcare, so that is a life issue.” After the decision on LCWR, Sister Simone told the press: “I can only infer that there is a strong feeling (in Rome) about the health care position that we took. Our position regarding health care has always been the application of faith to a political document that we read differently than the bishops.” But no one is allowed to read things differently from a bishop. In order to resolve the nun-problem and in what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) calls a “canonical intervention,” the pope met with Cardinal Levada in Rome and gave him the “authority” to “show his pastoral concern” for women religious in the U.S. In response, Levada named three men to monitor the LCWR for five years or until they conform. The letter that LCWR received from Cardinal Levata stated that “in this way, the Holy See will offer an important contribution to the future of religious life of women in the Church in the United States.” Who are these three? One is Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle. While bishop of Joliet, IL, he ordained a seminarian to the priesthood whom he knew had pornography of young boys on his computer. This priest was later convicted of sexual assault of an underage boy. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) observed: “Sartain, in our view, had a moral obligation to postpone the ordination, send [the priest] for treatment and inform the public.” SNAP president Dave Clohessy later said Sartain “did none of that.” There are currently 85 cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Seattle Archdiocese where Sartain is the nominated leader. The second, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, has recently been asked for an explanation about his relationship with a priest in his diocese who was accused of child abuse and convicted of murder. The Blade in Toledo has reported that Bishop Blair had an unexplained “agreement” with this priest. There are currently 133 cases of sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Toledo. And, the greatest strength of the third monitor, Bishop Thomas Poprocki of Springfield, IL, is his love of hockey, according to people who know him. With 187 cases of abuse by priests in Illinois, it would seem he also has his docket full. Nun-the-less, this is the Trinity charged with examining three things: the content of speeches at the annual LCWR assemblies; the corporate dissent in women’s congregations regarding the church’s sexual teachings, and the introduction of radical feminist themes in organizational programs. Can anyone really believe that these are the biggest problems that the Catholic Church needs to resolve at this time? No matter what you call it, this is not about nuns. It is about power; it is about invisibility; it is about the idea that these old men in their linen and silk, wearing their gold rings, want women to be seen and never heard. Sister Laurie Brink, a Dominican nun who delivered an address to the LCWR annual assembly in 2007, is one of the nuns who upset the Vatican. She proposed four models of religious life that nuns need to consider for the future. These were: 1) Death with dignity and grace as congregations disappear or die out; 2) Acquiesence to others’ expectations by living according to the options available to women in the Catholic Church today; 3) Sojourning in a New Land not yet Known (living outside the box), and, 4) Reconciliation for the sake of mission (giving in but not agreeing). This was not about doctrine. It was meant only for the nuns present. It had to do with how they might live their lives in the future. But, it really made the Vatican mad. The future of nuns has never been a concern of the Vatican. Priests have always had retirement plans, but not nuns. Therefore, one has to assume that the Vatican’s concern is because of what Sister Laurie was doing: thinking and speaking. Meanwhile, the nuns go on doing what they have always done on the front lines of poverty and economic justice. They are feeding the homeless, caring for the sick, teaching the children, protecting the elderly, finding the lost, sheltering the wounded, bringing peace in the midst of turmoil. People often ask me why I left the convent. Like all the reasons we might have for leaving anything after thirty years, it’s not something I can cover in a couple of minutes. To solve my own dilemma, I have several different answers. All of them are true, but, in and of themselves, none are complete. One that I often use with students is that, eventually, as a woman who was a nun and a nun who was a woman, I found it impossible to belong to and remain faithful to an organization that did not recognize me as a human being. Usually everyone understands this.
Kathleen A. O’Shea, a former nun and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, is an independent social worker, teacher, activist and lecturer. For the past 15 years, her emphasis has been on women on death row and, now, on aging in prison. A board member of the National Prisons Foundation, O’Shea is the author of Women and the Death Penalty in the United States:1900-1998 and Women on the Row: Revelations From Both Sides of the Bars. She recently completed Faithful Companions: Nuns and Death Row Inmates, a collection of 30 stories. Her memoir of religious life, “To All the Nuns I’ve Loved Before,” trying to find a publisher.