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This is what ‘radical feminists’ look like. Photo credit: readersupportednews.org via Pinterest

My head and heart have been reeling about the news that has been circulating about the Vatican’s recent crack down on American nuns. I was hoping that if I went to bed and woke up the next morning that I’d realize the whole thing was just an unfortunate nightmare.  Alas, that is simply not the case.  Such a nightmare would have been a blessing compared to reality.

Quick recap:  on April 19 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (which current Pope Benedict XVI led for 25 years prior to his ascension to the papacy) released a statement that concluded its four-year investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).  In no uncertain terms the Vatican chided American nuns for being “radical feminists” who have had the audacity to “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”.

The nuns’ sins?

  • Focusing on serving the poor and fighting for social justice issues and “remaining silent” about doctrinal teachings of the church regarding family life and human sexuality
  • Disagreeing with the US Council of Bishops about Obamacare and publicly supporting it
  • Speaking out (since 1979, mind you) about the inclusion of women “in all ministries of the church”
  • Challenging the church’s views and teachings on gay marriage, abortion
  • Decrying the church’s patriarchy

Fed up with these misbehaving American nuns, the Vatican sacked an overlord upon them in the form of Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.  His task is to get the LCWR under control by “overhauling their governance” and reviewing their relationships with “certain groups that the Vatican finds suspect”.

Defiant women! What have they been thinking?! (I really want to vomit here, but there is still a bit more background needed.)

For their part, American nuns were “stunned” by the censure, as were the majority of American Catholics.  Editorials, posts and tweets in support of the nuns flooded American media and social networks.  Not every American Catholic is “progressive” (as the LCWR nuns have been labeled), to be sure.  But the American spirit of freedom and self-governance might just trump Benedict VXI’s conservative hardline when it comes to our nuns.

Perhaps realizing his overly dictatorial tone (who really knows?), the Pope issued a follow-up statement on May 20 that the media dubbed “an olive branch”.  In it he reaffirmed his “deep gratitude for the example of fidelity and self-sacrifice given by many consecrated women (nuns) in your country”.

Okay…I can’t hold it in any longer.  BLECH!!

I don’t believe that the Roman Catholic patriarchy and paternalism could be more thinly veiled.  As one who was educated by nuns (NOT bishops) for several years of my life, I laugh in the face of the statement that names bishops the “authentic teachers of faith and morals”.  Where were the bishops in my Catholic school and CCD classrooms?  Nowhere to be found…education is “women’s work”.  Oh, and while American bishops were scurrying to put the lid back on Pandora’s box of sexual indecency cases, what were the nuns doing?  Serving the poor and orphans, promoting social justice, and using their God-given gifts of faith and intelligence to speak for reform within the church system they so dearly love and loyally serve.  Sounds like the gospel to me.

And could Benedict XVI have come any closer to patting the American nuns on their heads with his May statement?  His language about their “fidelity” and “self-sacrifice” is so get-back-in-line, ladiesFranciscan priest Richard Rohr hit the nail on the head when he linked the Roman Catholic Church and Communist states, labeling them “the only two remaining large systems in the world that are totally patriarchal in their style and leadership”.  The Communist states, says Rohr, “make no display of humility…or the feminine side of anything”.

The sad subterfuge within the Roman Catholic Church is that its own conciliar edicts from the second Vatican Council in the 1960s (which overhauled the practice of Catholic faith in favor of modernization) are being boldly ignored.  American nuns are  in trouble for reforming as Vatican II prescribed.  They have their own opinions, speak their minds, and prioritize in-the-trenches ministry with people in need (otherwise known as the very folks Jesus came to serve) over the bishops’ pet moral stumps of ending abortion and gay marriage.  This, says the Vatican, is unacceptable behavior.  With this path of controlling, silencing and subjugating American nuns to traditional roles of old, the Vatican is spitting on American nuns without extending to them the courtesy of calling it rain.

While I was in seminary I completed a clinical pastoral education unit at a Catholic hospital in my hometown of San Antonio, TX.  I was the first Protestant woman to participate in the 10-week long summer internship.  I wish I would have known how my presence alone would have made waves.  I was a female seminarian preparing for a life of vocational ministry quite different from my Catholic sisters whom I met there.

One Catholic chaplain resident, God bless her for her self-awareness and courage, invited me to lunch so that she could speak to me about how much I intimidated her.  “You don’t doubt your call or your right to lead and preach,” she said.  I looked at her, dumbfounded.  Why would I?  She had been struggling with her own sense of call vis-a-vis what her church allowed her to do.  She had been praying that God would contain her “wayward and rebellious” spirit that felt led to more.  She wanted to speak out; to disagree at times; to challenge church teachings.  But she would never dare.  Not only was I assured of my call, but I am a Protestant who left Mother Catholic Church in response to my call.  She was angry with me for leaving and finding not only my way, but inner peace.  I held her gaze and her hand, and hurt with her.

That same summer I got regular encouragement from several nuns who held formidable positions in the hospital’s administration.  “You go, Girl!” they would say to me as they clasped my hands and assured eye contact.  “You are our voice. Preach the gospel for us!” They never doubted a woman’s place in the pulpit throughout their long years (20-30) of holy orders.  They were as spunky as they could be at the hospital and pushed against boundaries in their own ways.  We never got on the topics of homosexuality, birth control, abortion or the Catholic Church’s patriarchy.  We didn’t need to.  We were sisters in Christ living out God’s call on our lives in solidarity with one another.

Two very different responses from equally faithful, gifted and deeply spiritual women.

My heart goes out to each of the 57,000 American nuns who have been treated so ill by their earthly Holy Father (as well as American Catholic women who have been insulted by extension). As one woman on Pinterest says, “It’s time for us to support the nuns!” Hear, hear!  The LCWR website says (amongst other things) that they are “inspired by the radical call of the gospel”.  I believe it.

It is the Church that they serve about which I honestly wonder sometimes.