Response to the “Smack Down” on Nuns
As a young woman discerning a vocation to the religious life and pursuing a masters degree of theological studies, the “Vatican smack down on nuns” has certainly caught my attention. The story has been painted as yet another power-play of the male-dominated Church, who is much more comfortable keeping women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, or locked up in a convent, detached from the real world of progress and social justice. This is hitting especially hard in the light of the ongoing HHS debate, in which women have expressed that the Church is disregarding their basic reproductive rights. As a woman considering dedicating my life to this Church, a lot is at stake for me personally in these claims. I certainly do not want to give my life to an institution that does not uphold my God-given dignity and gifts, and fails to see my strength, intelligence, and potential for real contribution.
To recap the events in further detail: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been conducting an investigation the last three years on women’s religious life in America. The major conference of these communities, the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious), represents 80% of women’s religious communities in the United States. This group is identifiable in its progressive vision and rejection of traditional religious life.
Though their movement has been portrayed as the liberal or progressive sisters working against the conservative and traditional Vatican hierarchy, these political categories do not seem adequate. In truth, it is a question of orthodoxy. Having explicitly and publicly rejected the teachings of the Church for their own vision of what is good, (for example in their celebration of illicit Masses with self-ordained women priestesses, or their rejection of the Church’s vision of human sexuality and public advocacy for abortion) it seems most adequate to describe the dichotomy not between liberals and conservatives, but the orthodox and the unorthodox. Though these nuns have taken a vow of obedience (which is rooted in the form of the life of Christ, whose “food was to do the will of his Father” and was “obedient unto death, even death on a cross”), they have not remained faithful to these vows. To be clear, this is not a question of their good works. It is a question, again, of orthodoxy—if they are Catholic nuns who vowed obedience, let them be so.
The assessment of the CDF put forth that its goal is the “renewal” of the LCWR. In my reading, (which again, as a woman, was done with a heightened sensitivity to disrespect for women or disregard for their real contribution), their words did not come across so much as a harsh “smackdown” (though perhaps the practiced disobedience of the sisters probes them to perceive it this way?) but as a calling back to faithfulness, to the thinking with the Church that John Paul II explored in his work Vita Consecrata, and ultimately a recalling to their truest identity as Catholic religious sisters. The Vatican indeed affirms the good these sisters have done in and for the world, and, in the context of the greater whole of its doctrines on both religious life and social justice, would be standing in stark contradiction to itself in denying the reality of these goods.
The LCWR’s past behavior has caused many communities to branch off and create another conference, namely the CMSWR (Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious). Member communities of this group include, for example, Mother Teresa’s sisters, (the Missionaries of Charity). These sisters embrace the teachings of the Church and the role they bring to the table precisely as women. They seek to stay faithful to the Church, and embrace their vocation not seen in a reductive way as only social justice advocates but more fully in their call to be brides of Christ (this is the reason for their veils and habits). It is from this spousal relationship that their good works flow, which are many and abundant. Though this group only makes up about 20% of women’s religious life in America, they are receiving the majority of the young vocations.
These sisters also understand the dignity of women as envisioned by the writings of John Paul II (see, for example, his Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women) or St. Edith Stein, a highly educated 20th century professor who became a religious sister and wrote extensively on the vocation of women. The CDF’s assessment of the LCWR’s “radical feminism” does not come from a place of wanting to keep women down, (this is clear in light of the greater whole of the history of the Church, who has consistently upheld the dignity of women from the time of Christ, offering them respect and opportunities the broader culture did not) but rather from a fear that they are not living out the dignity of their vocation as women. I suggest, with the Church, that the CDF is not rejecting their feminine genius but calling them on to it—to seeing precisely what they, as women, have to offer.
This does indeed seem to be the paradigm for the assessment of the CDF as a whole. Upon careful and critical analysis, the work of the CDF does not seem to be first and foremost a harsh smack down on nuns, an external imposition from an oppressive hierarchy, but a calling them back to who they are, to faithfulness, and to the dignity of their call, both as sisters and as women.