Two Petitions: Translation and Nuns

by Jack Rakosky

At 12:14 am this morning, April 30, the number of signers (23322) for the petition “Support the Sisters” at Change.org exceeded the number of signers of the WhatIfWeJustSaidWait petition.

It appears the “Support the Sisters” petition was initiated at 9am on April 23, 2012. It grew rapidly.
* By April 24: 10,000 signatures.
* By April 29: 20,000 signatures.

The National Catholic Reporter had is first story on April 18, 2012. Its blog on the issue, “Sisters under Scrutiny,” was started on April 24 with a “Support our Sisters” Facebook page.
* By April 29: The “Sisters under Scrutiny Blog” had accumulated 30 articles.

According to Google News, the sisters issue has generated many related news articles:
* Around April 18-20: about 829 related news articles.
* April 24: 335 news articles.
* This past weekend: an additional 181 articles.

At the National Catholic Reporter blog, Tom Fox writes:

I cannot recall any time in recent history that the Catholic church was highlighted twice in columns in a single issue of The New York Times. But this is the case today and … is yet another indicator of the tremendous outpouring of support on behalf of U.S. women religious in general.

Those two NYT articles (here and here) were listed as the two highest e-mailed articles yesterday evening.

The two petitions – one on the liturgical translation and one on the nuns – are similar in many ways. Both involve actions of the Vatican bureaucracy with a nebulous assisting role by American bishops. In both cases, line staff (priests, sisters and their collaborators) bear the brunt of the implementation of the changes required.

One large difference, however, is that while the liturgy petition involved something that affected the lives of almost every American Catholic, relatively few laity will be impacted directly by the sisters issue.

Why did American Catholics, the Catholic media, and the secular media not get very interested in the liturgy issue even though it affected directly the lives of American Catholics?

What can those interested in liturgical issues do to communicate better with American Catholics, the Catholic media, and the secular media?

Do those interested in liturgical issues need to get better organized? The WhatIfWeJustSaidWait petition had a very good mix of priests, lay ministers, and laity spread across the country, e.g. more than 200 in my diocese. Yet that network was not able to organize to get greater media attention and more petition signers.

How come?

Jack Rakosky, a regular Pray Tell reader, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.

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19 comments

  1. relatively few laity will be impacted directly by the sisters issue

    Are you certain that that statement is accurate? I think most American Catholics have interacted with the Sisters at one time or another. Each one of the Sisters has family connections as well. I think the ruling on the LCWR is perceived by many as a personal attack on the women we ourselves know.
    In addition, many of the points that the Sisters are being criticized for are areas where we are in agreement. If the Sisters go down, who is next on the firing line?
    This may not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but we’re getting close.

  2. I doubt that anything written, signed or said to support the good religious sisters in the US – will change the mind of those in the Vatican who have already set the future course. There seems to be a prescribed model/agenda e.g. as completed in South America. All the media scripted words about dialogue appear to be a smokescreen before the good religious sisters are told all about the carrying out of the 5-year plan. Sadly it is also noticeble that Catholics with opinions about issues, change or concerns or even those who are even faintly considered “liberal” have been reported by others within their own Church (they do not have to identify themselves) and in spite of all their loyal and faithful years as religious, priests, theologians, Bishops and lay persons- the supposed “liberals” have been or can be either gagged or excommunicated. It makes one wonder what the first followers of The Way/of Jesus in the first few centuries of Christianity might say – if those of today would only listen to them.

  3. The difference between the two situations is in the way each is perceived.

    As I have watched both stories unfold in the media, the liturgy translation issue was seen by many (both inside and outside the Roman Catholic church) as an academic spat, while the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and the imposition of an archbishop to oversee/reform them has been seen as an issue of justice. In this line of thinking, the former controversy is interesting in an abstract way, but the latter affects real people.

  4. I think it matters that the Vatican’s action against the LCWR happened in an election year, and is perceived by many to be a political reaction to a current political issue (the whole HHS/ACA thing). Explicitly political issues always manage to force all kinds of people out of the woodwork (back when I blogged more regularly, I could always guarantee a three-fold increase in traffic just by writing “Democrat” or “Republican”).

  5. One can sleep through liturgy. One can also say the old version if one prefers. But the decision regarding the Sisters are one last drop coming after years of sex scandals in the Church; bishop Law happily ensconced in Rome; openings to Msgr Lefebvre’s crowd; the silencing of venerated theologians; the ignoring of Oscar Romero and a fast way to sainthood for others.
    If one likes to side with the Vatican’s ways, one is happily going along. If one is not, and it is the case of all those leaving the Church these days and of those wondering how much longer they will stand remaining in it, then the CDF’s decision is the last straw.
    I can think of many people, only remotely Catholic, and definitely not ‘Roman’ Catholic finding this current situation a perfect setup to express how fed up they are with Rome.

  6. I think the difference is that the sisters are segregated by sex. So it is easy to say this is a story about women versus men. The position of the sisters is a story easily told and digested by the media, because it can be accommodated to a pre-existing pattern of conflict, already established as a hot button in every single story that comes out about Catholicism. Gender politics is always, always raised whenever the Catholic Church is mentioned in the media.

    Not so translation. There were men and women on both sides of the translation divide. There was no easy way to assimilate the translation conflict to a story already so well charted in people’s minds as “men oppress women.” People were ready to jump on the story about the sisters because the pump was already primed. Not so with translation.

    While we are admiring the outpouring of support, here’s a note of caution. I’d like to think that the woods are full of people who are fonts of quiet gratitude for the role that sisters have played in their lives, and that this is what we are seeing in the numerous signatures on that petition. But I have lived through too many times when nasty jokes were made about nuns, put-downs were plentiful, the sisters served as figures of ridicule or insult, to be so naive. Perhaps there is some romantic nostalgia going on (maybe the reverse side of some guilt?) now that sisters are an endangered species? In other words, I am glad there is support, but I don’t expect it to last, I am sorry to say.

    We shall see.

  7. I would suggest that there are two factors that distinguish the petition on the liturgy from the petition on the LCWR:

    i. Despite the predictions of doom and meltdown, most members of the laity are simply not bothered by the new translation (for example, the ACP survey that was reproduced on this site showed that the vast majority of respondents didn’t feel that the new translation is any better or any worse than the old, with a small minority (16%?) enthusiastic for it and a slightly larger minority (20%?) opposed to the new Missal); the English text of the Mass has not, for most Catholics, become imbued with the same depth of meaning as it has for many people writing on here.

    ii. The petition relating to the LCWR, on the other hand, has an appeal to a constituency that goes far beyond the Church and has received a good degree of attention in the secular media; it fits in well with the “Bishops Are Bad” discourse that is popular with non-Catholics. That added to the natural gratitude and affection that most Catholics feel towards the female religious that we have known, means that the LCWR petition will have far more immediacy to most people’s experience of Catholicism than debates about the niceties of “pro multis”.

  8. I signed both petitions because BOTH are equally important to me as a faithful Catholic. The LCWR issue does have a more “personal” quality to it; I have known many Sisters in my life and have been blessed by them. In fact, my best friend of 36 years (and a religious for 64 years) is a Sister. I am deeply sensitized to the underlying sexism I perceive to be at the heart of the LCWR crackdown, as well. As far as the liturgy translation issue, I felt defeated from the get-go; there was no chance to really struggle against what was happening and it seems to me that most people were willing to simply put up with it and go along to get along. Maybe most Catholics don’t care about good English and good litugical theology, either. I continue to protest quietly and pesonally by refusing to say certain of the prayers and refusing to change some of what we have been given, but that isn’t going to change hearts. All it does is console my own heart (and that is a very good thing, as I find the new translation extremely cold and un-biblical). But the two issues appear very similar to me in that they represent—at least to the majority of on-lookers—yet another power-play and attempt to control others in a disrespectful way; to “rein in” fellow Catholic Christians who are perceived to be a threat to unity (when really, the only threat is to a false uniformity that the Vatican and its sundry bureaucracies insist upon). Whether they are telling us how we “must” pray, or insisting to the Sisters how they “must’ conduct themselves, it’s all the same: a lust for power and a fear of losing it on the part of a group of men who insist that the Church is a fortress with fear as the reigning ethos.

    1. Dear Janet,

      The reaction of the bulk of the laity to the new translation (i.e. indifference) suggests that most Catholics don’t find that there is anything to choose between the old and new translation in terms of the quality of English or the quality of the liturgical theology.

      That indifference strongly suggests that, for most of the laity, the English of the previous translation has not accreted the same baggage of theological meaning as it has for those mourning the passing of the 1973 texts.

  9. Hi, Thomas…

    Personally, I don’t think the majority of Catholics care about the translation. It’s just a series of obtuse phrases…but the priest can still do the “magic.” I mourn only intelligible English and theology that builds upon—not simply ignores—the wealth of development in liturgical and biblical studies of the past 40 years. Jesus and his “chalice”; Mary as an “incarnator,” with the Father giving birth, etc., etc.,: I’m not having any of it, and that’s not because I thought what we had was so great. But this is far worse.

  10. I think that most Catholics have had contact or have been taught by sisters at one time or another. We know that they sacrificed everything and because of their good works that we have seen first hand we have great respect (and fear) for them.
    We see firsthand some clergy parading around in their finest lace and ermine at the Vatican and how the sisters literally have nothing. Then comes the smack down.
    We know they are aged and it seems that our grandmothers are being attacked. Down deep in the recesses of our souls we know that this doesn’t feel right. That’s why people are upset.
    More bad press and another black eye for this papacy. As the old saying goes, “If you give them enough rope they will hang themselves.”

  11. I doubt that anything written, signed or said to support the good religious sisters in the US – will change the mind of those in the Vatican who have already set the future course.

    The “petitions” of a dozen Cleveland parishes to have their parish suppressions and church closings were granted by the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome. They are part of a movement that has had a strong policy making influence in Rome that has essentially made it very difficult for bishops who want to suppress parishes to make money by selling church buildings. That is a great accomplishment!!!

    All the people actively involved in all the parishes across the country appealing to Rome are probably less than the number involved in each of these petitions.

    HOWEVER, parish closings generated a very strong but very decentralized grassroots network. That was partially by accident (each parish is unique) but also by design. At the organizing meetings here in Cleveland, parishes were advised to concentrate on their own parishes and what they had to do to save them. They were cautioned about getting involved in the broader agenda of organizations like FutureChurch (which had provided information kits), or to spend unnecessary time coordinating among themselves (just kept each other informed).

    The uncoordinated, decentralized network was a great advantage.

    The very uncoordinated nature of stuff that arrived in Rome helped convince them that there was a grassroots problem, not a slick organizing effort by a few.

    The uncoordinated, decentralized network made it very difficult for the Bishop to attack the “organizers” because he had to attack the people in the parishes.

    The translation petition failed to generate a grassroots liturgy organization of the people, by the people and for the people. It had the numbers and geographic dispersion to do so.

    Will the Support the Sister petition generate grassroots organizations across the country???

  12. Will the Support the Sister petition generate grassroots organizations across the country???

    Or – will more people quietly walk away?

  13. As a “recovering Catholic” who left the RC church as a young woman after abuse by a priest, and who ultimately became a Protestant, went to seminary and was ordained and served as a pastor for many years I now find myself at the age of these nuns. I am 70. But gratefully I did not enter the convent. I enjoy a modest pension and the freedom to say and do as I wish. However, I am eternally grateful to the Dominican Sisters who trained me to think and ask questions and to their sometimes chagrin, challenge authority.
    The Bishops are scared, running scared, and well they shoud be.Benedict is a despot!

  14. The Sisters have much more support from the rank and file members of the Church than do the bishops. The outpouring of support with the petition at change.org, the We Support Our Catholic Sisters Facebook page, and Fr. Martin’s Twitter #WhatSistersMeanToMe (despite the efforts of Fr. Z and his minions to hijack it and use it to criticize the Sisters) have been truly amazing. Social media is the New Evangelization and people’s perceptions of the hierarchs are being changed. Abuse of authority is not true leadership. The bishops have picked the wrong group to push around. Though they are tone deaf they are getting an earful from people who are truly grateful for all that the Sisters to for the Church. We support our Catholic Sisters!

  15. BREAKING NEWS

    At 5:09 EDT the Support the Sisters petition exceeded 30,000 signers. At the present rate it will exceed 40,000 signatures on Thursday, May 3rd and 50,000 signatures on Sunday, May 6th.

    This will bring it into the range of people who signed up for Voice of the Faithful after the sex abuse scandal erupted. Joining VOTF was like signing a petition since there was no fee, and you got onto a mailing list. I was probably one of the first dozen from Ohio to sign up. I signed up mainly to see who else signed up and what was going on.

    VOTF has (had?) an affiliate model. After several months somebody called me to one of the early organizing meetings in Cleveland. At the meeting, I was asked to say what I wanted. I answered a networking organization where laity could talk to one another without chaperones. Talking to one another is more important than talking to pastors. If anyone wanted to do something we should not vote on it but rather those people should start a working group, even a separate organization to do that. I was invited to join the local leadership group.

    At a subsequent meeting the group voted to authorize the leadership group to send a letter to the bishop asking for a meeting. The leadership group could not agree what to say in the letter. I am very outcome oriented and did not help matters by asking people “What do you want the bishop to do differently after the meeting?” No one could agree upon an answer; no letter happened.

    I was involved for about five years, edited an electronic newsletter and wrote for a website for the local group, and wrote prayers for the national newsletter. It was all worthwhile since I am interested in voluntarism among older, highly educated people, exactly the demographics of VOTF.

    However too many people wanted to speak for the faithful rather than empower people to speak and do things themselves. People spent too much time locally and nationally arguing with one another about priorities.

  16. My take on it is that the two Vatican salvos had very different targets and we react differently according to the target. The translation was aimed at “me”, and I react to threats to me in my own way, largely by single effort.

    The NCWR attack is aimed at a large group of nuns. Nuns are the archetypal defenceless person. I will be upset if a single man in his 30’s is held up at knife-point and has his wallet stolen. I will be absolutely enraged if the same happens to a nun.

    I fear/hope that the Vatican has chosen the wrong target in its latest despotic move and will, soon, wake up and realise that it is fast becoming a global laughing-stock. When it places blind adherence to (male-dominated) authority over the selfless caring of the sick, the housebound, the voiceless and the oppressed, the whole world looking on can reach only one conclusion.

  17. The difference between the two situations is in the way each is perceived … an academic spat vs. an issue of justice

    I could always guarantee a three-fold increase in traffic just by writing “Democrat” or “Republican”).

    So it is easy to say this is a story about women versus men. The position of the sisters is a story easily told and digested by the media,

    I think the ruling on the LCWR is perceived by many as a personal attack on the women we ourselves know. In addition, many of the points that the Sisters are being criticized for are areas where we are in agreement.

    Ah yes the Media: How Vatican initiatives are interpreted and how petitions are interpreted.

    First, you have to get the attention of the media. Academic spats are humorous at best. The media does have its biases (learned from experience) about what makes a story interesting and engaging. Politics is one of them, men versus women is another.

    The translation petition had a background of church politics, cultural wars, even gender language issues, but those were not used to bring the story to the forefront of the media and therefore people’s attention.

    The Vatican’s LCWR initiative easily fits into not only a women vs. men issue but also into politics, a “war on women” by Republicans and Catholic bishops. However the media biases can easily make a bishops “religious liberty” issue into a “contraception issue” and then into a “war on women.”

    How do you capture the media’s attention without being captured by the media and taken to places where you do not want to go?

  18. The Parish Closure petitioners in Cleveland were very fortunate to have very good local media attention largely because of one reporter, Mike O’Malley.

    O’Malley humanized the parish closures. A great example is the following story which first appeared in the Plain Dealer with the title “Patricia Schulte-Singleton did what she had to do to get St. Patrick Church reopened” when the story was picked up by Religious News Service it was headlined “Tough mined woman fights bishop and wins”
    http://www.religionnews.com/faith/clergy-and-congregations/tough-minded-woman-fights-her-bishop-and-wins
    Same story, different titles for different audiences, but the story is compelling because of its human details.

    A fellow researcher early on in my career told me that I would never have to sell data, it would speak for itself. He was right. Like O’Malley I learned to focus on the facts, keep them clear and simple to the reader, and let people judge for themselves.

    In some ways this woman’s story is the story of many women religious, “she did what she had to do to get St. Patrick Church reopened” becomes in hindsight “Tough minded woman fights bishop and wins.” It is the convincing human story that makes us want to say “We are all nuns.”

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