The Support the Sisters Petition which was launched on April 23, 2012 had surpassed the then 23332 signers of “What If We Just Said Wait” Petition by April 30, 2012 and reached its goal of 57000 signers (one for each nun in the USA) by June 7, 2012.

Heightened news coverage has continued ever since the Vatican ordered the reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sisters Under Scrutiny at the National Catholic Reporter surpassed a hundred articles on June 11, 2012 with 62 articles the first month, 46 articles the second month, and 23 articles the third month.

On July 18, 2012, three months after the Vatican announcement and a day after the LCWR President’s interview with National Public Radio, Heidi Schlumpf reported that thousands of new listeners had tuned in to hear Sister Pat Farrell, with 250 recommends and more than a 10,000 links on Facebook.

What underlies this interest? An important key consists of two early articles, both titled “We Are All Nuns.” The first by Mary E. Hunt appeared at Religion Dispatches on April 25, 2012.

While this story is focused on nuns, it doesn’t stop there. But it’s really about all of the laity, especially women, who see the world in terms of needs we can fulfill not power we can hold; of radical equality, not hierarchy; of the many, not the few. The crux of the matter, as it were, is that most of the nuns, like many Catholics, have matured beyond the Vatican’s imaginings. …this move seems like an effort to cut off the head of lay people in the Church, beginning with the nuns.

The second by Nicholas Kristoff appeared April 28, 2012 at the New York Times, one of two articles on the topic on the same day.

CATHOLIC nuns are not the prissy traditionalists of caricature. No, nuns rock!… They are also among the bravest, toughest and most admirable people in the world. In my travels, I’ve seen heroic nuns defy warlords, pimps and bandits. Even as bishops have disgraced the church by covering up the rape of children, nuns have redeemed it with their humble work on behalf of the neediest…. If you look at who has more closely emulated Jesus’s life, Pope Benedict or your average nun, it’s the nun hands down.

Finally, Sister Pat Farrell near the end of her NPR interview of July 17, 2012 said:

And I think it’s a cause of pain for a much wider church than for Women Religious, which is attested to by this overwhelming outpouring of support from the laity, which I really believe is more about them than about us.

Why are we all nuns? Who are the “we all?” My hypothesis is that it consists of Catholics and non-Catholics who are proud of Catholicism, specifically of its very visible accomplishments: the many schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions strongly associated with the work of nuns that have contributed so much to the lives of so many Americans.

It interesting that the word used to affirm identity with women religious is “nun,” even though some have reserved that word for those who wear the iconic habits. Surely these people do not identify with traditional habits, cloister and prayer at regular hours! “Nun pride” is about pride in the work in women religious that benefited so many, whether yesterday or today, in traditional habits or contemporary dress. It is pride about the accomplishments of Catholic institutions, not about signs of Catholic or religious order identity. That is a big difference.

This rise of nuns as a vehicle of Catholic pride has been helped by the decline of the bishops as facilitators of Catholic pride. The bishops have impaired themselves by the sexual abuse scandal, their focus on internal matters of doctrine, discipline and Catholic identity of little interest to most people, and their focus upon “cultural war” issues that divide both Catholics and non-Catholics.

An attempt now to focus these women religious on issues that have crippled the bishops threatens the Catholic pride built around the work of these women religious, a pride shared by many non-Catholics.

No one is going to foster Catholic pride among either Catholics or non-Catholics by attacking either nuns or bishops for that matter.

Most of the vigils on behalf of the nuns were held in front of cathedrals. They attracted crowds of only a hundred. Not many were eager to center their attention upon their bishops.

On the other hand one held in a parish church in Cleveland with the support of the pastor was attended by an estimated 650 people, making it the largest of the 53 vigils held around the country. The pastor said there would have likely been more in attendance except parking around the church is limited. “The people of Cleveland appreciate the sisters.” Note his precise words. The sisters are a source of pride for the people of the city as well as Catholics.

Pride in the nuns but disappointment in the bishops and Vatican were the sentiments expressed by the people who came to the vigil.

“Nuns are the CEO’s of the hospitals, schools, orphanages and prison ministries, and now they are coming down on them for helping the poor? They should take care of their pedophile priests before scolding these women.”

“They are wonderful women who work hard for little pay, and they follow the precepts set by the Lord. These are not women who are radical feminists. The Vatican should clean its own house before they start cleaning others.”

The ability of the nuns to act as sources of Catholic pride for both Catholic and non-Catholics may start with their ability to represent highly valued Catholic and civic institutions, but it does not end there.

A priest writing in the Sunday bulletin of a different Cleveland parish articulated clearly many of the reasons that make nuns personally as well as institutionally attractive.

The problem with the Vatican approach is that it places the nuns squarely on the side of Jesus and the Vatican on the side of tired old men, making a last gasp to save a crumbling kingdom lost long ago for a variety of reasons.

One of the results of the council was that the nuns became more educated, more integrated in the life of the people and more justice-oriented than the bishops and pope. They are doctors, lawyers, university professors, lobbyists, social workers, authors, theologians, etc. Their appeal was that they always went back to what Jesus said and did. Their value lay in the fact that their theology and their practice were integrated into the real world.

US nuns work side by side with the person on the street. They are involved in their everyday lives. Most cardinals spent less than five years in a parish, were never pastors, are frequently career diplomats.

As we will see in the very recent research below, parish priests as well as nuns received the highest ratings of satisfaction in contrast to lower satisfaction ratings for the local bishop, and especially for the distant American bishops and the Pope. The likely reason is that both parish priests as well as nuns are seen to be in touch with people and their daily lives.

However, nuns may have an additional advantage that priests do not have. Since they are not ordained, laity (whether Catholic and non-Catholic) can more easily identify with them. It is hard to think of someone writing an article “We Are All Priests” even though Vatican II affirmed the priesthood of the laity.

Some have suggested that the affirmation that everyone is called to a life of holiness by Vatican II undercut the ability of women religious to recruit members because religious are no longer distinct from the laity. However in this case the shared universal call to holiness, aided by the lack of visible distinctiveness such as a habit as well as the lack of the distinctiveness of ordination, may have facilitated a high degree of solidarity with nuns.

Pew Report August 1, 2012

This report asks of Catholics a question about “How satisfied your are with the leadership provided by 1) your parish priests or priests, 2) your bishop, 3) American Bishops in general, 4) the Pope, 5) Catholic nuns and sisters in the U.S.” These questions are likely to be influenced by the pride a person has for their parish, their diocese, the American church, the universal church, and the works of nuns and sisters in the U.S. They are also likely to be influenced by particular people, especially their parish priest, their bishop and the current Pope.

The report has a table labeled “Catholics Give U.S. Nuns More Strongly Positive Ratings than the Pope, U.S. Bishops.” (In these tables the margin of error is slightly under 6% so any percentages less than 6% apart are not different. The tables will be narrated here to help make this clear.)

Satisfaction (which includes very satisfied) for nuns (83%) and priests (82%) was essentially the same, but there was less satisfaction for the bishop (74%), the pope (74%) and American bishops (70%) who are not different from each other.

“Very satisfied” was essentially the same for nuns (50%) and priests (49%). However the bishop (36%) and pope (36%) came in lower, and American Bishops (24%) the lowest of everyone!

Dissatisfaction for nuns (10%) and parish priests (13%) was essentially the same but marginally more for the bishop (18%) and definitely more for the pope (22%) and American bishops (25%).

The bottom line of the table seems to be that both the Vatican (which has hired a media specialist) and the American bishops (who are considering hiring one) are much in need of media advice. The consultants might point out that appearing to discredit nuns is likely as bad as appearing to discredit parish priests.

Another table of the Pew Report separates responses to the satisfaction question of those with high church attendance from those with low church attendance.

For high attendance persons, satisfaction is essentially the same for their parish priest (89%,) the pope (85%), nuns(84%) and their bishop (83%) but lower for American bishops (76%).

As we might expect for those with low attendance, their satisfaction with parish priests is lower (77%) and their satisfaction with their bishop (69%) the pope (68%) and American bishops even lower (63%). However a huge 90% of low attendance people are satisfied with nuns!!!

Probably the low attendance people do not have much recent contact with women religious. I would argue that their pride in Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable institutions run by nuns, and their admiration for nuns as heroic, highly educated professionals has been made salient by media coverage in the last few months. I would suspect many non-Catholics who are knowledgeable and interested in Catholicism likely have very similar positive attitudes.

In the comments, let’s focus upon the subject: “why are people interested in nuns, and why this may be more about laity than about nuns.” I have presented some ideas: that it is about Catholic pride, and the ability of people to identify with the nuns as laity. There are many other good possibilities, e.g. that this is a women’s issue, a Vatican II issue, etc. The best way to respond is to describe your own opinion(s). Let’s keep the comments to one per person, and have as many people as possible participate. A hundred opinions from this unscientific straw poll could be interesting and useful.

Jack Rakosky, a regular Pray Tell reader, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology. He spent twenty years in applied research and administration in the public mental health system, where his main interests were empowerment of consumers of mental health services, and evaluation of mental health outcomes. Now in retirement, he has earned a theology masters degree at Notre Dame specializing in spirituality. He is particularly interested in spiritualities such as those of religious orders that might encourage and support religiously motivated voluntarism in church and society.

Send to Kindle