Why We Are All Nuns: Catholic Pride; Universal Call to Holiness

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.

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13 comments

  1. I’m a convert and didn’t grow up knowing nuns/sisters. I’ve still never known one personally. The sisters I’m aware of and who I admire are those I’ve read about …. the sisters and lay women killed in El Salvador, Sister Dorothy Stang who worked with the poor in Brazil, Sister Sandra Schneiders who teachers NT studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Sister Margaret Farley who wrote a book on sexuality, etc.

    There’s probably some element of feminism in why I do have a better opinion of the sisters than of the hierarchy, but it’s more than that. My satisfaction with the bishops and the Vatican is really non-existant – there’s just too great of a discrepancy between their words/actions and what’s taught in the gospels.

  2. Women religious enjoy the status of consecrated laity. They Are called to bear witness to the call to holiness that belongs to all the baptized. The sisters and nuns I know and have known over my 70 years have done a truly remarkable job. After the council I remember noticing the profound effects it’s call for renewal had on on women religious. So many of them went back to school to acquire competences of various kinds to help them better serve God’s priestly people. The former stereotype of the nun ever ready to rap school children with a ruler gave way to more noble images inspired by likes of Mother Theresa and a thousand other women who headed up colleges, hospitals, and social service agencies. An even larger number of them left their mark as parish workers and spiritual directors.
    I believe that what this conflict comes down to is that the LCWR represents a voice that marches to its own well informed sense of the Gospel and it’s moral imperatives without the expected compliance which the hierarchy prefers from its loyal subjects. The latter call this radical feminism so they can be dismissed without having to take seriously that legitimate teachings must not only be taught but be received by people who believe boldly and think critically. If those who are trying to reverse what they consider to be the abuses of the council are to succeed then critical thinking will need to be put in its place.
    I think we’re all nuns because these women may just have the courage to take a stand that will redound to the good of all God’s holy church.

  3. Possible headline from The Onion: “The Sisters side with Jesus, even if they’re moving ‘beyond’ Jesus” or “Vatican [sic] to Sisters: Get Lost” or “The Pope is against Jesus since he’s against the Sisters”

    Actually, parody and satire are impossible.

    Since when does it take ‘courage’ to speak one’s mind? It doesn’t take any courage at all, even though the self-congratulatory left likes to herald its virtues. While it lasts, we still enjoy free speech in these United States. These leaders amongst the sisters aren’t courageous at all; they’re divisive. Their goal is to tear down, not to build up. One can draw a straight line from the French Revolution to the 1917 Revolution to the “Beyond Jesus” sisters. They are puritanical ideologues. If they only knew that they are more puritanical than the original Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

  4. Have you known a lot of Sisters and Nuns? Your comments seem awfully judgmental. Hope you’re braced to be judged likewise.

  5. Cardinal Dolan, an historian, understands Nuns and Catholic Pride

    http://blog.archny.org/index.php/love-and-gratitude-for-the-sisters/\

    You may also know that a sad fact of that history is that the Catholic community in the USA, from the start, has had to counter a deep and pervasive bigotry.

    The episode that most dramatically motivated Americans, who grew-up with only negative perceptions about these ignorant, dirty, backward, superstitious Catholics was . . . the heroic charity of Catholic nuns on the battlefields of the Civil War, selflessly tending to the wounded and dying, both blue and gray.

    We Catholics love the nuns. We Americans love the nuns.

    Long before women had any executive positions in business, industry, education, or politics, Catholic women religious ran schools, colleges, hospitals, and agencies of charity. And anybody of my vintage or older knows that the most influential people in the parish were the sisters.

    When the Second Vatican Council urged a renewal of religious life, with characteristic vigor, they obeyed, and perhaps more than any other group in the Church, took the providential council seriously.

    Lord knows, that was not easy. Mistakes were made; many left; divisions occurred; controversy was common. But they kept at it.

    We Catholics love the Sisters! Catholics in America do have a “ballot” when it comes to expressing their concern and interests in the life of the Church: the Sunday envelope! And the most successful second collection in our history is the annual one to support our aged religious.

    Contrary to what you may have heard, Rome loves the Sisters! When you love someone, you show concern.

    All that helps is humility in both partners, it’s not about one side or the other, not about the grievances of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious or the worries of the Vatican, but it’s all about Jesus and His Church.

    If the Sisters can survive the battlefields of the Civil War, they’ll survive the current examination by Rome…

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #5:
      Jack, this is a snow job. Surely you must see this. If by “understanding” you mean “able and willing to manipulate the feelings of people” then I would agree with you.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #7:
        Thank you for the articulation of this thought Rita. I have been struggling with it, and that is why I thought of the letter by the priests of my diocese. Having said that, I’m not sure that using the NCR link was the wisest way of me posting it, just the most facile.

      2. @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn – comment #8:
        Fran, the letter you posted via the NCR link seems genuinely supportive of the sisters. I did not know about this letter from the Albany priests. Thank you for sharing it!

      3. @Rita Ferrone – comment #11:
        Although I have only lived here for 5 years, I have been blessed to find a rich home in the diocese. Almost all of my own work as a writer has coalesced around church, I am working towards an MA in Pastoral Studies, and work for the church as well. All a far cry from the corporate world which I long inhabited!

        More than one of them board members of the PLMC, the body that issued the letter on behalf of the sisters, are men that I count as friends. This is a good place, one that seeks room for all at that table.

      4. @Rita Ferrone – comment #7:

        Yes. Dolan knows very well how important Catholic pride is, and how to use it as in the case of Catholic institutions and “religious freedom.”

        I am amazed how snowed many Catholic liberals were since most Catholic institutions are also public institutions, funded by mostly public money. I didn’t see many Catholics supporting Obama’s original proposal, and saying that all people in these also public institutions should have the same health care opportunities.

        Levada would not have acted without consulting with Dolan. Levada, since he is going to live in the US, was likely far more motivated by his future relationship with Dolan than any relationships in the Vatican.

        I think it is likely that Dolan is the real author of the “war” against the nuns rather than the Vatican, but he understands nun pride enough to keep himself out of the crosshairs of public opinion.

      5. @Jack Rakosky – comment #9:

        “Levada would not have acted without consulting with Dolan. Levada, since he is going to live in the US, was likely far more motivated by his future relationship with Dolan than any relationships in the Vatican.

        I think it is likely that Dolan is the real author of the “war” against the nuns rather than the Vatican, but he understands nun pride enough to keep himself out of the crosshairs of public opinion.”

        Thanks, Jack. This sounds quite plausible to me.

  6. Tom Fox has some things to say that are relevant both to nun pride, and the role of the laity.

    He notes that the bishops are beginning to exhibit an interesting pattern of praising the deeds of women religious but rejecting their thinking

    http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/lcwr-women-religious-congregations-same-corpus

    An episcopal technique I have come to notice in recent months involves placing heaps of praise at the feet of our women religious congregations while blasting the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This “good sisters,” “bad LCWR,” back flip deserves some attention.

    Each LCWR member, nearly 1500 in all, has been elected from within her congregation to represent its thoughts, interests, aspirations and concerns.

    LCWR is as bottom up as the Catholic hierarchy is top down. It is, in fact, a different model of Catholic organization, the most public and democratic model in the U.S. church today.

    LCWR, then, indeed represents the collective thinking of some 80 percent of the women religious congregations of America. If the congregations, through their works of mercy, represent the body of service; LCWR represents the mind of service.

    This noted episcopal dualism – good women, bad leadership – intentional or not, separates the way the women act from the way they think, as if this were possible.

    It’s another way of saying, “We like what you do, but we don’t want to hear the way you think.”

    “We’ll take your bodies, but not your minds.”

    This seems to be a part of a larger pattern (e.g. health care policy) in which the bishops want to do all the thinking and speaking, regarding any disagreement with their priorities and policies by laity as a matter of dissent.

    Nuns and laity should pray, do and obey;
    thinking, and speaking are reserved to the hierarchy.

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