The Two Cultures of Sisters

Tom Fox has done us a tremendous service by covering various gatherings of sisters both in the United States and across the globe. His editorial this week highlights the remarkable vitality and perseverence that has provided the Catholic church with examples of compassion and sacrifice for the sake of the "least among us." In the midst of one of Catholicism's darkest hours, the sisters continue to produce light, reminding church people that there is a dimension of Christianity that is sadly lacking in press accounts of scandal.

The nuns illustrate Pope John's sage remark at the outset of Vatican II that the Gospels call for the "medicine of mercy rather than that of severity." The Council was wind in their sails and they refashioned their ministries to meet the needs of modernity.

The problem was that they soon ran into a stained glass ceiling. Important segments of male clerical power became alarmed at the sisters' enthusiasm for renewal, interpreted it as "radical feminism" and took some stern measures to reverse it. The current investigation of U.S. religious orders by Rome is the lastest and broadest effort to stifle a movement within the church that dared to assert women's leadership.

The sisters had generated a theological culture that fostered mutuality, dignity, justice, freedom, different models of prayer and worship and a perspective that suggested that the old order of male superiority needed to end.

The opposition to them came largely from that old order that fought change, as every establishment does.

The growth of unity and commitment of sisters around the world that Fox describes -- made possible by the Internet among other things -- is something to celebrate, especially because it's beneficiaries are those who suffer. It is an extension of the works of kindness that sisters have performed for centuries. It is the spirit that founded and kept the Catholic schools, hospitals and social service agencies to attend to the crises of immigrants and other poor people in this country.

The sister push on despite their having been placed outside the decision making apparatus of the church, denied every clerical rank and subject always to the veto of the male authorities. They deserve immense credit for this.

Increasingly those who defend the indignities visited upon nuns cite this dedication to the neediest to bolster their case against Rome. It's ironic in one sense, since some of the same people who justifiably toast the sisters' acts of compassion have been less willing to protest the "mean nun" stereotype. In my experience, nearly every Catholic baby boomer has a mean nun tale to tell at the drop of a hat. It's become urban legend, often the kind of gossip passed along by people who actually didnt' experience it themselves but "heard" of someone who did. To me the main cause of this sad phenomenon is sexist projection, a dumping of dissatisfaction on those who, by and large, couldn't defend themselves. And, not to defend meanness, but those who were probably had good reason, given the restrictive lives they led. Besides, my impression is that the alleged ear twists and ruler whacks were approved by parents as proper discipline; otherwise why wouldn't parents have put a stop to it?

But I digress.

The other side of the story that Fox reports, the inspiration emerging from awakened awareness and discovery, is that this is all taking place within the limits imposed by the old culture. The surge of leadership appears to reach only so far. The sisters no doubt have their own prudential reasons for refraining to protest the system that still hems them in, but with rare exception they do not. They have chosen to do wonderful things within a church that officially refuses even to discuss the ordination of women or to include women in the inner circle of church councils in any meaningful way.

Love is the most powerful Christian evangelist; next to it, the ecclesiastical structures speak only modestly of it at best and at worst reflect the sordid human condition.

But nuns also exist in that system which, I am bold to say, sorely limits their freedom and can set a confusing example for young Catholic men and women about the nature of Catholic womanhood. Nuns don't think or act monolithically, of course. That's the stereotype. Many, however, do their ministry from an intimate awareness of a freedom that, as Jesus says, the world can neither give nor take away. The nuns exhibit that in great measure.

The exercise of that freedom within the call of the Gospel in ministering to the needs of the world is truly exemplary. But in itself I don't think it constitutes what Fox calls a "parallel leadership structure" in terms of the teachings and policies that guide the church.

That's an aspiration that raises an immediate confrontation with the established order that flatly rejects any such notion for reasons that make sense to anyone who's seen conflicting leadership styles try to coexist. In fact, the Vatican has good reason to like the way things are: the church gets deserved credit for the benevolence of the nuns, the hands-on labors of love that they've always provided, without having their male authority challenged.

That's why it may be necessary for the already overworked nuns to take on the obstacles faced by every Catholic woman by openly challenging those who perpetuate it. The recent meeting of superiors in Italy took the inspiring theme of "mysticism and prophesy" to envision the continuation of their missions of mercy and spirituality. The other dimension of prophesy, from Amos to Isaiah, is to say the "No" of God's truth to abuses of power.

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