Not too long ago, the world barely noticed nuns, and then only in some anonymous or stereotypical way. Now there is hardly an instance when the world does not notice them. The irony is palpable. When we looked like "nuns," we weren't seen. Now that we look simply like ourselves, everybody sees everything we do. Clearly, witness is at least as powerful as uniforms. And nuns have given clear witness to contemplation, equality, and justice these last years.
The problem with that kind of thinking, however, is that people who consider themselves full adults begin to act as if they are.
However, there are consequences to witness like that.
Next week, for instance, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will face decisions that will move the question of the agency of women in a man's church either forward or back. Strange as it may seem in the 21st century, the issue is whether or not women are capable of hearing diverse speakers and still remain faithful Catholics. The issue is whether or not women religious may discuss various points of view on major issues and still remain faithful Catholics. The issue is whether or not women religious can manage their own organizations and still be faithful Catholics. The Vatican's answer to those questions is no. For the last 45 years, however, LCWR's answer to those same questions has been a clear and persistent yes.
Men and women everywhere are watching the scenario work out, searching for models to resolve it, seeking spiritual guidance to deal with their own frustrations. Benedictine sister and poet Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki writes of the situation in her own blog, Old Monk's Journal.
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We've had enough of exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues. I see the world is rotten because of silence," wrote St. Catherine of Siena. This a quote that Old Monk is meditating on as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious gathers for its annual assembly in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 12-16.
Silence in the face of injustice is a crime, a sin, a heinous act that has been used by Church authorities over the centuries to kill questions and new ideas and to punish those who dare ask them.
So it broke Old Monk's heart to read this sentence by Tom Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, in a commentary he wrote on the upcoming LCWR assembly. "A group (LCWR) that once prided itself on fearless leadership and modeling transparency is now more media restrictive than most other Catholic organizations, including the U.S. bishops."
It is this kind of intimidation and fear that church authorities count on. Keep the abuse secret. Keep it behind closed doors.
Here is Old Monk's prayer and plea, then, for the LCWR:
Dearest Sisters, you have done nothing wrong. It is your obligation as religious to ask the questions that need to be voiced. It is the holy responsibility of religious to stand with those who are most bereft. Be proud of the questions you have asked, the speakers you invited to your assemblies, the statements you issued, the liturgies you celebrated. Go to the microphone and say: We believe in feminist theology and in women's ordination; we believe in the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender population and we will continue to speak aloud on these issues. Respectfully, we will not comply with the order to submit names of speakers to our annual assembly to Vatican representatives for approval. If this means that the LCWR is no longer recognized by church authorities, so be it. Though we have given our lives to the church, we have not given our consciences to anyone but God. Though we recognize the legitimacy of church law, we believe it sometimes conflicts with the Gospel. And our hearts -- since we were young women -- have been afire with the radical message and life of Jesus of Nazareth. To act otherwise would barter our integrity. As members of LCWR, we stand with our sister, Catherine of Siena in reminding the faithful, "We've had enough of exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues. I see the world is rotten because of silence.
From where I stand, it seems to me if the amount of press, ink, and media reviews tell us anything, there are many who care deeply that the voices and agency of the sisters in the United States remain strong.
If you are one of those, you might want to send an email to LCWR, sign the petition with nunjustice.org, or go to Twitter with #CryOut. Tell these sisters with Catherine of Siena again, today, in our time, for the sake of the church at this important moment in church history, "Cry out, Sisters; Cry out."
[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor. Benedict Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki blogs at Old Monk's Journal.]
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