I grew up around nuns. My mother had left the convent five years before I was born, but all through my childhood our home was often visited by her “convent buddies,” a dozen or so women who had formed enduring friendships as novices or professed sisters of the Roman Catholic religious orders they had joined as teenagers. Daughters of immigrants from Irish and Italian enclaves, many of them had become sisters for reasons not just of faith, but of education and opportunity. The convent to them had been an unlikely part of the American dream.
By the time I met them, some of these women had left religious life, having shed their habits in the late 1960s, as my mother had, as if to feel more of the breeze blowing after Vatican II famously “opened the windows of the Church.” Others left not long after, to marry or to work jobs of their choosing, while a few have kept their vows to this day. I could usually tell the nuns from the ex-nuns by their shoes: blue canvas sneakers for the former sisters turned actual mothers, sturdy black leather for the lifelong nuns they might have been.
Whether or not they remained in the religious life, I see their faces now in the “Nuns on the Bus” currently touring the country to highlight the social justice work of women’s religious orders. I see them also in Sister Margaret Farley, the theologian and former Yale Divinity School professor who is the latest target of the Vatican’s crackdown against members of the religious communities that once built, staffed, and embodied the spirit of the Church in America. Coming as it does in the wake of the rebuke delivered last month to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the censure of Sister Farley’s book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, is enough to make one wonder if there are doctrinal risks taken simply by being Catholic while female.
It’s easy to understand the Vatican’s consternation when faced with sisters radical enough to think their own thoughts and write them down. Nuns are not trained to be troublemakers. Quite the opposite: As I heard it often from my mother’s convent buddies, their lessons in obedience began even before they donned donated wedding gowns and pledged themselves as Brides of Christ.
Each morning after breakfast in the novitiate, I’ve been told, they would line up before the Mistress of Novices, and one by one make the same set of requests: “Please may I rise, wash, dress, use prayer books, take meals, attend to my charge, go to school, study, teach, take recreation, change, wash, and mend my clothing when necessary, pick up pins and needles, and other permissions that I cannot conveniently ask?”
Every day for three years the novices recited this same mundane checklist, lest the smallest imaginable act—pick up pins and needles!—be undertaken without proper approval. These “daily permissions” became such a part of the sisters’ lives that they could say them in their sleep. Fifty years later, my mother can still recite them on command.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way out of novitiate. As these young women took their vows and were called upon to serve their Church by teaching school in troubled neighborhoods, by managing hospitals in need of a firm fiscal hand, or in Sister Farley’s case by completing an Ivy League doctorate, they discovered they no longer needed to ask permission to pick up pins and needles, or to do anything else that obviously needed to be done. Much to the chagrin of those who value their own authority over the autonomous efforts of others, they discovered they were quite capable of deciding to do so on their own.
My mother’s convent buddies are all in their seventies now. Those who chose to leave the religious life to marry are grandmothers; those who chose to leave to pursue secular careers have retired; those who stayed in are still working tirelessly on behalf of the poor, the sick, and the Church.
Whatever other choices they have made in life, they all are a part of what will very likely be the last generation of American women who will choose to enter the Catholic religious life in any significant numbers. The circumstances that led them to the convent no longer exist, and may not again. Rather than expect further recitations of the litany of permissions from such women, the Vatican would do well to count its blessings that they chose to serve as long as they did. And then it should say, “Thank you.”
Further reading: Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son (Free Press, 2006)