Will Sisters Save the Catholic Church?

Though Catholic sisters continue their ministries with the sick and the poor, their simple living, and penchant for green, the media is beginning to pay a lot of attention. The Vatican’s Apostolic Visitation, an investigation of women’s religious orders in the United States, is in full swing, with few optimistic about its outcome. The letter the women religious wrote in support of the health care bill which was opposed by the US Catholic Bishops has made them heroines or heretics, depending on one’s politics. One sister was recently removed from her hospital administration position and allegedly excommunicated for her role in deciding to save the life of a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant by permitting an abortion in a Catholic hospital in Phoenix.

I want to clarify a few basic issues lest the move to focus finally on Catholic women backfire inadvertently. While Maureen Dowd wants a nun for Pope, and Nicholas Kristof extols the virtues of “lowly nuns” and all who work for justice, I worry that a lack of nuance can replicate the dynamics of patriarchy only with a few women religious in charge—or held responsible—this time. Catholicism is simply more complex than that. And the sisters, for the most part, are not interested.

Evidence that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is imploding mounts daily, with revelations of more sexual abuse and more cover-ups. Payoffs to victims/survivors like the recent Diocese of Vermont $17.6 million settlement with twenty-six altar boys are causing serious financial strain. Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits involving the Pope himself guarantee that these problems will not be resolved for a generation or more. Efforts by the Vatican to claim that the US Catholic bishops don’t work for them, and that the 1962 guidelines they issued did not mean that the bishops should hush up criminal activity, will be tough sells in US courts of law. Institutional Catholicism in this country has never been so fragile.

In many European countries, most notably Ireland, the long run of Catholicism as a cultural given is coming to an end. The Roman Catholic Church of Germany is on the skids. Revelations of abuses in Catholic institutions are coming thick and fast. Ironically, one of the actors who plays Jesus in the once-a-decade Passion Play at Oberammergau this year has “researched the bureaucratic steps needed to leave the church officially last year.” ‘Jesus’ leaving the Church; a Saturday Night Live moment for sure!

In developing countries, where the Roman Catholic Church is growing, sex abuse is just beginning to come into focus. Pictures of an elderly Brazilian bishop in bed with a young man hint at what is predictably another tawdry chapter in Church history written on yet another continent. Where will it end? I can attest that even the most progressive Catholics have no stomach for this mess.

To turn suddenly to sisters as the rescue workers for a male-led institution that has caused unspeakable problems is to saddle them with a clean-up operation that would “naturally” be a woman’s job in patriarchy. I hope they see it coming and resist, resist, resist. Likewise, to romanticize the nuns as though, being women, they will flap their white veils and make all things new, is equally unhelpful and unlikely. Rather, new models of Church need to emerge lest another small group—even women religious who have a long and proud history—be invested with the power and responsibility that belong to the whole community. I repeat, they don’t want it and neither do the rest of us. What we want is a democratic, participatory, egalitarian church. Some realism, as opposed to media-constructed “singing nun” data, will help to explain why.

First, there is no such thing as a typical Catholic sister. There are 59,000 members of canonical US religious communities and each one has a story. Efforts to lump them together—even by community—fail. All Mercy nuns are not alike. Within each group there are some who are politically progressive and others who are conservative, some who are pro-choice and others who oppose abortion, some who go to Mass and others who prefer small-group, women-celebrated Eucharists, some who play tennis and others who like bridge.

What unites them is a decision to live in community with other women and to engage in the many prophetic ministries that bring about love and justice. Would that Rome would leave them alone. No matter what the outcome of the Visitation process, I detect self-censorship on the part of some members and communities. It is understandable with so much at stake, especially the well being of the older sisters. But it is typical of those living under repressive regimes. This is troubling.

Second, all nuns, sisters, women religious (or whatever interchangeable terms people use to describe them) are lay people in the Roman Catholic Church. This means that they are not clerics, they are not priests, and they are not priests-in-waiting. Rather, like the rest of us lay people, they are “Church” insofar as they are baptized members of the community. As members of religious congregations, they have no clerical rank. They are seen in Canon Law (Canon 607) as having a “public witness” component to their lives which they express in their public vows to God—not to the Church or to the order. But it is crucial to understand that even such a public character does not make them clerics.

Their canonical status makes them vulnerable to such intrusions as the Apostolic Visitation or to the overreaching of local bishops who routinely complain to the leaders instead of to the adult members themselves when members act in ways that do not square with the bishops’ views. But they have none of the power of clerics. This is important because in the Roman Catholic system only clerics, those who are ordained (read: men who are allegedly celibate), can preside at the Eucharist, hear confessions, and perhaps most importantly, make decisions about property, politics, jobs, and theology.

Nuns have learned the hard way that they cannot even make decisions about their own properties since many of those are technically under institutional Church control. For example, one sister was placed under interdict for supporting the ordination of women. Another was forbidden to teach in a diocese because she, too, favored women priests. Still, they have no clerical rank and are just as lay as the rest of us.

Third, many committed lay women who are not members of religious congregations do about the same work as the sisters. There is no need to separate some “sisters” from all sisters. For example, I admire Jean Stokan, longtime Pax Christi USA leader who is now heading the Sisters of Mercy of the America Institute Justice Team. I have the deepest respect for Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of Dignity USA, the Catholic LGBT organization. I rejoice that Erin Saiz Hanna, another tireless worker, runs the Women’s Ordination Conference. I take my hat off to Marissa Valeri, who is a stalwart organizer at Catholics for Choice.

All of these committed women, like the sisters, are lay women but happen to be married, most with children. I think most of the nuns would call them “sisters” too. There is no point in separating some lay women from other lay women unless the patriarchal goal is to divide and conquer. We have long been vigilant against that. Women-Church communities and the Women-Church Convergence (a coalition of dozens of Catholic-rooted feminist organizations) are places where such distinctions have no meaning in the effort to create a “discipleship of equals,” as feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza described it.

I detect a kind of creeping clericalism in the friendly suggestions that a woman be Pope or that sisters and priests who labor in the vineyard are the real McCoy even if they have no decision-making power. Of course a woman ought to be considered for the highest position in any religious group, and of course the good people who do the daily work of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and standing up to unjust powers are spiritual stars. But the deeper question, the harder sell, is to think about new models of church; yes, even the Catholic Church, without a Pope or anyone else on top, a Church where all are welcome and involved.

This creeping clericalism was operative in the analysis of the sisters’ letter in support of the health care bill. Some commentators tried to equate the sisters and the bishops as if there were really two sides within the Catholic hierarchy and now the other side had spoken. With all due respect to the nuns, this is simply not true.

As the health care debate heated up, the bishops were badly advised when they claimed that the bill as proposed could be construed to allow public funds for abortion. Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, a nearly 100-year-old coalition of more than 1000 non-profit hospitals, spoke knowledgeably and honestly about the contents of the bill. Her organization reasoned that any lingering doubts on the abortion question (and there were few if any among well-informed people on both sides of the question) were more than outweighed by the thirty million uninsured people who would be covered, many of them in Catholic hospitals, of course. It was a social justice no-brainer.

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK: A Catholic Social Justice Lobby, organized a sign-on letter to members of Congress supporting the bill that was affirmed by dozens of leaders of women’s congregations representing tens of thousands of nuns. President Obama acknowledged the singular importance of the sisters’ actions in helping to secure passage of the legislation.

The sisters differed with the bishops, though in fact, their letter was subsequent to and in support of the position of the Catholic Health Association, not in defiant opposition to the bishops, who were simply misinformed. The proof is that while the sisters exerted their own moral agency by their letter, which I applaud, the content of the letter was, disappointingly from my perspective, that poor women needing abortions would find it hard to exert their agency because there is no funding for it. I regret that, but it spotlights the complexity of morality, the need for individuals to have voice and vote even when we disagree, and the importance of seeing Catholics as Catholics, in all our diversity.

For the press to make the sisters into pseudo-clerics, as if now they and not the bishops speak for the whole Church, is not very helpful. I agree it would change the aesthetics, and that might be nice, but without structural change, without empowering the many voices of Catholics to speak as Catholics, replacing one small group for another, gender notwithstanding, is dubious.

To answer Maureen Dowd directly, to have a woman Pope who would presume to speak for the whole Church would not be much of a step forward. One has only to look at the sisters who are leading the Apostolic Visitation of other sisters, beginning with Mother Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., to realize that there are all kinds of women out there, including some I doubt Dowd would want in the papacy. The problem is not the person of the pope as much as the understanding of the power of the papacy.

God knows Catholicism has a gender problem. But the structures of power are so perverse as to be dangerous. More than mandatory celibacy, homosexuality, all-male priesthood, and other reasons floated to explain why so many priests abuse children and why so many bishops cover up for them, the monarchical model of power is, to my mind, the major reason why crimes went unchecked and criminals remained in ministry. In a monarchy, there are no checks and balances against power at the highest levels. There is no way to vote the bums out or force them with threats of removal to run institutions in a transparent, indeed legal, way.

This is hard to explain to people outside of Catholicism, especially to those accustomed to an annual meeting or general assembly or some sort of conference where religious leaders are elected and votes are taken on issues. Catholics have no such place to go. Happily, the sisters have made their community gatherings far more democratic and participatory. In many communities, delegates are selected, leaders are elected, and policies are voted on in assemblies of the whole. Associates or co-members frequently have voice if not vote and are welcomed as valued participants. All of this makes Rome nervous as the women prove that we can act maturely, inclusively, and democratically and still be Catholic.

I conclude from this behavior that it is a good thing that the sisters are not clerics and it would be a bad thing to force them into that narrow, hierarchical mold. Moreover, the ones I know would resist it to the death. Their commitment to the whole Church—and, given their growing eco-consciousness, to Earth and all upon it—would simply not allow them such a constricted view. Besides, it is only in a horizontally integrated Church, as opposed to a vertically challenged one, in which they can live out their communal visions without fear of reprisals and in good company. I am glad we are all in this together.