Nuns on the run: Why is the Pope targeting women?
It is a story worthy of a Dan Brown thriller, replete with secret ceremonies, powerful adversaries and hidden motives. Yet this high-level plot is playing out in real time, right under our noses, and it all begins with a modern-day inquisition into the lives of nuns.
Nuns, as even non-Catholics know (and I am not Catholic, though my husband and children are), haven’t been quite the same since the ’60s, when they started shedding their habits for street clothes and venturing out more self-assuredly into the world. Nuns, as you might also have noticed, have severely decreased in number since then. The dwindling religious who remain have not only often fled traditional communities but have expanded their interests to such contemporary concerns as saving the environment and rescuing sex slaves.
That, apparently, is enough to make this current, most conservative of Popes, send in his troops:
In response to this new breed, the Vatican has launched two wide-ranging investigations into the lifestyles of American nuns. Both look to be moves on the part of the male hierarchy to rein in nuns who are perceived as having become distressingly independent.
The first is an unprecedented “Apostolic Visitation” being carried out by a Rome-based American, Mother Mary Clare Millea. Her charge is to “look into the quality of life” of nuns who engage in any fashion with the larger society. (Cloistered contemplative orders are not under scrutiny.) She recently told The New York Times that the inquiry is “an opportunity for us to re-evaluate ourselves, to make our reality known and also to be challenged to live authentically who we say we are.”
Mother Mary has further explained that each community of sisters will be evaluated in terms of its “living in fidelity” to church norms, which include “the soundness of doctrine held and taught” by the sisters. It is reasonable to wonder, as some of the sisters themselves apparently do, about the real objective of the process.
This concern is heightened by a second investigation into the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents 95% of nuns in the USA. It’s being conducted, with possible disciplinary implications, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office headed by American Cardinal William Levada. He cites the nuns’ collective failure to comply with instructions to conform to church doctrine issued them in 2001 by his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). Geared toward ferreting out individuals and groups who challenge church teaching on certain issues — the male-only priesthood, homosexuality, and the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church as a way to salvation are specifically singled out — it portends a chilling effect on possibilities for genuine dialogue.
At the same time, the Vatican has declared June 2009-June 2010 the “Year for Priests,” celebrating the men’s vocation. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is not directly involved in either of the Vatican investigations, has embraced the idea. And the way the bishops’ conference is approaching it is further symptomatic of a persistent blind spot the hierarchy has about women in general, and women religious in particular.
My friend Karol Jackowski is one of those very modern nuns. A member of the Sisters of the Holy Cross for 33 years, in 1997 she joined the Sisters for Christian Community–a self-governing, independent group not subject to Vatican oversight, but recognized by the Vatican as an alternate form of Catholic sisterhood. She is also the author of Forever and Ever, Amen, a memoir about her early years in the convent, as well as The Silence We Keep: A Nun’s View of the Catholic Priest Scandal.
Sister Karol, along with many in all religious orders, and feminists of all religions, is deeply concerned about the forthcoming investigation. “Instead of focusing on widespread corruption in the priesthood as the source of the steady decline in Roman Catholicism in Europe and the United States,” she says, “the Vatican is blaming and attempting to wipe out the feminist spirituality that is now so deeply rooted in the Catholic sisterhood.
“What happened in the sisterhood over the past 40 years,” Jackowski continues, ” is no different than what’s happened to the majority of American Catholics who have grown much more independent in their thinking and decision-making, and no longer accept all Catholic teachings as infallibly true. Many of us are an active part of the majority who believe women are divinely called to priesthood as much as men, who accept homosexuality also as a God-given gift, who protect women’s reproductive rights and support Catholics for Free Choice, and who believe there are as many paths to God as there are people on earth.”
Consilia Karli, another member of the Sisters for Christian Community, belonged to the Immaculate Heart of Mary from 1959 to 1975. “When many of us entered the order, it was the only alternative to staying home and raising a family,” she says. “But with the changes in the ’60s and ’70s, there were a lot more options for women–religious women, too. My community wasn’t moving forward with the times. The I.H.M. were a teaching community and they were closing inner city schools. I didn’t want to sacrifice my life to affluent children. If I left, I could work in the parish ministry, prison ministry and other social services.
“It was a difficult decision,” she remembers. “It took me five years. But in the end, I left to save my soul.”
She was not alone: Around the U.S., there were progressive communities of women religious who were on parallel paths regarding their roles in the world. And yet, Karli says, “It is the women religious who opted to work for change within their traditional communities, or who vested years of loyalty and service in the Church, who are now being scrutinized as if they were directly to blame for the fact that the numbers of women religious has declined.
“These women don’t deserve investigation from the Vatican. What they deserve is long overdue recognition and affirmation.”
Neither Consilia Karli nor Karol Jackowski (both women shy away from being addressed as Sister) will be affected by the Apostolic Visitation. “American nuns are under attack, but only the canonical religious,” Karli points out. “They can’t touch me. But in solidarity, I feel I must speak out.”
So does no less an advocate for women than Gloria Steinem. “Any unfair treatment of females is a feminist issue,” she says, “and it’s hard to imagine a more unfair, authoritarian or calculated one than the Vatican is imposing on U.S. Catholic nuns. Using the same procedure it so belatedly imposed on priests who sexually assaulted children, the Vatican is investigating nuns who supported social justice.
“Only the nuns can decide how to respond,” Steinem concludes, ” but maybe it’s time for collection plates to be passed for the nuns and not the Catholic hierarchy.”
Indeed, the Apostolic Visitation may well backfire for the Vatican and prove a boon to such “renegade” religious as Bridget Meehan, a former Immaculate Heart of Mary nun who is now at the forefront of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement, and actively challenges conventional Church teachings on her website, Bridget Mary’s Blog. In 2006, Meehan was ordained as a priest by three female bishops, two of whom had been ordained secretly by a male bishop in full communion with the Pope who has apostolic succession. Earlier this year, she was ordained a bishop, along with three other women in the U.S., to foster the growth of the movement. “Our main job description,” she says, “is to ordain those called by their local communities to serve in a Church that is priest-short and in need of the gifts of women.”
And how do you address a female priest? A female bishop? Sister Meehan? Mother Meehan? “We don’t get into rank. Call me Bridget Mary,” she says. “We need to get away from the drop-down divisiveness of the Church hierarchy, to transform the structure.”
According to Meehan, the first seven female Roman Catholic priests were ordained in June, 2002 on the Danube. Immediately, these women were excommunicated by the Vatican. Then, she says, a male Roman Catholic bishop “who is in communion with the Pope but who is a passionate advocate of women’s rights” ordained two of these women, Gisela Forster from Germany and Christine Mayr-Lumetberger from Austria, bishops. “He agreed to ordain women in the presence of witnesses but in secrecy, to avoid retribution by the Vatican.”
Meehan, however, believes the Vatican is well aware of the ceremony: “They have never denied a Roman Catholic bishop with apostolic succession was involved. Therefore, our ordinations are valid, but against the man-made rules of the Church.”
Today, there are 100 women ordained as Roman Catholic priests, or on their way to becoming priests. Moreover, some surveys conclude that as many as 70% of Catholics favor the ordination of women. “This is a worldwide movement for justice for women in religion,” Meehan says. “The Vatican is concerned because the movement is growing so quickly. They are worried that more bishops will become involved.”
That, she believes, is the real motive for the Apostolic Visitation. “The number one issue on their agenda, in investigating nuns, is women’s ordination. Roman Catholic Womenpriests are the big threat. What if the nuns come onboard in great numbers? That would be a revolution that would change the face of the Church.
“This Pope is going back to Trent, to pre-Vatican II,” Meehan says. “He’s carving a stark choice between a rule-based religion and a love-based religion.”
It hasn’t hurt the Womenpriests movement that The DaVinci Code was a runaway bestseller. “Dan Brown provoked such interest in the subject,” Meehan says. “More people now know about Mary Magdalene, who was the ‘Apostle to the Apostles,’ the first person to see Christ resurrected.
“Jesus related to women as equals,” she continues, adding that her movement supports married priests (“most of our womenpriests are married”) as well as gays and lesbians. “We want an inclusive Church that does not make anyone feel like a second class citizen. All are welcome at the table. That is Jesus’ example. The people Jesus challenged were the hypocrites, religious leaders who burdened the people with excessive regulations that did not lead them to worship God in spirit and in truth.”
Is it possible that Meehan and her community might break off from Rome to form another Church? The very idea makes the Bishop bristle. “We’re not leaving the Church,” she says. “We’re leading the Church. We want to change an unjust law that discriminates against women.”