One of the most reassuring sounds of 2012 so far was the roar arising in response to the Vatican’s reprimand of American nuns for purportedly promoting radical feminism. Apparently “radical feminist” is the updated version of “bold, brazen article.” Legions of the sisters’ former students and other admirers are having none of Rome’s insulting accusation, and said so.
Many of the now-successful adults who spoke up for the sisters provided a refreshing antidote to the tired stereotype of nuns whacking their charges with rulers. Corporal punishment, by the way, was not nearly as common in Catholic schools as aggrieved alumni would have everyone believe.
In my 12 years of Catholic education, the most effective disciplinary method I experienced was the silent treatment, deployed by the sister who taught me in fifth grade. When her class just wouldn’t behave, she simply stopped teaching and informed us that we were to be silent. Then we sat with hands folded on our desks, and God help the one who made noise — he or she would receive a glare from the front of the room that could melt steel. Very quickly, just the threat of the silent treatment was enough to gain our cooperation.
Ironically, it was both silence and loquacity that got the nuns into their recent trouble. The Vatican in April admonished the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of American nuns, according to the Washington Post. The criticism was that they had too much to say on women’s ordination and homosexuality, and not enough on right-to-life and abortion. Essentially, the powers that be were annoyed that the sisters didn’t just refer all questions upstairs, meaning to Rome.
The incident reminded me of something I overheard an inexperienced supervisor say to a coworker. New to his position, he was insecure and became angry when my colleague made a decision without consulting him. A loud argument ensued. Soon the unrepentant woman stormed out of the supervisor’s office, and he followed, bellowing, “There you go! Thinking for yourself again!” It turns out that thinking for oneself is a good way to irritate some people, and when those people are in a position of authority, things get uncomfortable.
Judging by the public outcry, most of us do not think Catholic nuns are spreading suspect doctrine across America. But I think that nuns are radical feminists, just not in the way the church fathers meant.
The nuns I have known were independent women pursuing lives that they chose — sounds like feminism. Joining a religious order has always been an extreme, even radical, choice, and has become more so as women have gained access to more vocational options.
I was fortunate to have attended elementary and high school under the tutelage of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, and benefited from exposure to their intellect, creativity, encouragement and, in a couple of cases, wicked sense of humor. In the dozen years I spent at Melrose Academy, the sisters formed my faith, fired my imagination, sharpened my reasoning, and prepared me for the challenges of life. The Grey Nuns taught me to think for myself, and not to take seriously those who would have me do otherwise.
For their lifetime of selfless work, nuns are today faced with hard financial choices. In the Grey Nuns’ 2011 report to donors, they explain that the order is principally self-supporting and has a growing number of retired members who require care. These facts necessitated the recent sale of the congregation’s headquarters, a property that has served as the sisters’ spiritual center for almost 50 years.
Although they must devote serious attention to economic realities, financial management is not the first concern of any religious order. The mission of the Grey Nuns, for example, is to create a compassionate world by reaching out to the young, elderly, ill and needy, through ministries that carry them into communities around the world, promoting social and economic justice and peaceful solutions to conflict. In response to this spring’s controversy, the Grey Nuns posted on their website a statement of support for the LCWR, noting their belief that “the organization has remained faithful to its mission of service to leaders and institutes of women religious.”
By issuing its reprimand, the Vatican unwittingly touched a nerve among a wide swath of Catholics and non-Catholics who deeply, if heretofore quietly, respected nuns and their work. Rising to the sisters’ defense, lay and religious clearly stated their belief, that the religious women faithfully represent the values of their church to people, and in places, beyond the reach of traditional parishes and declining numbers of priests. Whether they teach, nurse the elderly, care for the poor and homeless, help the unemployed and homeless, work in communities or pray in cloisters, nuns daily personify the heart of Catholicism and are its most effective ambassadors. They are radical feminists in deed.
Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant.