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Nuns and Virgins


With the republication of her novel set in the 1950s, Caryl Rivers considers the nuns who taught her and those who are still today the heart of the Catholic Church.

For me, there is no small irony in the fact that just as my novel Virgins is being republished online, the Vatican is rapping the knuckles of American nuns. Church fathers accuse the nuns of being too “feminist,” insisting they return to silence and obedience.

Virgins is about '50s Catholic schoolgirls trying to rebel against a world that had no place for women in serious matters. Now the Vatican is giving that message to its own most valuable asset, the women who are the heart and soul of the church.

But guess what? The nuns are not shutting up. They have told the old men of the Vatican that it’s they who are out of step, not the women who are doing the work that Christ commands—healing the sick and succoring the poor. Most Catholics seem to agree with the sentiment I saw recently on a T-shirt. It had a picture of a nun and the slogan, “I’m with her.”

The world of my Catholic girlhood was filled with nuns. They taught us the three Rs, told glorious stories of the saints, bandaged our knees when we skinned them on the schoolyard and yes, now and then gave out a knuckle rap when we misbehaved.

My 8th grade teacher, Sister Maria Patricia, often tucked up her skirts to teach the boys the proper way to kick a football, or played hoops with the girls in the blacktopped playground.

The girls of Virgins could not have imagined that in the heady days after Vatican II, nuns would cast off their skirts-to-the floor habits and walk boldly into the world, tackling urban blight, poverty, and injustice.

Years after I left Catholic high school, a friend gave a party for a book I’d written. I noticed a woman who seemed familiar standing in a group of people, chatting animatedly. She had curly black hair flecked with grey, wore a chic but not expensive black dress and was now and then taking a sip of sherry. But it was her laugh that gave her away. “Oh my God,” I gasped, “It’s Sister Maria.”

Indeed it was. Like many sisters, she had moved from the world of the Catholic school into the wider world of the community to confront society’s most intractable problems. Even in the old days, many nuns were examples to us of feminism—though we never knew the word existed. My elementary school principal, Sister Eugene, ran the school with efficiency and justice and while the parish priests were treated politely, there was no question about who was in charge.

I had Sister Eugene in mind when I created Sister Robert Mary, the high school principal in Virgins. My Catholic schoolgirl heroines, Peg and Con, editors of the school paper, invented a saint, St. Leon of Skorytt, who was martyred with a fatal blow to his head by an axe. They wrote about his life in the paper, and for a while, no one noticed that if you rearrange the letters in Skorytt, it reads “Trotsky.” They had canonized communist icon Leon Trotsky—who was indeed murdered, on the orders of rival Joseph Stalin—but was hardly anybody’s idea of a saint.

Unfortunately for the girls, the parish priest reads the paper and picks the story of St. Leon as the subject for his Sunday sermon. Male clerics are outraged, and demand the girls’ expulsion for this and other pranks. Sister Robert Mary tempers justice with mercy (she secretly admires her feisty charges), and they get off with a slap on the wrist.

After high school, the highly educated nuns of my Catholic College, Trinity in Washington, D.C. , taught me the importance of ideas and the life of the mind, necessary tools for a budding journalist. Piety was nice, we learned, but excellence and achievement were for women as well as men.

With the nuns, I encountered the best of the church. My brother Hugh was not so fortunate. He went to a Christian Brothers school where, over four years, he was sexually abused by one of the brothers. He was too ashamed to tell anyone, until he had a major breakdown in his first year of law school. A psychiatrist told my mother “I’ve never seen such ego damage as what was done to your son in that Catholic school.”

After years of battling depression, in and out of hospitals, my brother hanged himself at the age of 38. There is no question in my mind that a promising life was shattered by an unspeakable sin.

I can’t help wondering, is the attack on the nuns a diversionary action, designed to draw attention away from what we now know was a worldwide criminal conspiracy to hide multiple acts of pedophilia from legal authorities? Does the Vatican have the moral authority to criticize the sisters for healing the sick and feeding the hungry instead of focusing on the hierarchy’s favorite political themes—such as opposing gay marriage?

That authority, I believe has vanished and may never return if nothing changes. The only way to heal the church is to fully open the doors to women, giving them real power and letting their voices be heard. Otherwise, the Vatican will increasingly be a group of old men who want mainly to protect themselves, even if it has to be at a drastic cost to children.

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