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The Left's Love for the Feisty Nun


The author, former president of Catholics for Choice, questions the wisdom of progressives who glorify brave” nuns under Vatican attack.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council opened the door to the modernization of religious life for Catholic nuns, there’ve been periodic uprisings by some sisters and “you go, girls” reactions from the broader progressive society. The Hollywood image of the transgressive nun struggling openly with sexual longing ( “The Nun’s Story,” “Black Narcissus”) or more subtly in family movies like “Bells of St Mary’s” where Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman present a totally desexualized priest- nun version of the married couple were titillating. Those images gave way to a post Vatican II feisty nun image: nuns who shed the habit for modest street clothes and convent “cells” for shared apartments in poor neighborhoods with other nuns.

The post Vatican II nuns were political transgressives: martyred in El Salvador, caring for people with AIDS, lobbying for the poor in Washington, supporting Gerry Ferraro for Veep, fasting for the passage of the ERA. A scant few stepped out further in favor of gay rights, contraception and even public funding for abortion.

While progressives and feminists wondered why women would stay in a church that treated them so badly, most were glad a few of them were around. Nuns were so “brave” for doing what other women did as a matter of course. But progressives and Democrats needed their own religious voices to counter the religious right.

The peak of interest in the feisty nun came with health care reform and the role played by Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic hospital association. Keehan, committed to health care for the poor, worked hard to get health reform. She also fought hard to ensure that abortion was not part of the package. Her opposition to including abortion was overlooked by progressives when CHA broke with the extreme anti-abortion position of the bishops and announced that as far as they were concerned the bill had adequately excluded funding for abortion and should be passed.

Sister Carol was lauded by progressive Democrats as the savior of health care reform. Catholic pundits like E.J. Dionne and Maureen Dowd were relieved to have an official and powerful Catholic who was not Attila the Nun to Pope Benedict, “God’s Rottweiler.”

This year’s transgressive nuns are those in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious whom the Vatican has investigated and found wanting. It has, in essence, declared the LCWR theologically bankrupt and put it into doctrinal receivership. The Vatican has appointed Bishop Peter Sartain and two others, “to review, guide and approve, where necessary, the work of the LCWR. ”

For Catholic women and nuns who truly have worked to change the church and support women as moral agents, the charges against LCWR and indeed LCWR’s supposed radical feminism are laughable. LCWR members are the nuns who run the Catholic hospitals that say they cannot provide employees with insurance coverage for no cost contraception. They were careful to note that they supported the Affordable Care Act because it was clear to them that it did not cover abortion. They do not defend sisters who get in trouble with the Vatican, instead they try to convince the sisters to do what the Vatican wants. Their radicalism consists of an occasional speaker at annual meetings who speaks New Age Eco-feminism and spirituality as opposed to Catholic faith. It has tangential relationships with some of the more moderate groups of Catholic nuns such as the sister’s Washington based lobby Network and a ministry to GLBT Catholics called New Ways Ministry. Neither of these organizations takes positions on sexual and reproductive health issues—not on the morality of same sex relations, not on contraception or abortion and not even on women’s ordination. LCWR keeps its distance from the Catholic GLBT rights group Dignity, the Women’s Ordination Conference, the truly radical National Coalition of American Nuns and of course Catholics for Choice.

LCWR is not a social justice organization. It is the professional membership organization of “Roman Catholic women religious who are the principal administrators of their religious institutes (orders) in the United States.” It’s a good group; it cares about poverty, the environment, peace, non violence, but it has no expressed interest in fostering democracy in the church or promoting the moral agency of women, or at least had none until it was attacked.

The suspense in the media and the expectation that LCWR might buck the Vatican was thus misguided or wishful thinking. LCWR members, the management leaders of women’s religious communities, are among the most moderate of nuns.

There was not a snowball in hell’s chance they would buck the Vatican. What they would do and did do when a decision had to be made about participating in the Vatican receivership, is what Catholics threatened by the Vatican most often do—begin compliance, without frankly admitting that was what they were doing.

The bishops understood that they had won. When on August 10 LCWR announced it would meet with the Bishop Sartain, the man in charge, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the bishops’ spokesperson, triumphantly tweeted “Step One accomplished.” She explained “LCWR agrees to dialog with [the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] reps.”

This past weekend they meet with Bishop Sartain. The bishop, as is often the case, said nothing afterward. Power can be silent. LCWR issued a statement. The nuns promised to provide Sartain with “resources they believe will be helpful, and its officers plan to meet with him again later in the fall.”

As feminists in particular follow the progress of these talks, it would be important not to let our desire that progressive religion stand with us get in the way of honest reporting about religious leaders. We’ve fought for some time for the media to treat male hierarchs critically as we treat political leaders. Women religious leaders do not get a break just because they are women.

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