When stuck between a vow of obedience and a hard place known as the Vatican, sisterhood may be our only prayer. Since April 18, 2012, the U.S. nuns have been cast into the headlines as the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released a harsh assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella organization, representing 80% of U.S. sisters. Accused of “radical feminist themes,” “corporate dissent,” and among other things, not taking an official stance on some hot Catholic issues, nuns have become frontrunners of a revolution.
The groundswell of support and solidarity pouring forth from faithful Catholics and the media has been unprecedented by all standards; when the secular feminist website Jezebel is calling for Sr. Simone Campbell , executive director for the Catholic lobby group, NETWORK, for president, the issue has clearly gone beyond the choir. The movement has taken on the adage “we are all nuns,” expressing a shared sense of oppression by the Catholic Church. If the second largest religious domination in the U.S. (10%) is “former Catholic,” then this shared sense of betrayal by the Vatican may not be new, but it has found new energy in the conflict between Rome and the American nuns.
Women religious have long represented the marginalized underdogs, defending Catholicism’s social justice teachings through education, medicine, and advocacy. But with the muscle power of social media and widespread public disgust with the leadership of the Catholic hierarchy, “the nun issue” vocalized the deep spiritual needs of the people of the Catholic Church. This issue reflected and refracted back what was good (or once good) about the Catholic Church, bringing the whole spectrum of Catholic spiritual activism and social justice to the streets.
However, in a recent Irish Times article, “U.S. Sisters are doing it for themselves,” Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, spokesperson for the U.S. Bishops accused “groups with other interests” of “hijacking” the nun issue: “You have the Women’s Ordination Conference out there making this great defense: the Women’s Ordination Conference really has nothing to do with the Leadership of Women Religious.”
Sister, please. First, LCWR and the Women’s Ordination Conference have a long history of a shared membership and a shared mission: furthering the collaborative and inclusive ministry of all people. Before the first national conference on women’s ordination in 1975, LCWR leadership and members publicly endorsed the historic event. Since then, LCWR presidents and former presidents have courageously called on bishops to open dialogue on women’s ordination to the priesthood, including Sr. Theresa Kane, who in 1979 publicly confronted the Holy Father in Washington, D.C., on the exclusion of women from the priesthood — a stance she continues to advocate. In fact, as the CDF included in its recent assessment, LCWR publicly expressed its refusal to assent to the teaching of Inter insigniores on the reservation of priestly ordination to men, which according the CDF, “Has never been corrected.”
But more than our shared history, membership, and love of the social justice foundations of Catholicism, neither the U.S. Sisters nor the Women’s Ordination Conference have ever “done it for ourselves” as the Irish Times suggests. Sr. Simone Campbell reminds us that “It’s not about us, it’s about our mission.” Likewise, the Women’s Ordination Conference and a dozen other church reform groups collectively put our organizational marketing aside to mobilize in a united voice, on a united issue: Nun Justice. As organizers, we recognized the necessity of collaboration, the strength of community, and the impossibility of “doing it for ourselves.” If anything, the Vatican seems to be “doing it” for no one but itself, and certainly not the people of the Church.
The Nun Justice Project launched a Change.org petition signed by more than 60,000 people, organized vigils in more than 100 U.S. cities, and redirected more than $100,000 from the Vatican to communities of women religious. Despite the fact that the majority of U.S. Catholics support the ordination of women, the Vatican considers the issue one of the “gravest crimes.” Thus, with our Sisters’ interests at heart, the Women’s Ordination Conference spearheaded the collaborative Nun Justice Project to continue our mission to advocate for women in the Church — in all of their ministries.
The only hijacking that has truly taken place here is that of Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, who joined one of the first vigils in support of LCWR in Washington, D.C., as a representative for the Bishops. Mary Ann Walsh is a Sister of Mercy, an order under the umbrella of LCWR, and knows exactly how much the Women’s Ordination Conference and LCWR have “to do” with each other. Caught between a vow of obedience and a hard place known as the Vatican, our sister is stuck in a habit of hierarchy. But if it’s job security she’s concerned about: sister, there is so much work to be done. As a community, we need sisters like Mary Ann Walsh and their strong voices to truly speak for the integrity and dignity of women in the Catholic Church.