American Catholic bishops have recently complained that mandatory contraception coverage and marriage equality violate the religious liberty of Catholics. Yet in a document from the Vatican last week, the bishops seek to curtail the religious liberty of some of the Church's most dedicated members, American women religious, more commonly known as nuns.
The document from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith takes aim at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group representing about 80 percent of American sisters. The Vatican faults the LCWR for not challenging speakers who explore spiritualities outside Roman Catholicism, blames the LCWR for letters sent to the Vatican from leadership teams of various congregations in support of gay rights and women's ordination, and accuses the LCWR of a "certain radical feminism."
In short, the Vatican accuses certain American nuns of speaking their minds and standing their ground. As a former nun myself -- for20 years I was a Missionary of Charity in the group founded by Mother Teresa, and I spent fifteen of those years in Rome -- I know that when men in the Vatican speak, they don't appreciate being talked back to, especially not by strong, educated women. I also know that when an organization tells its members that they aren't allowed to explore intellectual passions or pursue moral concerns, those members and the entire organization will suffer. I left the Missionaries of Charity in part because I couldn't believe that God preferred blind obedience to intelligent, creative ministry and growth.
To help American nuns correct their "errors," and presumably to make sure they don't raise their voices too loudly in public, the Vatican has appointed a Seattle archbishop to oversee the LCWR for as long as the next five years. Archbishop Peter Sartain won't have it easy. While American sisters don't relish a fight with the Vatican, neither will they go quietly into those old dark habits and darker corners.
Some history: For nearly three centuries, American sisters have labored to build and staff schools, hospitals and universities. And they did most of this while following rules of life laid out centuries earlier, rules that emphasized obedience and sometimes infantilized the nuns.
Sixty years ago, the Second Vatican Council ordered all groups of nuns to update their practices. American sisters expanded their ministries to prisoners and immigrants, offered spiritual guidance to religious seekers, and advocated for social justice. In the best spirit of religious liberty, sisters opted for responsible self-governance. Today American nuns often make decisions by consensus, a laborious process that involves deep self-examination and honest communication. As the sisters have become more democratic, the Vatican continues to operate as a monarchy and dictatorship. I like to imagine that American sisters may herald a Catholic spring. This document certainly feels like the Vatican aiming and firing into a square packed with American nuns.
Sisters work on the margins of society, with people whose complicated situations sometimes place them in the cross-hairs of the bishops' hot-button issues of abortion, euthanasia, health care and gay rights. In such situations, the Vatican demands sharp ideological purity; sisters often find that real-world solutions involve a great deal of risky, messy grey.
American bishops were particularly miffed when some sisters, especially those working with the advocacy group NETWORK, supported the Affordable Care Act the bishops opposed. The bishops claimed the PPACA used government funds for abortion, a "fact" that NETWORK and later the Ohio Supreme Court called "false." Sisters felt morally obligated to speak up on behalf of 30 million uninsured Americans -- even if it meant colliding with the bishops' political agenda.
American Catholics as a whole are not shy about voicing opposition to bishops when necessary. Archbishop Sartain has seen recent evidence of this in his own diocese: At least six Seattle parishes have refused to participate in the archbishop's drive to collect signatures to repeal marriage equality in Washington state. When one pastor announced opposition to the drive during Mass, the parishioners responded with a standing ovation. Religious liberty is a glorious American tradition, and poll after poll shows that on issues of gay rights and women's ordination, the average Catholic in the pew leans more toward the "errors" the bishops condemn than towards official church teaching.
All institutional power in the official Church is held by ordained men. These men seem to believe that protecting the institution requires that they demand absolute unity of doctrine and unquestioning obedience to their own decisions. The sisters' power comes from their dedication to truth, to justice and to all people, especially the most neglected.
American sisters tell me they're not sure how they will respond to an archbishop breathing over their shoulders, approving or disapproving their decisions. Will the LCWR remove itself from Church control by severing official ties with the Church? Will sisters choose civil disobedience and refuse to cooperate? I don't know, but I'm sure about this: American nuns will continue to examine issues deeply, pray about their response, then act on their convictions. These are women of conscience, women accustomed to taking risks to do what is right. The men of the church would be wise to value these women's contributions, instead of attempting to control and intimidate them. American nuns will not be bullied.
Mary Johnson, author of 'An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life,' for 20 years, as Sister Donata, she was a Missionary of Charity, a nun in Mother Teresa's order, until she left in 1997. A respected teacher and public speaker, she has been named a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony and is on the board of the A Room of Her Own Foundation. She lives in New Hampshire.