I'm what they used to call a "fallen away" Catholic -- though I haven't fallen so far that I'm out of reach of the latest rotten apples dropped (or flung) from the twisted Tree of Rome. I weathered 16 years of Catholic education, some of it soul-deadening, some of it inspiring. Most of the inspiration came from the nuns who taught me -- the soul-killing part was provided by the self-proclaimed Great Educators, the Jesuits, long considered the "brains" of the far-flung Church body -- just under the big Papal hat and the crooked miter.
I had exemplary grades on graduating from Our Lady of Peace High School in St. Paul, long ago, but my well-off but tightfisted father balked at Sarah Lawrence's tuition bill -- yet wouldn't let me apply for scholarships -- so I ended up at Creighton University in Nebraska. This was the 60's -- but Creighton was preparing its students (as per tradition) for any crisis of the 12th century. Creighton had recently become "co-ed," but cheerful time-honored misogyny was everywhere. Is there really such a great distance between the Jesuit who taught me Logic (Aquinas' first proof of God is that God exists) who asked a classmate sitting near me to "please cross" her legs -- then announced to the class that, "The gates of hell are now closed" and a recent letter I received from the Creighton president -- as an alum?
This letter promoted the Vatican anti-woman agenda on contraception, cloaking its attack on the Obama administration as concern over "an unfortunate infringement on religious liberty" rather than its actual agenda -- a not-subtle attempt to suppress women's reproductive rights. (Creighton's own teaching hospitals and their new statewide partnerships prohibit a woman's right to choose -- they refuse to provide abortion procedures to any woman, under even life-threatening circumstances, thus forcing, like an unwelcome advance, Church doctrine on women's health care. From the New York Times: "Catholic hospitals that merge or form partnerships with secular hospitals often try to impose religious restrictions against abortions, contraception and sterilization on the whole system.")
The nuns who taught me were not plenipotentiary censors, like the Great Educators who halted publication of the Creighton literary magazine the year I was its editor, because a contributor's poem I published made a flippant reference to "breasts." The nuns who taught me were, for the most part, smart, tough, liberal-minded and (12th century news flash!) they had breasts! Yes, they were women, but they did not wear long flowing dresses or towering party hats like the bigshot bishops, cardinals or the Pope -- nor did they ask believers to kiss their rings. They wore no jewelry at all, just ropes of wooden rosary beads. They also did not ride in bullet-proof bubbles -- neither were they waited on by fawning minions (including double-crossing butlers!) -- and perhaps most revealing, not one of them raped a child, then covered it up!
No sister has launched an "investigation" into the integrity of the Great Educators, the bishops, the cardinals, the Pope -- as the all-male church hierarchy has recently done to convent activists and some nonprofit community organizations (this ongoing inquiry is designated, with an nod to the Mob, The Visitation). No, these aging committed women have remained loyal to the godfathers -- even as they themselves are subjected to hostile questioning, not for the kind of corruption that Rome has routinely painted over -- but for working with the poor, striving for social justice, and for not speaking out against abortion or gay rights, as their "investigators" have so consistently and shamelessly done. At a time when Planned Parenthood has found itself under fire (and firing back!), a nonprofit like tiny Companeros, in the diocese of the Pueblo in rural Colorado (devoted to aiding poor Hispanic immigrants with basic needs like access to health care) has been threatened with the cancellation of its Church funding. The "issue" was not only the focus on immigrant rights, but the coalition's connection with a gay and lesbian advocacy group.
A stinging reprimand from the Vatican was directed at all nuns, but in particular, the "Leadership Conference of Women Religious," which had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood and (according to Rome) had promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."
According to the New York Times, whose columnists have jumped all over the padded holy asses of the church hierarchy for going after the nuns (Nicholas Kristof: "So, Pope Benedict, all I can say is: You're crazy to mess with the nuns"... "If you look at who has most closely emulated Jesus' life, Pope Benedict or your average nun, it's the nuns hands down"), the Vatican also issued a reprimand of American nuns for worrying too much about the poor and challenging the bishops, "who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals." Yeah, right. And how are those child molestation cases coming along, guys?
The Times noted that nuns were brave and heroic -- among women the first feminists, PhD's, doctors, nurses, teachers, missionaries -- fearless in standing up to "warlords, pimps and bandits" in dangerous battle-worn areas of the world.
The good news is that Catholics across the country responded to the Vatican's attack by standing up for the good sisters; according to the National Catholic Reporter, several petition drives are underway and one at Change.org has gathered 15,000 or so "You go, girl!" signatures.
I'm going to take a little "You go, girl!" detour here, bear with me. What if these Vatican "Visitation" dudes heard that Joan of Arc had returned -- only this time around, she was not fighting for the Dauphin or the "holy kingdom of France"? In 1429 or so, the original Jeanne d'Arc was "investigated" by English "inquisitors," declared a heretic and burned at the stake -- followed later by an Inquisitional reversal wherein her heretical status was "nullified" and she was granted status as a martyr and saint of the Catholic Church. She was a legendary heroine, brilliant military strategist and astute rhetorician (despite the fact that she was an impoverished illiterate peasant) -- the transcripts of her trial give us her eloquent "voice". In terms of her persecutors, times haven't changed much -- the fact remains that Joan of Arc was torched because she fought for and won the coronation of a French king -- though the final charge on the books boiled down to cross-dressing! That's what they got her on. (Joan, La Poucelle, Virgin Maid, wore men's clothing an armor at all times -- to protect herself from rape and to pass in disguise through enemy lines.)
Would Joan of Arc have fought for this crowd in Rome? How would they have "contained" her -- just as they seek to "contain" the good nuns? Would she have died for the Vatican Boys Club? Or would she have raised the banner of the Sisters?
It just so happens that the young nun who long ago was my first grade teacher at Holy Spirit School in St. Paul, Minnesota was named Sister Jeanne d'Arc. This exuberant unforgettably luminous 19-year-old sister (the age of the actual Joan of Arc) held out her hand and conducted me into the kingdom of literacy. She inspired me to write my very first poem/story -- no censoring of my efforts! Later I dedicated a poem in one of my books to her. She was the most important teacher I ever had.
Amazingly, Sister Joan of Arc showed up at a poetry reading I gave at the University of Minnesota a month or so ago, brought there by childhood friends of mine, who had somehow found her. She is now in her eighties. She told me, after the reading (which I dedicated to her), that after twenty-some years in the convent, she left, married a former priest, adopted children, and continued as a "social activist."
Her "new" name is not for publication -- and, anyway, she will always be Joan of Arc to meWhen I told her that I wanted to write about her, and about her activist work, she gave me one simple quote. It's a quote which I believe "answers" the Investigators, the Inquisitors, the anti-woman conspiracy, the Vatican pillars of sleaze.
"Jesus" said Sister Jeanne d'Arc, "was a radical."
Got that? Jesus: a radical. Jesus, who along with the original Joan of Arc, would likely have suggested moving the seat of power, the keys to the kingdom, away from the current Imperial Vault to a hardworking convent or community (gay? lesbian? straight? feminist? ethnic? Immigrant?) center or a soup kitchen, to a center of Catholic relief services -- thus setting The Faith back on the course that he intended. That would be a faith inspired by compassion and justice -- as radical and kick-ass as that little French girl on horseback, charging forward, unfurling her radiant banner -- or J.C. himself, knocking over the money-changers' tables, fearlessly shouting down power and corruption, cleaning out the holy temple, in what can only be described as a truly radical style -- yes, a true and proper "Visitation"!