Don't mess with our nuns. This is the message being delivered to the United States bishops and the Vatican by many Catholics across the country today. We will put up with a lot from Rome, but when you start disciplining nuns for carrying out the Gospel message, that's where the American Catholic laity draws the line.
A few months ago the Vatican issued a reprimand of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the organization that represents 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States. The charge? The nuns were focusing too much on issues of poverty and social justice (which happen to be the issues Jesus advocated for the most in the Gospel), and not enough on the Church's high-priority issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception. The report issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which was charged with investigating the LCWR, also listed "radical feminism" as a defect in the organization. All the accusations boil down to one essential problem: U.S. nuns are not toeing the line. The Church's solution is to place a team of male bishops in charge of the LCWR to reform it. The Church sees the LCWR as a group of recalcitrant troublemakers that must learn obedience. But on Aug. 7, I heard a different story of American nuns.
The Paulist Center, a Catholic parish located in downtown Boston, held a prayer vigil to support the LCWR on Tuesday. We used a format provided for us by the LCWR itself on the eve of their national conference, when they will determine their response to the Vatican sanctions. Many came out to support the nuns, old and young, male and female. We listened to readings about moral courage, sang songs about creating a just, compassionate heaven on earth, and invoked the prayers of strong women throughout Church history, from Eve and Esther through to Dorothy Day.
Our group shared the stories of the good work nuns had done in our lives. As the microphone was passed around, people clamored to tell their tales of nuns who had been teacher, nurse, spiritual advisor and friend. One nun was a mentor and advisor to me and helped me to get into college. Another nun recommended me for my first job out of school. Other nuns I have known have simply listened to me when I was in despair. And nuns do so much more than this -- they work in prisons, in AIDS clinics and with gang members. If this isn't God's work, I don't know what is. Think of the populations that are the most marginalized and considered the most undesirable. The nuns are there, serving them.
At the end of the vigil we had paper and pens in the back of the church so that people could write letters to the women of the LCWR. I wrote a letter. It said this: "Dear Sisters, Thank you for all the good work that you do. You have inspired me, and I have stayed Catholic because of you. I support you." I believe I am not alone in these sentiments.
As the LCWR deliberates this week on how to respond to the Vatican, they should know that many, many Catholics are with them in spirit. Who knows? This whole ordeal could result in some much-needed change within the Church. Before the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said that it was time to open a window and let in some fresh air. It's been getting a little stuffy lately, and it just might be time to crack another one.