When thinking of Catholic Sisters, the term "corporate stances" doesn't immediately come to mind. Prayer, spirituality, and ministry all exemplify the Dominican Sisters' charism, but so, too, does justice. As a unified group, the Dominican Sisters care deeply about justice and their relationship to the poor and marginalized in our world.
"If we really answer the call of the Gospel, it's to stand with the poor and the marginalized," Sister Mary Feigen, Justice Representative for the Dominican Sisters of Hope explains. "I believe that we are called to take a stance for what we see as injustice in our world."
Dominican Sister of Hope Mary Feigen
The sisters have spent decades working within a variety of justice issues, but their mission doesn't end there. Every two years, a group of sisters known as the International Dominican Justice Promoters releases calls to action and encourage each congregation around the world to focus on the most current pressing justice issues. Calls range from food justice to fair immigration rights to the abolition of the death penalty.
Sister Didi Madden, the Justice Promoter for the Dominican Sisters in Committed Collaboration (the Dominican Sisters of Hope, Blauvelt, Caldwell, Sparkill, and Amityville), encourages each congregation to take action on a local level.
After becoming aware of certain injustices in society, sisters then pray about the issue and look to Catholic faith tradition (i.e. encyclicals and teachings of the Church) to inform themselves about the issue. They research it formally and analyze the issue in society today.
Oftentimes, the result is the group taking a corporate stance. Stances are arrived at via a vote, and the process is long.
"Every congregation engages in this process over a period before it comes to a vote," Sister Didi explains. "We see what needs to be said, where society is lacking, where faith fills in from there we determine actions. We do a lot of studying and praying and looking at different elements: the reality, the faith tradition, the analysis, the action."
The stance is written by the Justice Committee before it goes to vote.
In 2011, the Dominican Sisters in Committed Collaboration took their first corporate stance, which called for immigration reform.
Together, the congregations found that our present immigration law is badly broken and in need of reform. The current immigration law ignores the human situation of separated families and the oppressive living conditions that force people to migrate.
Therefore, the sisters call for "a compassionate and comprehensive" immigration law that:
- Provides the processes for undocumented persons to achieve permanent residency and citizenship without leaving the United States,
- Creates legal avenues for migration,
- Assures family unity for immigrant families,
- Provides guaranteed human rights and labor protections for undocumented workers - and all workers,
- Addresses the root-causes of migration by protecting the human rights of workers internationally.
The stance is not just a heady ideal. Members of these congregations have a long history of working and advocating with immigrants. As a result, they commit themselves to publishing the corporate stance in the media, educating themselves by staying informed of developments in immigration legislation, continuing to advocate and educate for immigration reform, and contacting local and federal legislators to support the issue of a just reform of immigration laws.
Sister Pat Jelly was the Justice Representative for the Dominican Sisters of Hope when the corporate stance passed in 2011. She also has a history of working with First Friends NJ and NY, a group that provides advocacy for detained immigrations and asylum seekers.
When asked about immigration, Sister Pat immediately recounts a story of a young man she met whose father was killed in South America. The killers were now after him and his family; he had come to the United States to seek refuge. When Sister Pat met the man and heard his story, she saw first-hand how broken the immigration system is.
Dominican Sister of Hope Pat Jelly
"When you hear stories like that and you see children risking everything, you realize we've got to do something," Sister Pat says.
"I am very much in favor of reforming the immigration laws so that there would be a systematic way for people to enter the United States," Sister Pat elaborates. "Now, that does not mean that we should try to accept as many as possible! We have to be careful. But, when people are being killed every day and want to enter the United States for safety, we have a responsibility to open up our borders to the extent possible."
Sister Mary agrees that the corporate stance on immigration isn't about opening the border indiscriminately.
"The stance is largely for people who are already here," Sister Mary clarifies. "There should be avenues set up where they can achieve permanent residency."
Since 2011, the Dominican Sisters in Committed Collaboration have taken six more corporate stances. They now hold seven in total: against nuclear weapons, human trafficking, the death penalty, the Iraq War, genetically engineered crops, climate change, and for immigration reform.
As with the immigration stance, each stance includes not only the group's analysis, but also systemic steps that they feel will lead to the realization of justice.
"We work toward getting legislation passed," Sister Didi says. "We offer educational opportunities, we engage in activism like letters and phone calls to people in congress, we seek overarching systemic change."
In addition to providing clear action steps, the stances give 1200 sisters common ground from which they can approach the issues and their corresponding ministries.
"Corporate stances amplify our unified voice," Sister Didi explains.
The concept of corporate stances might not seem inherently religious, and, for Catholic Sisters, it's tempting to think of the notion as new. In truth, the concept of preaching Truth is as old as the Dominican Order itself (800 years, to be exact). The sisters see corporate stances as harkening back to Saint Dominic.
"I believe that, as Dominicans, one of our calls is to be seekers of the truth," Sister Mary says. "A corporate stance is a strong way that we pronounce our truth. With it, we hope to lead others to reflect upon this same truth that we have found."
As Saint Dominic taught, truth is often arrived upon through conversation. Just as Saint Dominic was known to study hard, inform himself, and then debate with Cathars publicly and compassionately, the Dominican Sisters hope to spark intelligent conversations about justice issues that are crucial to our world.
"Our hope is that our civic discourse is meaningful, and that we really take the time to look at many different facets and keep an open mind that is continually informed and analytical," Sister Didi explains.
No doubt, "an open mind that is continually informed and analytical" stands in direct contradiction to the way social discourse happens in our country today. Whereas name-calling, dismissing, and slander are often part of public debate, the sisters want to encourage people --vowed religious and the general public alike-- to engage in thoughtful conversation rather than "knee-jerk" reactions.
"We're not telling people what they should be doing," Sister Didi emphasizes. "We're trying to engage people in conversation so that the best decision for this time can be made."
The Dominican Sisters of Hope are 160 Catholic Sisters committed to preaching hope and working for justice in our world. Learn more at ophope.org.