Who Doesn't Love Radical Feminist Nuns? (The Vatican, it Turns Out)

The Vatican is pissed at some nuns for focusing too hard on helping to combat poverty. PRIORITIES!
Publish date:
May 4, 2012
religion, social justice, gender politics, the vatican, unexpected feminism

What a loss for nundom, that I chose not to join their radical feminist party.

I’ve not known many nuns in my life, in spite of having attended a Catholic high school. The one that sticks out in my memory most is Sister Louise, who taught me history my freshman year.

Sister Louise was... a weird lady. Prone to a frightening moodiness that could leave her students reeling from emotional whiplash, Sister Louise could be Sound-of-Music wonderful one minute and terrifyingly harsh the next. You never quite knew what to expect with her.

I remember her once taking a moment in the middle of class to demonstrate her process of nunification -- this varies based on the sisterhood in question -- and going face-down on the classroom carpet, explaining in a voice muffled by the floor that this was how you “died” to your former life, and became married to Jesus. Like, platonically married. She had a ring and everything.

Sister Louise was one of our chaperones on my spring break trip to Europe the following year, and she was a lot meaner on that trip than I had remembered her being in class. She yelled a lot more, as I recall. Of course, in retrospect, trying to corral a few dozen hyperprivileged teens across Europe probably would have put me in a lousy mood as well.

All of this is to say that while I am aware that nuns can be -- and often are -- radical, I haven’t known many radical nuns. So I was perversely tickled to learn that the Vatican has formally reprimanded the largest nun group in the United States, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for espousing “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”


It seems the Pope-nun beefing really came to a boil in 2010, when many members of this particular nun posse signed a statement supporting Obama’s efforts at healthcare reform, reforms to which most Catholic bishops were adamantly opposed. It seems many of the affected nuns now believe this decision is what had led to their Vatican smackdown.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

Unfortunately, some of their questions are about why only men can be priests, and why priests must be celibate. Further, it seems simply keeping quiet about sensitive social issues is insufficiently Catholic for the current pope. STOP HELPING THE POOR SO MUCH, LADIES. Sheesh.

This boys vs girls Catholicism cage match is not going to be resolved anytime soon. The pope has now appointed a special American bishop to go whip those loopy habit-wearing fillies into shape, boy howdy! Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle will be leading the charge to forcibly “reform” the nuns and their organization over the next five years, which probably sounds scarier than it actually is.

In recent history, of all Catholic church-affiliated individuals, it’s often nuns who have worked closest with the poor, with the oppressed and with the disenfranchised, and when you’re trying to get a single mom and her kids to get their first medical checkup in several years, or to ensure that they’ll have enough to eat for the rest of the week, ragging on her for failing to be married or for having an abortion probably seems like a poor use of time and energy.

While the Vatican has never really been much of a champion of women’s leadership, this particular pope has been especially outspoken about ladies needing to know their places, so it’s probably not surprising that his Vatican has been conducting an unrelated widespread inquiry into all Catholic women’s organizations in the US, which just wrapped up at the end of last year. The better to root out that feminist radicalism, you know.

I’m not one to tar all Catholics with one brush -- the fact is I’ve known many Catholics who were extraordinarily progressive, loving, forward-thinking people. And as I mentioned above, nuns make some amazing social justice activists, given the space and permission to do so. But there is something deeply wrong with an institution allegedly based on a vast love for all humanity reprimanding women for focusing their work “too much” on poverty and economic injustice.

I don’t claim to know much about Jesus, but from what I remember from Catholic school, I suspect he’d be more likely to hang out with the radical feminist nuns than the funny-hat-wearers in Rome. I’m just saying.

(And Sister Louise, if you’re still kicking and you read this, please don’t find me and yell at me. You are TERRIFYING.)