Nuns under fire take to the road
Could there be — don’t gasp — something positive, even providential, about the Vatican’s attack on American nuns?
I’m beginning to think so.
My change of heart is not meant to contradict earlier criticisms. In April, the Vatican’s orthodoxy wing, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, slapped down the majority of American nuns for being “radical feminists.”
It lambasted them for being too interested in poverty and injustice and insufficiently fixated on abortion and contraception the way the male hierarchy is.
The Vatican authorized a takeover by bishops of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
It was a legalistic, misogynistic maneuver and an affront to women who have dedicated their lives to the church. And disrespectful to the conference, which is a canonical organization created 50 years ago by the very Vatican II reforms that the Curia now seeks to repeal.
But let’s look at the bright side.
And indeed, there is one.
Like spontaneous combustion, all over the country and here in Chicago, parishes and organizations have jumped to their feet whenever the sisters are mentioned. Long, standing ovations have erupted in a grassroots response supporting the work these women have done, without fanfare, in schools, homeless shelters and hospitals.
Nuns, who historically have stayed in the background, have been thrust into the spotlight by the very bishops who seek to rein them in.
But rather than sit and lament, they’ve taken to the road.
Nuns On the Bus is a two-week, 2700-mile journey to major American cities sponsored by Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby the Vatican also has criticized.
On this road trip, sisters are visiting shelters and food pantries to try to show how the poor are disproportionately hit by federal budget cuts.
And to counter claims made by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican and Catholic from Wisconsin, that his budget-slashing proposals somehow conform to Catholic teaching.
They do not, say the nuns.
On this point, the sisters and the bishops actually agree.
Where they don’t agree, however, is on Obamacare’s universal insurance provisions for contraception. And so the bishops are on their own two-week road trip called a Fortnight of Freedom to argue that their religious liberty is under attack by the Obama administration.
The difference in tone between the nuns and bishops is striking. While the sisters are raising issues of people living on the margins, the bishops are protesting what they view as an assault on their authority.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is, without question, under siege. But as Friday’s landmark guilty verdict in Philadelphia — against Msgr. William J. Lynn, convicted of child endangerment for covering up child sex-abuse claims — makes clear, the leadership sees the faults and failures of its flock far faster than its own.
It helps to remember that Joan of Arc was declared a heretic and burned at the stake before the church declared her a saint. And in October, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Sister Hildegard of Bingen, whom a bishop once ex-communicated.
If the sisters who now find themselves in the crosshairs of the Vatican are radical disciples, they’re in good company.