The Common Good

Having the Sisters’ Back

After an official investigation, the Vatican seems pretty upset with the Catholic sisters here in the United States. They have reprimanded the women for not sufficiently upholding the bishops' teachings and doctrines and paying much more attention to issues like poverty and health care than to abortion, homosexuality, and male-only priesthood.

NICHOLAS KAMM/ AFP / Getty Images
Nuns attend Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. NICHOLAS KAMM/ AFP / Getty Images

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There are concerns with, “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes,” and the sisters have also been taken to task for “occasional public statements” that disagree with the bishops, “who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest representative group of all the Catholic sisters' orders, has now been put under the control of some bishops who are to “reform” them, change the group’s statutes and programs, and approve who will speak at their events.

The Vatican’s approach to its concerns is, to say the least, quite regrettable. Condemnation and control were chosen over conversation and dialogue. Quite honestly, do most of us believe, or do even most Catholics believe, that the bishops are the only “authentic teachers of faith and morals?”

The sisters may be the most positive face of the Catholic Church today, and they are keeping people in the Church who would have given up on the all-male hierarchy long ago. These women are often the ones at the core of Jesus' ministry, building relationships with the poor and vulnerable, and most concretely offering the love of God. If you had a referendum on who the best faith and moral teachers are in many local communities and parishes around the country, it would likely be the women who are now under attack. That is the sad situation here and the serious mistake being made by the Vatican.

Over the years, I‘ve seen how Catholic women formed the heart of Christian ministry around the country in schools, hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, women’s clinics, and children’s programs—often in the worst urban neighborhoods and rural poverty areas. They were among the most faithful in peace marches and non-violent protest of our nation’s endless wars. They were the ones who went to the ends of the earth to be with the most forgotten people on God’s planet.

Sojourners is grateful that these Catholic women have, from the beginning, been at the core of our subscribers and supporters. I’ve gotten to know them and their work as they hosted me and others in their monastic communities and for spiritual retreats.

The Church is very concerned about these sisters losing focus on abortion. But most I know still feel abortion is a terrible moral tragedy and do whatever they can to reduce them. Their approach however is to support low-income women, which actually reduces abortion, instead of mostly legislative strategies that could just push abortions into back alleys. And perhaps the sisters would also rather minister to gay and lesbian people with the love of Christ instead of just telling them they are wrong and unacceptable.

When the Vatican said that issues like poverty are more important to the sisters than issues like sexuality, they are probably right. But from a biblical point of view, the sisters may be right and the Vatican wrong. The Bible is much clearer on the Christian imperative to serve the poor and stand for justice than it is on same-sex marriage or exactly when full human life begins. I, for one, miss the leadership of Catholic bishops like the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who taught a “consistent ethic of life” and a “seamless garment” that defends life and dignity wherever it is threatened: from abortion on demand to poverty, the death penalty, and nuclear weapons.

Of course, there are important issues to discuss in regard to theology, Catholic teachings, what constitutes the most important issues of “orthodoxy,” and how to most wisely and lovingly deal with crucial moral issues like abortion and human sexuality. But couldn’t that be done through serious and respectful conversation with women who have earned the respect to be treated differently than they are here?

When I heard about the Vatican’s disciplinary action against America’s Catholic “women religious,” a personal memory came to mind.

I would be traveling to speak at very conservative Christian colleges, often in the Midwest and South, at the height of the popularity of the Religious Right. As I came into the auditorium or chapel, I would see a whole row of Catholic women religious, often still wearing their traditional dress as nuns. And they would all give me big smiles. Curious as to what they were doing at an evangelical college with a constituency so unlike their own, I would walk up to say hello and ask what they were doing there. “We’re from around here and came to support you tonight,” they would say, “because we know what kind of place this is and thought you might need some people on your side.”

The nuns were my bodyguards. I’ve always been willing to go into lions' dens to speak; but having the nuns with me there, offering very clear local and public support for my message, meant a great deal to me. It always made me feel much more ready and confident knowing the sisters had my back and that, if anybody came after me, they would have the nuns to deal with!

So, given how the sisters have always had my back, I am coming to their defense. I am not Catholic, but many of my best friends and allies are; and some of them are bishops. I am an evangelical convert to Catholic social teaching, but this decision by the Vatican isn’t consistent with the best of that teaching and certainly not with the spirit behind it.

For what it’s worth, I’ll support the sisters on this one. I’ve got their back now. And others will too.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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