Rebel Nuns: When the Faithful Stop Obeying

By Christian Piatt 06-05-2012
St. Peter's Cathedral, Rome, Italy. Photo by Grant Faint / Getty Images

St. Peter's Cathedral, Rome, Italy. Photo by Grant Faint / Getty Images

It seems the Sisters of North America are calling the Vatican out. When criticized by Vatican officials for taking a position too far left of center on a number of social issues, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious responded by calling the Vatican’s criticisms unsubstantiated and flawed.

But the rhetoric didn’t stay at the topical level. LCWR president Theresa Kane said (according to a Huffington Post report), "It is a matter of the men in the Vatican still thinking they can control the women. ... They don’t realize that we have moved to another whole point of tremendous equality and mutuality. And that we have much to say about our future and what’s going on.”

The Catholic Church, and the Pope in particular, embrace a number of socially redeeming virtues; equality and mutuality between the genders are not two of them.

There are a couple of fundamental issues at play here, from what I can see. First, and perhaps more obvious, is a struggle for the maintenance of power. It is the nature of systems – or more specifically, it’s the nature of the people who prop up those systems – to try to preserve what influence they have. It’s counter to our basic instincts to accede power to another, and some of this goes back to simple evolution.

We were inborn with a “never enough” instinct. Some call this Original Sin, but I prefer to think of it as a survival tool gone haywire. Consider a hunter-gatherer culture where resources are scarce and competition for survival is fierce. We’ve all heard of “survival of the fittest,” but sometimes it’s about more than survival. Those with more power tend to dominate those with less. They are prone to stockpiling resources and doling them out as a means to maintain their power. But as our societies have evolved, the inherent dominance of the male of the species has greatly diminished.

Today a woman can provide for her entire family from behind a corporate desk. She can wield more power with a pen than any man could with a sword. And yet, the archaic power structures born from the male-dominated world are still all around us, and they shudder every time their sovereignty is challenged.

Second, and perhaps more subtle, is the fact that institutions, by nature, are fairly static systems. In their earlier forms, movements are nimble, flexible things that can adapt to any number of changing environments and challenges. But as the systems of communication and power get established (or even more fundamental things like physical brick-and-mortar structures get erected), it becomes increasingly harder to enact change. It’s like the difference between maneuvering a kayak down a series of rapids, and then trying to do the same thing with a battleship.

Jump ahead to today and apply the same simile to the Catholic Church. Effectively, the Vatican is a battleship trying to find its place in a world in which it is surrounded by rapids, navigated more nimbly by kayaks.

Sister Kane put it succinctly. Their bosses in Vatican City are living in a reality centuries old, while the currents of social equality are historically progressive. And given my first point about the nature of institutions, it’s no surprise that the Vatican is reluctant to change.

Maybe the most surprising thing out of the whole exchange is the sisters’ willingness to speak plainly about their disagreements with, and resistance to, orders handed down from the Church. Truth is, the Church’s faithful have long maintained their own personal views that vary widely when held up next to what they’re told to believe by the authorities. The difference is that, in general, no one says it out loud.

I find some affinity with the Sisters, not just for their bravery in speaking out with strength and conviction for what they believe is right, but also for being necessary cultural and religious translators. They speak prophetically for many faithful who can’t, or at least don’t, speak their minds to the Powers that Be.

It may be causing friction at present, but I expect that their call to be heard and respected ultimately will be a prophecy of liberation, for many more perhaps than even the Sisters themselves.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date." For more information about Christian,, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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