Standing with Nuns, Standing for Compassion

By Gregory Damhorst 5-23-2012
Sisters, javarman /
Sisters, javarman /

The reprimand that came out of the Vatican last month has familiar echoes.

The statement addressing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents 80 percent of nuns in the United States, accuses the organization of “serious doctrinal problems” regarding the focus of religious practice, among them, a concern that the Catholic Sisters are too focused on social justice and not enough on voicing the Church’s views on homosexuality or abortion.

For me, the reprimand carries reverberations of similar friction from my undergrad that followed a weeklong retreat on Chicago’s West Side, where we talked about disparity and social change while serving in the Austin community. Along with a few of my peers, I realized that we couldn’t sit still any longer. Our campus home in Champaign-Urbana wasn’t the inner-city, but as students we couldn’t help but notice the men sleeping on the streets, the same ones who were panhandling cash from college students passing by. And we knew it was just the tip of a greater need lying beyond campus boundaries.

We set out to mobilize our Christian fellowship—but we ran into a brick wall. Although we were leaders in our local chapter, we were also followers of a larger order, a national organization with supervisors and curricula, training programs and best practices. And the echelons said: “No.”

Our focus, we were told, was supposed to be on a different kind of ministry.

So in some way I relate to these Catholic Sisters, who are recognized worldwide for their concern for the poor, broken-down, and oppressed. Who work to meet their communities at the level of need, but whose governors appear not to be satisfied. The focus, they are told, is supposed to be on a different ministry.

Nicholas Kristof comments that, upon evaluation of who more closely emulates Jesus’ life, your average nun surpasses the Pope hands-down. Perhaps this struggle is just part of the job description. Jesus himself clashed with the religious institution for behavior like healing on the Sabbath, or being found in the company of society’s outcasts. Perhaps compassion is inevitably fated to clash with authority.

This incident has inspired thousands to react in solidarity with American nuns. Long before the Vatican statement was released, however, I’ve had a sense that compassion is something powerful enough to trigger the masses to action. Compassion is extraordinary, moving people of diverse faith traditions and non-religious people alike - it’s something we all understand. For example, consider the way my campus community responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti: more than 5,000 volunteers packing over one million meals in a single weekend. Or consider the student-led interfaith action initiatives taking place all over the country, addressing issues like homelessness and refugee resettlement.

So when efforts to care for our fellow human beings face resistance, or are de-prioritized or overlooked, even by the systems that regulate the doctrine that inspires those actions, we must stand together to say that compassion is what matters most.

As a Christian, I’m convinced that Jesus met the world with compassion for this very reason. When we choose compassion, the details will follow—and somehow I think the average nun would agree.


Greg Damhorst is an MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he pursues a doctorate in Bioengineering developing a portable, low-cost, point-of-care device for HIV/AIDS diagnosis in resource-limited settings. Greg has been a leader with Interfaith in Action, the University of Illinois’ premier student interfaith organization, since early 2007.  Greg also co-directs Faith Line Protestants, a blog dedicated to encouraging Evangelical Christians toward relationships with people of other worldviews and faith traditions through social action.

Sisters, javarman /

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