ST. LOUIS, MO.—In the packed ballroom of the Millennium Hotel, a serene-looking 65-year-old woman strides toward the podium. Alongside her, like disciples in an archaic temple, other women waft strips of flame-coloured gauze through the humid air, while a heavenly chorus floats above the crowd.
It’s no New Age drama revival, but a crisis meeting of more than 900 Catholic sisters of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who represent some 80 per cent of America’s 57,000 nuns, a group attacked by the Vatican for harbouring “radical feminist ideas:” putting too much energy into social justice and too little into fighting abortion, contraception, gay rights and other traditional Catholic anathemas.
They have also dared to discuss women’s ordination, priestly marriage and hot-button political issues such as U.S. President Barack Obama’s health-care plan, to which the church is fiercely opposed.
When Pat Farrell, the group’s outgoing president, reaches the microphone, her message is loud and clear. Church criticism should not be met by “violence,” she tells the rapt female audience. But neither should it be accepted “with the passivity of the victim. It entails resisting rather than colluding with abusive power.”
Heads nod and smiles flash across tight-lipped faces in the crowd. “I believe the philosophical underpinnings of the way we’ve organized reality no longer hold,” Farrell continues, gaining momentum. “The human family is not served by individualism, patriarchy or competition . . . Breaking through in their place are equality, communion, collaboration, expansiveness . . . intuitive knowing and love.”
The words are like a splash of cold water in the face of the conservative church fathers. But the Aug. 7-10 gathering itself, with its free-form ceremonies and freethinking speakers, is also part of the problem, in the view of the Vatican’s watchdog Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In April, it issued a damning report, ordering the nuns’ leadership to correct its “serious doctrinal problems,” and submit to an overhaul under the direction of Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain. He is known, most recently, for opposing Washington state’s Marriage Equality Bill, on the grounds that same-sex couples, being “different” from male-female couples, do not deserve equal treatment in law.
Earlier this week, Sartain met with the nuns’ national board after praising their good works in “social, pastoral and spiritual ministries,” and promising to deal with their differences “in an atmosphere of prayer and respectful dialogue.” The sisters pledged the same. But the simmering anger beneath the nuns’ outwardly tranquil demeanour and the outpouring of support for them from Catholics across the country point to a confrontation that could rock the church for decades to come.
It’s a struggle that the Vatican may find hard to win.
While some American Catholics uphold the traditional views of the church and its ecclesiastical mission on earth, millions of others find its teachings less relevant and are privately going their own way.
Most tellingly, studies show that more than two-thirds of Catholic women have practised officially prohibited contraception, and according to Gallup, 82 per cent find birth control morally acceptable.
A recent University of Michigan survey said that by 2000, only 6 per cent of Catholics believed that divorce was never permissible, and 19 per cent that homosexuality was never justifiable. The book Just Love, on modern Catholic sexual ethics, became a runaway U.S. bestseller when the church campaigned against it.
As the ordination of women grows in other religions, the Vatican looks increasingly like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Sexual abuse scandals have thrown the celibacy requirement for priests under a harsh spotlight, and allegations of Byzantine power struggles and corruption swirled after recent leaks of papal documents and arrest of the pope’s butler on theft charges. Some within the church say that 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI is out of touch and “isolated.”
Though the winds of change have raised scarcely a breeze behind Vatican walls, they have struck American nuns with cyclone force.
When 17-year-old Mary Ann Nestel left her middle-class home in Kansas City and entered a convent back in the 1950s, she took her parents’ names, draped herself in a standard-issue habit and became Sister Robert Catherine.
But with the meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, convened by Pope John XXIII to review and renew the church, and inherited by his successor Pope Paul VI, the focus shifted from doctrine and tradition to community outreach. Priests and nuns were urged to stop setting themselves apart from contemporary life, and to wear clothing “suited to the circumstances of time and place” in which they worked.
“It was in the 1960s that I stopped wearing a habit,” recalls the ginger-haired, 72-year-old Nestel, sporting a scoop-necked t-shirt and comfortable flared skirt in the breathless summer heat. “At first we dressed very conservatively in navy or black. But our (leader) said we should look like the people of the day.”
Moving with the times was an act of obedience then, she says. But in the more reactionary era where nuns find themselves today, modernity has become defiance. It is this tension between an evolutionary church, and one that believes its teachings are immutable and eternal, that is at the heart of the sisters’ struggle.
“I think that the fundamental faith of the Catholic Church is that there are objective truths and teachings. . . that really do come from revelation and are interpreted authentically through the teaching of the church. . . and are expected to be believed with the obedience of faith,” said Bishop Leonard Blair, who took part in the doctrinal assessment of the sisters. “Those are things that are non-negotiable,” he told National Public Radio.
But to the greying generation who took “Vatican II” to heart, as well as younger progressive Catholics, it’s the church fathers who are on the wrong side of history.
A visit to the south St. Louis suburb of Carondelet is telling.
Here, Nestel is a local hero, sharing the struggles of the community and offering hands-on help.
She is executive director of the Community Betterment Foundation and Carondelet’s housing corporation. The former supplements the meager budgets of the working poor with a storehouse of food and children’s clothing, a free health clinic, seniors’ centre and literacy program. The latter has partnered with the city to change the character of the place, from a dilapidated, drug-ridden marginal community to one that is bringing back working- and middle-class people to affordable renovated homes, safe playgrounds and attractive and accessible shopping and recreational sites.
Over the desk of Nestel’s spotless, sparsely furnished office, a cross-shaped graphic rather than a traditional crucifix is on display. It reads: “We the People + The Body of Christ.” It was taken from Network, the group of Washington-based activist nuns who recently made a national bus tour to drum up opposition to legislation that would dramatically cut spending on social services.
Nestel takes the people-centred message seriously. When the food pantry was almost empty last week, she phoned the media and declared an emergency. Now she smiles broadly as she walks through the narrow basement shelves, replenished with tins, packages and boxes of food. People from every walk of life responded to the call, she says, and a local bar offered free beer to donors.
Nestel’s work goes beyond charitable services. A few blocks away, she congratulates a crew of renovators who drip with sweat as they put the finishing touches on a trim, brick three-bedroom house that was reclaimed from a drug gang and rebuilt by the housing corporation. It will be marketed for $160,000, (U.S.) sweetened by a 10-year tax holiday for the new owners.
On a nearby street, bright, artist-designed murals decorate walls that were once eyesores, another urban renewal project. Blooming gardens and a fenced playground might have sprung from the film Meet Me in St. Louis. People on the street may not recognize a visiting bishop, but they know Nestel on sight.
The corridors of the conference hotel are a poor woman’s tour of the world. They are lined with tables and posters advocating for social justice in Guatemala, in Africa, in South Sudan — and for causes closer to home. Many of the sisters present here have done service in the world’s roughest neighbourhoods, ministering to the hungry, homeless and oppressed.
Farrell, the leadership conference’s retiring president, worked with the non-violent resistance movement in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, and on the front lines of El Salvador’s bloody civil war, where four female Catholic missionaries were tortured, raped and murdered. Others have worked in U.S. inner cities where the lines between war and peace are blurred.
But harsh conditions are nothing new to North American nuns, nor is the heavy hand of the male-dominated church.
“In the 19th century, Catholic nuns literally built the church in the American West,” wrote Utah State University historian Anne Butler in the New York Times. They braved “hardship and grueling circumstances to establish missions, set up classrooms and lead lives of calm in a chaotic world marked by corruption, criminality and illness. Their determination in the face of a male hierarchy that then, as now, frequently exploited and disdained them, was a demonstration of their resilient faith in a church struggling to adapt itself to change.”
Since the early 18th century, more than 200,000 Catholic sisters have pioneered the country. But now their numbers have shrunk to less than 60,000, and threaten to dwindle by thousands more in the next decade as the older ones die or retire from duty.
That makes the struggle between the nuns and the Vatican all the more urgent, as fewer young women are interested in enrolling in what they see as an institution that imposes archaic rules. Many serving today fear that if they cannot move with the times, the times will eventually pass them by and their orders become extinct.
“Today individuals have the right to decide how to live their lives and craft their own morality,” says Jamie Manson, a lay minister and graduate of Yale Divinity School. “They are not hard-wired to live in community.” But, she says, many young Catholic lay workers are still hungering for spiritual mentorship. Allowing them to live in religious communities that are devoted to public service, along with their partners, might rejuvenate dedicated religious life.
It’s one more challenge for the nuns as they continue their mano a mano confrontation with the bishops charged with bringing them into line.
At best, the church may drag out the talks to prevent a perilous split, although the Vatican’s current conservative leadership seems to make that less likely. But officials can also see warning signs of strains within the church: the powerful Conference of Catholic Bishops has joined the sisters in speaking out against government budget cuts that would slash food and nutrition programs for the poor. Meanwhile, highly vocal Catholic social conservatives back widening state crackdowns on abortion and defunding of contraception.
At worst, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its members may find so little common ground with their critics that they opt to defy the church’s authority and form their own organization. Some have pondered the ultimate threat of excommunication.
Can those who have lived at the sharp end of the world’s harsh realities retreat to an obedient quiet?
“Many of the foundresses and founders of our congregations struggled long for canonical approval of our institutes,” Farrell tells the sisters. “Some were even silenced or excommunicated.” And she adds with a fleeting smile, “a few of them . . . were later canonized.”