The Vatican has reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents over 80% of Catholic nuns in the United States. It has also cracked down on Network, a social justice lobby group founded by the sisters. The main issue seems to be that the groups openly discuss Church doctrine and occasionally disagree on matters of politics with the higher-ups in the Church hierarchy.
The sisters have also been criticised for supporting “feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” And most recently, they have come out in favour of Obama’s health care bill, which the bishops have opposed, for fear it will lead to state-funded abortions. Network supports the bill because it would provide over 30 million people with access to medical care.
I am not Catholic, but I’ve volunteered and studied with Canadian Catholic sisters. In particular, with sisters from the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, who founded the excellent high school I attended, the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, with whom I volunteered in the Dominican Republic several times as a teenager and in my early twenties, and with their French counterparts, the Soeurs Grises, who still run the 130-year-old Accueil Bonneau soup kitchen in Montreal which I volunteered at for many years.
The sisters I know have quite literally devoted their lives to helping those in need, and I have profound respect for these courageous, principled, and extremely hard-working women. Because of their strength of character and their devotion to their ideals, they have served as role models for me. And despite the fact that I do not share their faith, I do share most of their values.
In all of my experience, Catholic sisters have done tremendous work promoting social good. In a time when the Catholic Church is mired in abuse scandals, these women do much to restore the good name of the Church. They should be celebrated, held up as examples, and instead they are reprimanded for promoting “radical” notions – like Ecology and Peacemaking. These “feminists” – heaven forbid – are educated and articulate, and they have dared to express an opinion different from that of the all-male hierarchy to which they are supposed to be obedient.
Obviously, there has been backlash. Sister Simone Campbell, leader of Network, gave an excellent interview to the BBC – I strongly recommend watching it. An American Jesuit priest, James Martin (@JamesMartinSJ), has also started a Twitter campaign in defense of the sisters, with the hashtag #WhatSistersMeanToMe.
As sister Campbell put it to the BBC, “I don’t think the bishops have any idea of what they’re in for.”