Chicago Sun-Times

Why Is the Vatican Going After Nuns?

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July 4, 2009

BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist

Oh, dear. Now the Vatican has launched a probe of American nuns.

I'm calling it "Law and Order: The Convent."

Rome, according to the New York Times, is "quietly conducting two sweeping investigations of American nuns, a development that has startled and dismayed nuns who fear they are the targets of a doctrinal inquisition."

Just when you thought Catholic bishops couldn't find another way to infuriate the flock, darn it, they've done it again.

Both probes were reportedly initiated by conservative prelates unhappy that American nuns are not sufficiently toeing the line of Catholic orthodoxy, not wearing habits, not living in convents and not keeping their mouths shut about the concerns of women in a modern world.

Don't these sisters know their place?

For centuries, that place has been at the foot of the church, running schools, operating hospitals and working with the poor. While diocesan priests lived in rectories with more rooms than they could use and housekeepers to cook and clean, the sisters lived in tiny cells, did their own scrubbing and potato peeling, and provided the church with a dirt-cheap work force. The diocese, in turn, gave them less than a subsistence wage with neither pensions nor health insurance.

The sisters, through their own communities, pooled their pennies to provide for their own needs. Younger nuns today work in higher-paying jobs (lawyer, doctor, professor) in the secular world, keeping only a small stipend and sending the bulk of their earnings to the motherhouse to support elderly sisters.

When I heard the news of these two Vatican investigations, one of the first calls I made was to my friend, Sister Gwendolyn Durkin.

Sister Gwendolyn is 84. Bright as a diamond, sharp as a steak knife, she cut right to the chase.

"What do they think we are? We are educated women. Why can't we speak about the role of religious women in the church? We are not puppets," she said.

Sister Gwendolyn, a Chicago hospital administrator who retired at 74, is nobody's radical.

"I was actually one of the last to quit wearing a habit. I hated giving it up, but those old habits were tight around your neck and the top of your head," she said. "Not wearing it doesn't make a better or worse Sister of Mercy."

Amen, sister.

There can be good reasons for the church to conduct a study of its nuns. Their numbers are declining fast. Their communities are shrinking. And we all could, in whatever work we do, profit from studying how well we're performing.

But frankly, these investigations are really about dissent in the Catholic Church and how to stop it. You know, women's ordination, homosexuality, birth control, abortion and celibacy.

And this process is nothing more than an assertion of control. Because the conclusions of the studies will stay confidential, the sisters may never know the outcome. But just by conducting the probes, the bishops are warning the sisters to sit a little straighter in their chairs.

Am I missing something here?

Were the recent, awful church scandals about nuns?

Don't think so.

Ironically, it was a sister who warned the Chicago Archdiocese in 2000 about the Rev. Daniel McCormack, the pedophile priest. She was ignored as McCormack continued to molest children until he was finally arrested in 2006.

All nuns aren't saints, and all bishops aren't bad guys. But for my money, the sisters have a better record but have gotten a raw deal compared with the men of the church. (Let us never forget obstructor-of-justice Cardinal Bernard Law, who lives lavishly in Rome these days.)

Which takes me back to my pal, Sister Gwendolyn.

"I hesitate saying this, but why are they being so hard on the sisters?" she asked.

Because, sister, bishops don't investigate the faithfulness of bishops.

Just when you thought Catholic bishops couldn't find another way to infuriate the flock, darn it, they've done it again.

Both probes were reportedly initiated by conservative prelates unhappy that American nuns are not sufficiently toeing the line of Catholic orthodoxy, not wearing habits, not living in convents and not keeping their mouths shut about the concerns of women in a modern world.

Don't these sisters know their place?

For centuries, that place has been at the foot of the church, running schools, operating hospitals and working with the poor. While diocesan priests lived in rectories with more rooms than they could use and housekeepers to cook and clean, the sisters lived in tiny cells, did their own scrubbing and potato peeling, and provided the church with a dirt-cheap work force. The diocese, in turn, gave them less than a subsistence wage with neither pensions nor health insurance.

The sisters, through their own communities, pooled their pennies to provide for their own needs. Younger nuns today work in higher-paying jobs (lawyer, doctor, professor) in the secular world, keeping only a small stipend and sending the bulk of their earnings to the motherhouse to support elderly sisters.

When I heard the news of these two Vatican investigations, one of the first calls I made was to my friend, Sister Gwendolyn Durkin.

Sister Gwendolyn is 84. Bright as a diamond, sharp as a steak knife, she cut right to the chase.

"What do they think we are? We are educated women. Why can't we speak about the role of religious women in the church? We are not puppets," she said.

Sister Gwendolyn, a Chicago hospital administrator who retired at 74, is nobody's radical.

"I was actually one of the last to quit wearing a habit. I hated giving it up, but those old habits were tight around your neck and the top of your head," she said. "Not wearing it doesn't make a better or worse Sister of Mercy."

Amen, sister.

There can be good reasons for the church to conduct a study of its nuns. Their numbers are declining fast. Their communities are shrinking. And we all could, in whatever work we do, profit from studying how well we're performing.

But frankly, these investigations are really about dissent in the Catholic Church and how to stop it. You know, women's ordination, homosexuality, birth control, abortion and celibacy.

And this process is nothing more than an assertion of control. Because the conclusions of the studies will stay confidential, the sisters may never know the outcome. But just by conducting the probes, the bishops are warning the sisters to sit a little straighter in their chairs.

Am I missing something here?

Were the recent, awful church scandals about nuns?

Don't think so.

Ironically, it was a sister who warned the Chicago Archdiocese in 2000 about the Rev. Daniel McCormack, the pedophile priest. She was ignored as McCormack continued to molest children until he was finally arrested in 2006.

All nuns aren't saints, and all bishops aren't bad guys. But for my money, the sisters have a better record but have gotten a raw deal compared with the men of the church. (Let us never forget obstructor-of-justice Cardinal Bernard Law, who lives lavishly in Rome these days.)

Which takes me back to my pal, Sister Gwendolyn.

"I hesitate saying this, but why are they being so hard on the sisters?" she asked.

Because, sister, bishops don't investigate the faithfulness of bishops.

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16 Comments

I find it astonishing that so many people think that one specific mythical view of the world is literally the only truth, and that even minor deviation from the specifics of that world view is sufficient cause to ruin people's lives over.

You have orders of women selflessly working to better their communities and the lives of the people they serve, but all you can see is whether they follow flawlessly a restrictive set of laws that openly discriminate against them.

Shame on all of you for your narrow-mindedness and selfishness. Your wish for their "perfection" shouldn't override their wishes for their own lives. That you think it should shows how cruel and spiteful your interpretation of religion is. And if you really are interpreting your religion correctly, shame on you for blindly following a doctrine that codifies such cruelty and spite.

Could it be that the Vatican is trying to squeeze every cent from these religious women who are on hard times too, and have great difficulty supporting their order, their elderly sisters, and affording healthcare? Leave them alone---Bullies. If you want to make dough, do it the old fashioned way---work for it! Also, sell the Vatican treasures...the flock is starving to death!

As far back as the days when we lived in caves, religion has been used as an instrument of control. What began as a desire of primitive humans to get some control over their lives and be safe from pests, plague, predators, enemies, and the forces of nature by placating some unknown god soon turned into a means for the local shaman, chief, big man, warlord or king to keep the populace in line and convince everyone that he ruled by divine right, in order to consolidate his power and discourage revolution. The head of the local religion crowns the king for a reason. All you need to do is read history to know that it's always been that way.

If those doing the controlling have typically been men (and very few, elitist men at that), it's because it's been a man's world for most of human history and prehistory. They wrote the history, and they wrote the rules. It shouldn't be surprising that some men would rather keep it that way, even in this supposedly enlightened day and age.

The controlling, sexist aspects of organized religion may have changed temporarily with early Christianity while Christ was still alive, given that he was an egalitarian pacifist. But it didn't take long for the followers he left behind to revert to type, go well beyond what he preached, and generally screw things up, rendering Catholicism yet another control instrument of the few over the many (remember the Inquisition? the famous sexism of Paul the Apostle, who never actually met Christ or heard him preach? the burning of witches and heretics? the selling of indulgences? the popes with children, whose offspring 'inherited' positions within the church? the power- and money-hungry popes? and, of course, the Council of Nicea, where early bishops decided to throw out and discredit all but four gospels written by the first disciples, thus severely narrowing and managing what the church taught compared to what Christ preached? They actually **voted** to decide whether or not Christ was divine! Talk about suspect ...).

If the Catholic church has an authoritarian structure that emphasizes its control function more than any other, it's because religion in general has done that for millennia. This recent assault on American nuns really isn't all that different than the power grabs by Muslim clerics in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan or the war between Sunni and Shia, or the creation of Anglicanism by Henry VIII (I ask you, why should a church founded because of a randy king's need for a convenient divorce and his lust for church wealth and property be remotely credible? And yet the Anglican church persists, protected and ruled for hundreds of years by British monarchs). It's all the same historical pattern. The nuns are just the latest target. Why anyone puts up with this is a mystery. You'd think we'd have put religion in its place by now, well away from real power, but no. Not yet.

And remember this: ever since the earliest humans -- from the days when we worshiped forces of nature right up to modern Hare Krishnas passing out flowers and selling incense in airports -- religion of every sort has always been an entirely human artifact: that is, a human invention. Divine inspiration is easy to claim, hard to prove. Instead of demanding proof, we're supposed to be GLAD to surrender our reason, that most human characteristic of our intelligence that makes us different from animals, and take whatever pablum someone offers us 'on faith.' Seriously??

This is all quite apart from the question of whether or not there is/are or ever was/were a god or gods. There may very well be a god, but human beings know absolutely nothing about the nature of any such god and have no facts or evidence of such, much though we pretend otherwise. The fact that the founders or major figures of some faiths were real people doesn't necessarily mean that a) everything they said or wrote was true or incontrovertible, b) they were right about the nature or existence of god, or c) their followers didn't lose most, if not all, of the original message along the way. In the case of Christianity, it's none of the above. So many more claims and 'traditions' and 'theologies' and restrictions have been larded onto not just Catholicism but all other Christian churches as well that Christ would never recognize it as the simple faith he founded, one that advised 'love one another' and 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' All one needs to do is consider the recent murder of a physician to see how far Christianity has diverged from Christ (who, by the way, never once said a word one way or the other about abortion).

What we do have as human beings is a historically well documented ability to lie to ourselves and to each other, particularly when we're afraid (as in, afraid of the dark, afraid of the unknown or unfamiliar, afraid of people we don't know or who don't look like us, afraid of disaster and death, afraid of being alone in the universe, afraid that if we screw up too badly there's nobody but ourselves to fix things, etc.). Given our fears, it's also not surprising that so much about religion involves exclusion, regimentation and punishment rather than inclusion, tolerance, and equity. So why should it be surprising to find that the minority in power of any faith are still control freaks, using organized religion to exclude, dominate, subjugate and punish? They're just doing what their predecessors have always done. Not that that justifies any of it (it doesn't).

The better question is when the bulk of humanity will finally decide that it doesn't really know enough about the nature of any god to force any particular set of beliefs on everyone else and will at last outgrow its need for organized religion. You don't have to be godless to grasp that living by a set of well thought out, widely agreed upon ethics might be far better for the world than living by the tenets and morals of any religion. Or that we'd all be happier if human beings walked away from organized religion entirely and let each man or woman privately believe whatever he or she thought best, without any need to impose those spiritual beliefs on others or on civil society as a whole. How sensible, and how much grief, violence and evil that would eliminate ... but obviously, we're not there yet.

You mistakenly make the comparison between nuns and priests as if that were valid. Nuns are not priests, they are religious. The proper comparison is to the lives of brothers and monks, who by the way face the same "restrictions" on freedom, living conditions, and salary. In fact, it is the point of that lifestyle to give up the material things of this world and live for the worship of God.

I really wish you would think these sort of things through before you mislead people who do not know any better.

The nuns that I have known, The Sisters of Providence, whose motherhouse is in Terre Haute IN where I grew up were responsible for who I have become as a man. They are some of the most wonderful women of Faith that I have ever known, One Sister Mary Catherine Keene who was my music teacher was someone who opened the world of music to me as no one had before and I adored her, she was my absolute favorite nun and she represents the Church well as I was not Catholic then but I have been for the past 8 years and I credit what she taught me about life and faith for that.

A good percentage of USA nuns are still the classical image of nuns ( traditional habits, teaching, nursing, charitable work, cloistered prayer), but unfortunatly a larger percentage since Vatican II (1962-1965) have become radical liberals, dissinters, rebels, trouble makers, and have discarded all the beautiful and traditional things that come to mind when we think of nuns: the habit, convent living, prayer, disipline, holiness, dedication to the Church, etc.
This large bunch of malcontent disenchanted femminists have already destroyed the great work three generations of holy sisters before them built up in the USA (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.), and have tarnished the image of nuns and religious life in general.
It's about time (and about 30 years too late), that the Vatican is investigating American nuns. Hopefully they will go after the same type of liberal dissidents in Europe and elsewhere too.
These radical nuns have alot of explaining/answering to do. If the Vatican comes down hard on them and orders a return to traditional life, that would be great. But if it's all just a game which ends up as a whitewash with nothing happening...then religious life for nuns in the USA will be dead in 10 years. And the Vatican will have missed a golden opportunity to rectify a very bad problem.

Pretty sloppy reporting for any kind of journalist ... especially one who has been around for so long.

Perhaps if you consulted a source other than your pal, you might have discovered the true depth of the problem, and the fact that many of today's Catholic women's orders have long since ceased to be authentically Catholic.

July 4, 2009 ... the day Carol Marin "jumped the shark".

I find it interesting how many people feel qualified to judge the lives of others, especially the lives of religious women. The Sisters I know are intelligent, dedicated, committed to God, educated (some education and knowledge would greatly benefit their critics) loving, humble, and dynamic women.

Those "Catholics" who are so quick to condemn and judge them would do better to look to their own lives and how they live the Gospel of Jesus.

Ms. Marin makes a broad generalization that these investigations will "infuriate the flock." Does she have such tunnel vision that she does not see the very many Catholics around her that feel these investigations are a long time coming and are welcoming them? She throws around the word "dissent" as if that were some legitimate position in the Catholic Church. She should go back and learn the catechism that her nun friends obviously neglected to teach her while they were out redefining themselves as lawyers and doctors. The Catholic Church has never been a democracy. If the nuns did not like what was going on, they should have left instead of staying and trying to confuse and mislead "the flock."

Also, I find it quite interesting that Ms. Marin has gotten all of her information on these investigations from The New York Times. She implies that the investigations are being conducted in secret. Any Catholic who has kept up with the Church over the last three months could easily have learned about these investigations. The Vatican congregations involved announced the probes themselves. What is secretive about that?

Carol,

Thank you for a update on this matter. It goes without saying it is easier to the splinter in someone else eye rather than see the log in your own.

Your article speaks to the very issue that Catholics are leaving the Church in large numbers. The idea that women religious can be faithful and think for themselves is threatening to an all male hierarchy.

The Vatican will not have an easy time with these nuns they know how to play the game. They know how to articulate their positions without threats, and secrecy. They are reasonable and bright, and have a deeper faith in my opinion than most bishops.

The Church is in real need of reform, either the voices of reason and accountability will be listened to, or I suspect the Vatican is in for another devastation PR disaster.

Whatever happened to the virtue of holy obedience not blind obedience which can be dangerous but "holy" obedience which takes humility and patience?
Mary Mackillop was a feisty intelligent sister who rode throught the Australian bush on horseback but when she was excommunicated by a cranky misinformed bishop she did not do a "Joan Chichester and urge her fellow sisters to obstruct and defy the bishop-no she told her fellow sisters to remain loyally obedient to the bishop and trusted in the Holy Spirit to vindicate her position.
The only time for outright defiance of a bishop is when they are betraying Christ's teaching by their personal example eg you would have to defy a bishop trying to cover up an impure lifestyle.
Those sisters who are living in accord with Christ's teachings have nothing to fear from any visitation by a group from Rome The only sisters who need worry are those who by their personal lifestyle and their spending have been betraying the teachings of Christ.

We know for a fact that there were women bishops in the early church. Asking why we have only men today in the priesthood is anything but heretical. Ditto for celibacy. Priests weren't always required to be so. With the priesthood shrinking it seems increasingly likely that either celibacy or the all-male character of the priesthood is going to give. It's not a sin to talk about such things both in terms of modern doctrine, Church history, and current reality.

The Catholic church has never been a static thing. It changes slowly much of the time but it does change. Views that are "heretical" in one century are sometimes official doctrine in the next.

I don’t claim first hand knowledge of what sinful “Eastern Mysticism” the nuns might be involved in ... but I think that it is not too difficult to separate form or function from philosophy. Tai Chi for instance is wonderful exercise and you can do it without believing in “chi” at all. Eastern style meditation is a reasonable way to strengthen the mind for prayer. I see no problem at first blush with a Catholic taking these forms and using them for our own faith.

I hate to appear to jumping aboard a band wagon, but I completely agree with the comments already posted. The writer Marin lacks even a basic understanding of the serious problems confounding women's Orders in the US today. It's not about the doctrinal heterodoxy of many women's Orders, although that's a part of it. It's about the end of the most prominent active women's Orders in the US Chuch.

Since the 1950s (and not Vatican II as some conservatives would suggest), women's Orders have gone off the rails. Many were radically altered by their uncritical accommodation of secular values, including the whole raft of feminist values. This has had a deleterious impact on the Church as a whole. Lay people have long voiced concern about the future of these Orders, which, despite their pandering to secularist women, have failed utterly in attracting new members in any significant number.

It's a tragedy to see these Orders shrinking, merging, and doing everything to stall what appears to be their inevitable oblivion. The Vatican is really assessing the situation to determine what the universal Church's response should be to the end of institutional Catholic women's face of the US Church.

The author should check her liberal biases before she criticizes the Catholic Church. These nuns are promoting heresy (calling for women priests), practicing reiki and another new age practices, and hardly sticking to their vows. The investigation is necessary.

And way to go, throwing pedophile priests in your article. Can you anti-Catholics go 5 seconds without using that one-liner? Apparently not.

Thanks for the mindless pontificating, but your comments might have been slightly more interesting if you actually had bothered to inform yourself before engaging your keyboard. Did you even try to speak with Mother Clare, who is conducting the Apostolic Visitation?

Faithful communities of sisters are not the issue. The problem is the hordes of New Age moonbats and Woodstock leftovers who have taken over in so many instances. These kooks don't even pretend to be Christian, much less Catholic. Yet they appropriate the names of their old orders and sow all manner of mischief and confusion. I doubt they will really get the badly needed smackdown, but it is decades overdue. If the effort is to be criticized, it is on the grounds of being pitifully little and scandalously late.

Well, no, they are being investigated because quite a few nuns today are heretical in their beliefs. For instance, no small number hold to the ideas that that Eastern mysticism can be integrated with Catholic spirituality, that women can be ordained to the priesthood, that homsexual activity can be acceptable, that killing babies via abortion is acceptable under certain circumstances.

If they want to be hold these positions, they are certainly free to do so, but they should be honest with themselves and join the Episcopalians. That way, their order can die out along with the Christian denomination that embraces such foolishness. But if they want to continue to be Catholic, they have to accept what the Catholic Church teaches.

Sounds like they're kind of tied up in the sin of pride at the moment.

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