Oh Sisters! Renegade Catholic nuns engage in media campaign

entertainment | Jun 21, 2012 | By Stephanie Block

Here’s what it says on the T-shirt, if you’re interested in buying one:

We Are All Nuns[i] – In solidarity with the nuns who support radical feminist themes: social justice, rebuilding of schools, political asylum, the unemployed, the broken, the earth, the homeless, death and dying, protection of biodiversity, education for all, elderly, unwed mothers, collaboration, the abused, holistic health, anti-human trafficking, the ordination of women, abolishing the death penalty, interfaith work, the end of war, homeless teens, abused women, campus ministries, joy, orphanages, fidelity, displaced persons, fathers, equality for all persons, ending domestic violence, the immigrant, the lonely, the arts, the elimination of torture, self-direction, equal pay for equal work, the indigent, fair housing, human rights, no racism, no gender bias, the war on climate change, loving your neighbor, the disabled, planned parenthood, theology, the abandoned, legal rights, healthcare reform, prevention of child abuse, women’s rights, peace, respect for diversity, celebrating the liturgy, charity, global responsibility, love, praying, rehabilitation, individuality, parish ministries, living the gospel message, the sick, the alienated, leadership, the infirmed, civil rights, nursing, teaching, researching, soup kitchens, visiting, counseling, the silent, service to Native Americans, common ground, being free of oppression, healing, ecumenism, community living, pastoral care, visitation, improving standards of food, the abused, hospitality, no interest loans, the hungry, parenting, the gay and lesbian community, freedom of choice, reliable irrigation, the addict, social work, science, authoring, respect, no fracking, meditation, food pantries, critical thinking, rebuilding of the schools, the poor, non-violence, banning guns, mothers, no strip mining, mountain top removal, poverty, generosity, no nukes, service, freedom of choice, hope, medicine, democracy, Hispanic ministry, formation for peace, religious life, empowerment, global transformation, cultural diversity, food pantries, healthcare for all, shelters, ecology, dignity, foreign missions, farming, day care, HIV/AIDS ministry, tolerance, families, the environment, centers of spirituality, corporate social responsibility, beauty, prisoners, knowledge, non-partisan get-out-the-vote, singles, listening, same-sex marriage, mental health, child care, oppressed, human services, to proclaim liberty.” [ii]

The folks producing this walking billboard are apologists for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the group that was recently chastened by the Vatican.  We owe the apologists a debt of gratitude.  They have demonstrated – in very intuitive, feminista style, of course – the Vatican’s complaint.
1.       The T-shirt apologists imply that the Vatican’s Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a critique of all women religious.
Of course, the Vatican was quite careful to make the distinction.  The document’s title is, again, the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, not the Doctrinal Assessment of Women Religious, Generally-Speaking.  LCWR represents many of the communities of consecrated Catholic women in the United States, but not all.
Furthermore, the Vatican document recognizes that even within the LCWR organization, there is a spectrum of individuals.  Some are out in left field; some are faithful: “[T]his doctrinal Assessment concerns a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member Congregations which belong to that conference.”
The apologists are confusing certain (i.e., renegade) Sisters with all Sisters.  This appears not only to be deliberate – “We are all nuns” could just have easily have been “We are all LCWR,” but it wasn’t – but part of a larger media campaign.  For example, New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof published a piece on April 28, 2012 titled “We Are All Nuns.”
A few days earlier (April 25), Mary E. Hunt, a feminist theologian who co-founded and co-directs the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) – and an advocate in the women-church movement – also wrote an article under that title.[iii]  Hunt opens it with: “When it comes to the Vatican’s crackdown on women religious, I believe it’s time to declare that for the purpose of this struggle: we are all nuns.”
It’s a clever bait and switch maneuver…but dishonest.
2.      The T-shirt apologists imply that accusing the “nuns” of “radical feminism” is preposterous.  They have only been doing “good works,” which are enumerated with cheerful redundancy.
Of course, the Vatican isn’t chastening the LCWR for anyone’s good works.  “The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude,” the Doctrinal Assessment reads, on the first page in its introduction, “the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years.”
The apologists are confusing all of the activities (of renegade Sisters) with the good works traditionally done by women Religious and for which, they know, most Catholics are deeply grateful.
But then, the T-shirt apologists tuck in among the list of themes (understood as the “good works” of the “nuns”) several immoral positions. There we read support for “freedom of choice” (a cultural code word for abortion), “planned parenthood” (a cultural code word for contraception), and “same-sex marriage.” In other words, the apologists have confirmed what the Vatican’s assessment of the LCWR observed: “[T]he Assessment reveals serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life….these sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.”
If you speak the language of ordinary people, the apologists have confirmed that they and the women religious in question are, indeed, supporting “radical feminist themes.”
Abortion, contraception, and same-sex “marriage” are serious problems that Catholic moral teaching has consistently challenged, in one form or another (obviously, the Church never addressed same-sex “marriage,” per se, before recently – the idea never crossed anyone’s mind.  The Church has taught clearly about the perils of homosexual behavior, however), since the Church’s founding.  For the LCWR to hold positions that are contrary to the Church is problematic.
The apologists are speaking as though the “nuns” hold the traditional moral position but it just ain’t so, babe.
3.      The T-shirt apologists leave out some interesting things and replace them with some interesting other things.
There is nothing in their list that indicates traditional Catholic spirituality – no Masses, no Divine Office, no Rosary, no anything a Catholic would recognize as Catholic.
What we do get, as a window into the spirituality of the renegade LCWR “nuns” is “celebrating the liturgy,” “praying,” “meditation,” “living the gospel message,” and “centers of spirituality.” Now, any of those could be Catholic but they could also be…anything.  Vague, nondescript words have been preferred to specific, descriptive words for a reason.
No doubt, this is why the Assessment says, “Religious can and should be a fruitful means of addressing the contemporary situation and supporting religious life in its most “radical” sense—that is, in the faith in which it is rooted…. The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours will have a place of priority in LCWR events and programs.”
4.      The T-shirt apologists have tried to muddy the water about the particular politics in which they and the “nuns” coming under Vatican scrutiny are particularly engaged.    Together with traditional works of mercy, of course, and with virtuous nouns like “fidelity,” “love,” and “joy,” the apologists have included ideologically-loaded concepts that, like “freedom of choice” are conveyed in coded language.  “Ordination of women,” “no gender bias,” “the war on climate change,” “healthcare reform,”  “global transformation,” and so forth, describe positions that have nothing to do with Catholic understanding social justice.   
Yet one of the reasons certain individuals within the LCWR are coming under Vatican scrutiny has to do precisely with the recalcitrant insistence of these women to misidentify their advocacy in these areas with Catholic social justice teachings.  The Assessment is remarkably restrained about this activity, merely noting that LCWR links with organizations such as Network and Resource Center for Religious Life is something the Vatican intends to “review.”
Now, these are worldly-savvy ladies and they are very aware that this is where they are most threatened.  While there is nothing to prevent them from personally advocating for anything they like, if the Vatican takes from them their ability to connect ideological positions with Catholic social teaching, it will have eviscerated them.
Enter the media supporters.  The Faith in Public Life blog ran angry postings throughout the following month. “Don’t expect Catholic sisters to shrink like delicate flowers in the shadow of the Vatican’s recent crackdown,” said one. “For centuries, women religious in the Catholic Church have been marginalized and often maligned even as they exemplify what it means to be Christians who bring healing to a wounded world.”[iv]
From Religion News Service, David Gibson writes, “Now it turns out that conservative American churchmen living in Rome -- including disgraced former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law -- were key players in pushing the hostile takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.”[v]  Cable News Network’s Michael Martinez writes his coverage from the LCWR perspective only, interviewing and quoting Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network and John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter – but no one representing the Vatican position.[vi]
Stephanie Simon, writing for Reuters, is particularly interested in how the Sisters will fight back.  “Following their discussions in Rome, the nuns will convene a national convention in St. Louis in August to further shape their response to the Vatican.  ‘This response shows Catholic sisters are not backing down from their social justice mission and are handling a troubling situation with great dignity,’ said John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group.” [vii]
Are we seeing a concerted pattern here?  A conspiracy, perhaps?
But wait.  The plot thickens.  News reports shift from poor, misunderstood “nuns” to a social justice road trip.  “In a spirited retort to the Vatican, a group of Roman Catholic nuns is planning a bus trip across nine states this month, stopping at...facilities run by nuns to highlight their work with the nation’s poor and disenfranchised.”[viii]
The poor are always useful – in this case shifting attention from criticisms against the LCWR Sisters to… Representative Paul D. Ryan and his proposed federal budget. “’I think he was so direct in draping himself in the mantle of Catholic social teaching,’ Campbell said. ‘He took the words but he took none of the meaning in the forming of the budget.’”[ix]  Whoa!  It’s a whole, other discussion suddenly!  And Faith in Public Life wants to know “Will Catholic Bishops Join Nuns on the Bus?” [x]
Meanwhile, Sister Joan Chittister, writing in the progressive evangelical publication Sojourners, speaks of “the Vatican’s ‘hostile takeover’ of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.”[xi]
This is the way progressive political activists manipulate the discussion, using their media allies to reframe it, rename it, repurpose it.  The Vatican’s review of LCWR links to Network, Resource Center for Religious Life, and similar organizations can’t come soon enough.

It’s all there, on the T-shirt.

Spero columnist Stephanie Block is also the editor of the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.

[i] The women under discussion are, for the most part, not nuns.  The term “nun” properly refers to cloistered women who have taken religious vows.  Women who have taken religious vows and who actively serve in the world (teachers, nurses, etc.) are simple called “religious.” All consecrated women are addressed as “Sister.”
[ii] You can order your T-shirt at stbenedictguild.com for $25.00.  Or, the same message on a tote bag is $15.00.
[iii] Published in Religion Dispatches Magazine.
[iv] Bold Faith Type, blog of Faith in Public Life, “Catholic Sisters on Trial,” 5-2-12.
[v] David Gibson, “Are Americans in Rome behind the nuns crackdown?” Religion News Service, 5-7-12.
[vi] Michael Martinez, “Leaders of U.S. Catholic nuns to address Vatican reprimand about 'radical' feminism,” Cable News Network, 5-27-12.
[vii] Stephanie Simon, “U.S. nuns push back against Vatican crackdown,” Reuters, 6-1-12.
[viii] Laurie Goodstein, “Nuns, Rebuked by Rome, Plan Road Trip to Spotlight Social Issues,” New York Times, 6-5-12.
[ix] Dan Merica, “Nuns' group plans bus trip to protest the Ryan budget,” CNN, Belief Blog, 6-6-12.
[x] “Will Catholic Bishops Join Nuns on the Bus?” Bold Faith Type, Faith in Public Life blog, 6-13-12.
[xi] Sister Joan Chittister, “A 'Hostile Takeover' of Women Religious,” Sojourners, 6-13-12.



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