“for the sake of the whole”

by mraynes

i love nuns. i know they get kind of a bad rap but i think they are fantastic. these are women who choose God above all else, who minister to the outcasts of society bringing comfort and hope to those they serve. they also have quite the reputation for subversive actions and belief. they are intimately connected to one of the most patriarchal institutions in the world and yet manage to hold their own and trust in their own authority. that takes a kind of bravery i can only begin to imagine.

recently the leadership conference of women religious (LCWR) have been censured for having “radical feminist beliefs” and not speaking out against things like homosexuality, contraception and abortion. taking stands on controversial issues is not part of their calling or mission and yet they are being censured for exactly this. to rectify this, american bishops have been called to oversee the group, to rewrite the mission and platforms of women religious in this country. this is an extraordinary step and it bears mentioning that even the catholic bishops who failed to act and often times subverted justice in child sex abuse cases have not been treated this harshly.

i personally feel a lot of solidarity with nuns because i understand the complexity of being a feminist woman and working within a patriarchal religious institution. much of the pain i have heard nuns express over their religion is the same pain i feel in mine. i was listening to Fresh Air yesterday and Terry Gross was interviewing Sister Pat Farrell, president of the LCWR and i was struck again with how easily i relate to her struggle but also the wisdom and grace she carries with her.

i’ve excerpted some of the interview below but you should really just go listen to the entire thing.

on being asked about the charge of encouraging radical feminist themes:

Well, sincerely what I hear in phrasing it in that way is fear, a fear of women’s position in the church. Now, that’s just my interpretation… But women theologians around the world, Catholic women theologians, have been seriously looking at the question of how have the church’s interpretations of how we talk about God, about how we interpret Scripture, about how we organize our life in the church, how have those formulations been tainted by a culture, a religious culture, a secular culture, that minimizes the value and the place of women…

on being asked about the LCWR’s stance on abortion:

I would say that all of us have a limited repertoire of what we’re capable of talking about, and I think it’s absolutely valid that we choose to emphasize certain things over another. The bishop’s conference itself selects certain issues to talk about and, understandably, would have to not be talking about everything.

So I think the criticism of what we’re not talking about seems to me, again, unfair, because Religious have clearly given our lives to supporting life, to supporting the dignity of human persons. Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. You know, if the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion, too, if there’s such an emphasis on that…

However, we have sisters who work – all of our congregations have sisters who work in right-to-life issues. We also have many, many ministries that support life, who we dedicate our efforts to those on the margins of society, many of whom are considered kind of throwaway people: the cognitively impaired, the chronically mentally ill, the elderly, the incarcerated, the people on death row. We have strongly spoken out against the death penalty, against war, hunger. All of those are right-to-life issues…we have been giving voice to other issues that are less covered, but are equally as important.

on how it feels to be censured in this way:

Deeply saddened and angered, and I think that’s just offensive. And I think it reflects a serious misunderstanding and misinterpretation of who we are. And I think it reflects the impoverishment of the church that has not held the leadership and the voice of women in a place of equal prominence. I think that’s what we’re seeing reflected there. And to call that concern radical feminism I think just reflects the fear of women in the church and the fear of what could happen if women were really listened to and taken seriously…

I think that the church has been structured with all-male leadership, which I think has serious disadvantages, and that the church has been structured with a hierarchical, unquestioned structure that has little mechanism for accountability.

That’s so different from our reality within women’s congregations, because for one thing, we elect all our own leaderships, and we have forever – in the history of Women Religious life – have experienced the leadership of strong women. Women have been leaders in our ministries. We’re a very educated group of women within the Catholic Church. We have women who are CEOs of hospitals, of hospital systems, who are presidents of colleges, principals of schools. So as Women Religious, our lifetime experience has been of expecting strong leadership from women, and that’s been our daily experience. So our experience of the leadership of women in the church is our daily bread. It’s very different from that at the hierarchy.

on why she stays in an institution that doesn’t think of women as equal:

I have faith that the church can respond and change but I would answer that in the same way. I would say why would you stay in a country in which you severely disagree with the leadership of a president? I’m an American and I am the church. I’m a Catholic. I am the church.

So I will continue to work for the rightful place of women in the church but it’s easier said than done to just talk about walking away because I also feel some responsibility, as the church, to bring that corrective to the church for the sake of the whole.

this last quote is so poignant to me. i have made the same choice to remain active in my patriarchal religion and that is a difficult choice to explain especially when you openly identify as feminist. but my response is much the same as Sister Farrell’s–i am mormon. i am the church and i have a responsibility to my sisters. i have a responsibility to help my church be better. the tension can be painful at times but it is made so much easier by knowing there are other women in the world who are fighting this same battle.

and if anybody ever asks…i stand with the nuns.