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Machines Like Us

In defense of Catholic nuns

Wednesday, 02 May 2012

She concludes sadly that the Vatican seems determined to treat women as second-class citizens.

What I sense today is that the Vatican will not budge in how it thinks theologically about what it means to be a woman; nor will it consider opening positions of real ecclesial authority to women. There is simply no getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican doesn’t want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars, and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s—and that means men’s—voice and views. But we are not “men” or “mankind.” We are persons with minds and hearts and voices, who have lived lives of integrity and loyalty, and who remain loyal to this church, even when it treats us as second-class citizens and makes us beg for financial support in our old age.

Catholic scholar Gary Wills also comes to the defense of nuns and argues that the problem with his church cannot be blamed on the nuns who he says are the ones who uphold good values, using his old teacher Sister Anne O’Connor as an example.

Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.

Anne O’Connor was just the kind of nun the Vatican is now intent on punishing. She had been a social worker before she became a nun, work that she loved and went back to several times as a Dominican.

Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist). Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens.

The real Gospel must be quashed in the name of the pseudo-Gospel of papal monarchs. Poor Anne O’Connor—she thought caring for the poor was what Jesus wanted. She did not live to see that what Rome wants is all that matters.

The stereotype of the Catholic nun ranges from the cheerful and helpful singing variety in films like The Sound of Music to the stern and cruel teacher who enjoys rapping students over the knuckles with a ruler for even minor transgressions. Catholic nuns, especially those who taught in schools or ran orphanages or homes for ‘wayward’ girls (i.e., girls who had sex) have had a long history of being portrayed as mean and nasty people, and on many occasions the reputation has been well deserved. (See for example the film The Magdalene Sisters that is based on a true story.)

For them to be now seen as the good representatives of the Catholic Church shows how rotten is the male hierarchy in the church, starting right at the top with the pope.