Support for American Catholic nuns has poured in from many quarters after the Vatican criticized their adherence to church doctrine. People question the Vatican’s call for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents about 45,000 nuns, and the appointment of Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops to oversee the LCWR for up to five years. In response to this painful mandate, warm affirmation has come from people whose lives were touched by an individual sister and from groups inspired by the spirit and fortitude of the religious communities. I add my voice to the widespread commendation of these beloved women of integrity.
Several communities of women religious have long served this region: schools and orphanages, homes and shelters, colleges and hospitals from Washington to Montana trace their origin to these courageous pioneer women. By their fruits you shall know them. The Northwest has been especially blessed by the Sisters of the Holy Names, the Dominicans, the Sisters of Providence, the Benedictines, the Franciscans, and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. They have taught and nourished the faith of generations of men and women in the classroom, and their institutions have changed the landscape of our cities. In May, Spokane Bishop Blase J. Cupich presented the highest award the Diocese of Spokane can bestow to the Sisters of Providence, who founded a hospital in Spokane in 1886, even before the diocese existed.
It is fitting to celebrate the faith-filled strength and spiritual leadership of women religious throughout this country and beyond. Kathleen A. Ross, SNJM, the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, is president emeritus of Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash., originally founded by the Sisters of the Holy Names to make education more accessible. Isn’t it a nun, Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of “Dead Man Walking,” whose name is most associated with the movement to end the death penalty? Women religious are leading efforts for environmental stewardship and faith-filled citizenship. Dominican Judy Byron is the coordinator of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investing. The sisters tackle social injustices such as human trafficking at the United Nations and in our own cities. American nuns have become martyrs in El Salvador. Sister of Notre Dame Dorothy Stang worked with poor farmers in Brazil for 29 years. In 2005, she was murdered defending their legal rights.
Some women religious have made immense contributions even in the face of Vatican disapproval and censure. One of the country’s most prominent theologians, Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, continues to inspire us. Jeannine Gramick, SL, co-founded New Ways Ministry to meet the needs of gays and lesbians before many recognized the need. Benedictine Joan Chittister, an internationally known advocate for women and for peace, uncovers and denounces the effects of endless war on women and children. Her prophetic wisdom is respected by men and women everywhere.
Sisters study and teach Scripture, as well as encyclicals, the documents of Vatican II and the bishops’ pastoral letters, and they put the words into practice. They model consensus and collaboration within each community, and with others. Women religious are in the world doing God’s work wherever they are needed. There is a certain irony in the Catholic hierarchy, whose moral authority has been diminished because of the dual crises of sexual abuse and the lack of accountability, now questioning the orthodoxy of women religious who have been holy ministers of the faith acting on well-formed consciences.
We see in the Scriptures the unconditional love of Jesus for all people, including women. We know men and women are equal before God. By a lack of respect for the women religious, the hierarchy demeans all women and society suffers. Catholic women are chaplains and judges, health care professionals and university presidents, school teachers and scientists, writers and senators, as well as mothers and grandmothers of the future. Yet we are disregarded by the Catholic patriarchy and admonished like unschooled children. The voice of women religious is often the only female voice within the Catholic Church. When the hierarchy censures them, it censures all women. When it degrades them, it degrades all women and the church loses the wisdom of half the faithful.
Censures of prophetic voices and excommunications have become more commonplace, but not more effective. Living the Gospel is a better way to teach than fiat. Catholic nuns demonstrate a deep commitment to prayer, wise discernment, self-sacrifice and loyalty to their vows. Thank you, sisters, for your lives of service and inspiration.
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