Last week the Vatican announced it will reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest group of U.S. Catholic nuns. The Vatican charges that the LCWR helps the poor, but has no agenda to actively oppose abortion or euthanasia. The LCWR is cited for not promoting Rome’s vision for family life and sexuality. The Vatican also complains that LCWR’s public statements have disagreed with “the bishops, the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” If bishops are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, who are the 47,000 American women represented by the LCWR? Americans have certainly called many nuns “teacher.”
Women religious have always held a tenuous place in the church. The story of St. Thecla (a convert of Paul and arguably the first nun) is told in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Thecla so terrified church bureaucracy that it spent centuries suppressing her memory. The telling of her story was criticized by church authorities like Tertullian and Jerome. The male presbyter who dared to write down her story was demoted, and churches were instructed not to read it in their services. People loved Thecla so much that church authorities still felt the need to write against it as late as the seventh century. Her memory is so well suppressed that most Christians have never heard of her.
Nuns still pose a problem for the Vatican, which tends to treat them as a source of cheap labor, while wishing they would just keep their mouths shut. Neither clergy nor laity, they occupy the lowest rung on the ecclesiastical ladder. When they join the order, they give up status, position, earning potential, accumulated wealth, and earning capacity. They are not ordained and have no real ecclesiastical status, yet that structure holds them more accountable than anyone else. Think about it; the Roman Catholic Church would like to force all its members to speak out against abortion and homosexuality, but only the Sisters were subjected to a two-year probe into their “quality of life” and accused of being radical feminists.
American nuns are indeed radical, compared to the patriarchal pedophile protectors in charge of the Roman Catholic Church. Nuns have always been at the forefront of promoting women’s progress. They were the first female PhDs, the first lady surgeons, and the first women to head schools and hospitals. While male authorities like the pope attempt to drag Catholics (and the rest of us) back to the 1950s, the majority of nuns believe the priesthood should be opened to women. Nuns have always identified with the poor and the outcast, often raising their voices against abuses by those in power — including the church. As the hierarchical church order lashes out against them, an outpouring of support rises from Americans — some Catholic, some not.
Nuns are the best thing about the Catholic Church. The male hierarchy should stop trying to silence them, and instead sit at their feet a while.
Jeannie Babb is a Ringgold native. You can find her on Facebook or pedaling a neon green bike through the Sewanee fog to the School of Theology, black academic gown billowing behind like a sail. Send email to email@example.com.