The Catholic Church’s ahistorical attack on nuns
In 1899, a contingent of nuns journeyed into the malarial forests of southern Africa to set up missionary schools. They mastered the clicking language of the Ndebele tribe, baked communion bread in brick ovens they built themselves, and steered clear of the subject of monogamy so as not to enrage the polygamous local chief.
In 1911, another group of sister-pioneers set sail for the islands of Fiji to run a clinic for lepers. In 1929, nuns in black habits rode a steamship up the Yangtze River into the heart of China, braving insufferable heat, flying termites, and warring generals.
Without these extraordinary women, the Catholic Church would never have been able to spread its teachings around the globe or staff its unwieldy empire. So the Vatican’s denunciation of the largest group of American nuns for “radical feminist” ideas is not only shockingly out of touch with the modern world, but also willfully blind to the church’s history.
Long before Betty Friedan kicked off the modern feminist movement, nuns were earning medical degrees and running complex institutions. Just look at the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, founded in 1804 to educate impoverished girls. When a bishop forbade them to expand their work, they refused to obey and were kicked out of France. They relocated to Namur, Belgium, and went on to build schools in 17 countries.
It’s not surprising that religious orders attracted such women. For centuries, the convent was the only respectable place for girls who aspired to travel and make a difference.
Eventually, the women’s-rights movement gave young women the chance to work in social justice outside the church. That’s one reason the number of American nuns plummeted. But the lack of respect for nuns in an all-male church hierarchy also played a role.
In the early 1960s, Vatican II gave nuns wide latitude to go out into the world and perform good works. Some joined the civil rights movement. Others protested the Vietnam War.
But skittish men simultaneously reined them in. The archbishop of Los Angeles insisted on dictating nuns’ bedtimes, prayer hours, and reading, leading to an infamous 1970 standoff that prompted more than 300 sisters to break with the church.
If the Vatican insists on punishing nuns — the recent reprimand accuses them of focusing too much on poverty and not enough on the church’s teachings on homosexuality — we could see a similar showdown. Maybe the men of the Vatican prefer a smaller, “purer” church reminiscent of the Middle Ages. But what message does this send to everybody else?
Are we really supposed to believe that strong-willed nuns are more dangerous to Catholicism than child-molesting priests? That crusades against masturbation and gay marriage are more important than helping the poor? It’s hard to imagine that Jesus would agree.
The Vatican has been on the wrong side of history before. Luckily, the church’s vibrant community has a way of self-correcting with time. Two hundred years ago, Julie Billiart, the foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was a persona non grata in France. Today, she is a saint.