There is a certain image of a religious sister that is predominant in American culture, Catholic and not, one that has been reinforced by half a century of movies and literature, but also buttressed by stereotypes both positive and negative that have developed over the years about the hundreds of thousands of nuns and religious sisters who have served the Church and the world in the United States. You’d recognize it from Going My Way or The Bells of St. Mary’s, but also from sources as diverse as some of Madonna’s onstage costumes to Sally Field flying over Puerto Rico as “the Flying Nun.” Often, you’ll also find it in the half-remembered ruminations of many American Catholics about the women who taught them in parochial school.
According to this image, the nun wears a religious habit; she is stern but serene; most of her life is lived in a mystery inaccessible to those who cannot pass the convent door; she is docile and humble; she has surrendered her identity to participate in a life of quietude. If you’re a fan of the author J.F. Powers (why aren’t you?), you’ll remember the image of the parish priest drinking a beer and listening to the ballgame on the porch of the rectory, his Roman collar dangling loose around his neck in the afternoon heat, while his nuns in full habit dutifully count the parish collections behind closed doors at his back.
Powers’ image (captured in his short story “The Lord’s Day,” re-released here) is of course more complex than that, for he gives the religious women in the rectory their own voice, and recognizes that they are aware of some of the unjust structures of power and privilege within which they work and live. They know Father out there on the porch is a bit of a buffoon, insensitive and self-absorbed at times. Some of them openly express to each other their dislike of him and resent his presumption that he can make decisions for them, about everything from their cooking needs to the degree to which their convent needs shade from a beautiful nearby tree he cuts down out of callous indifference. He doesn’t hear their hopes and resentments, in part because the sisters are discreet, but mostly because he does not listen—the reality of their lives is a mystery to him, and he’s kept it a mystery on purpose.
I suspect (in fact know) that J.F. Powers himself was deeply disillusioned by many of the changes that the Catholic Church undertook at and after Vatican II, but one of the most visible signs of development in the Church that emerged from Vatican II in this country was the partial liberation of those religious women from many of the structures and stereotypes that restricted their ministry and cossetted their vocations. The religious sisters most of us know today do not live behind closed doors or wear restrictive habits, but serve the world in a manner more appropriate to the original charism of their founders (called for at Vatican II, and repeatedly endorsed by every pope since, including John Paul II). They wear clothing appropriate to their ministry; they teach in universities; they direct hospitals and social service agencies; they run AIDS hospices and grammar schools and retreat houses; they accompany us in our lives (and often at our deaths) as Christians and Americans in a thousand different ways.
The enormous amount of goodwill that many Americans feel towards these women, many of whom are past retirement age, is part of the reason for much of the bewilderment and anger of many Catholics over the Vatican’s recent announcement that it was appointing a bishop to oversee and reform the Leadership Council of Women Religious (which represents 80 percent of the women religious in the United States). The LCWR was also criticized in the document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for “policies of corporate dissent,” “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” and “a vision or description of religious life that does not conform to the faith and practice of the Church.” While the document also highly praised the LCWR for its work in promoting and implementing the social teachings of the Church, it was seen by most Catholic commentators (from every conceivable point of view) as a stern rebuke of American women religious for the way they have interpreted religious life in the past half-century.
One of the sternest rebukes I ever received as a child from my parents was one year at Halloween when I wanted to go as a nun, and tried to add a ruler to my costume—because, you know, nuns hit people with rulers. “Who hit you?!” my parents asked. “When? How?” I slunk away, because their questions were legitimate; no religious sister had ever harmed me in any way approaching that image. There was another implied message from my parents, though: In this family we do not dishonor nuns. My parents knew their experiences and ours belied any negative cultural trope around women religious, from the sisters who taught them from childhood all the way through the many Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary who have been with us through every step of our lives—including my aunt, who taught for half a century in universities, grammar schools, novitiates and prisons, and many other religious women who have been great blessings in our lives.
The larger American culture also knows many of the stereotypes of women religious are false at some level, despite the comic images of Sister Scholastica tormenting George Carlin or of a woman tossing away her habit to take up the weapons of a revolutionary. For most of us, women religious have been our positive examples of Christian life. They might be to the left of us or to the right of us (I know those sisters too), and sometimes there will be some who go off the deep end (I have known a few of those too), but that does not diminish the Christian example of all the rest.
And that is part of an incarnational faith, of course; if the second person of the Trinity became human, we can say truthfully and not just by analogy that our brothers and sisters in humanity can convey to us something of who Christ is and was, building up the Kingdom and preparing all of us for its total realization “in the already and in the not-yet.” But if we are to ask ourselves who communicates Christ to us, and what that image is, we have to be honest about who is doing that.
The Power and The Glory
I do not doubt that for many in the church, including me, that image of Christ has been communicated through many diocesan priests, through religious-order priests, through bishops and through popes. Who would claim that watching the long suffering of John Paul II before his death did not tell us something profound about the way in which Christ “emptied himself out” for the sake of humanity? At the same time, though, there is a terrible danger in limiting our understanding of Christ-like influences in our life to only ordained men of any status.
I was taught a song about the sacraments (by a woman religious) when I was in parochial school in the early 1980s. Most of it I have forgotten, but part of which I have always remembered: the stanza regarding Holy Orders. I have sung it at times during my three years of theology study to get a laugh out of friends and peers, because it seems so foreign to our post-Vatican II ecclesiology, and certainly ironic in light of the diminishment of the perceived sanctity of priests in our popular culture. That singsong stanza goes as follows:
Why do we tip our hat to a priest?
And why do we call him Father?
He’s like Christ; how do I know?
Holy Orders makes him so.
There is of course a way in which I do believe priests are called to be “conformed to Christ in a special way,” and I have had many experiences throughout life of priests who have been very much Christ-like. And it’s safe to say I would not have spent the last ten years of my life seeking ordination to the Jesuit priesthood if I didn’t find some truth in the sacramental reality behind that silly song. But there’s also a serious problem with it, which is why it inspires guffaws from many of my peers and the occasional truth attack in response. It’s not that priests can’t be Christ-like; it’s that we all can be like Christ, particularly in the way we minister to each other and mirror God’s grace to one another.
As I mentioned earlier, the people in my life who have most reflected the image of Christ have been religious sisters. Some were schoolteachers, some university professors, some campus ministers, some hospital chaplains. They have been embodiments of Christian wisdom and figures of Christian mercy for me at every step on the way, and my experience is not unique—just ask your neighbor. Whatever the strict definition of sacramental capacities or ministerial authority we argue about on a theological level, we cannot deny the reality of that experience. And perhaps this is a message that needs to be conveyed to authority figures who feel rebukes are necessary—the message that correction and dialogue need not be carried out through the public dishonoring of members of our Christian family. Surely the LCWR might benefit at some level from some helpful correction (who among us wouldn’t?), but was this the way to do it?
Getting back to those images I mentioned earlier of the suffering of our fellow humans that links us to the sufferings of Christ, I have one more question: what do you think it’s like to be a woman religious in the United States right now, to hear after a lifetime of service on behalf of the Church and humanity that there are some in the church who consider you to be disobedient, or that you have embraced a radical feminism at odds with the Catholic faith? Of course some in the church have said “we are not talking about the sisters, we are talking about their leadership structure in the LCWR.” But isn’t that a semantic dodge, if the LCWR is the elected leadership of eighty percent of those religious sisters? Where do these women go in their prayer, in their public lives, when the ordained men they nurtured and instructed in their faith make them a public example of infidelity to the Church? Perhaps back to the suffering Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating Him. They blindfolded Him and demanded, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?’ And they said many other insulting things to Him.”
Jim Keane, S.J.