The Other I

May 10, 2012

My sisters after all

I doubt that I share a single Catholic doctrine with 99.9% of American nuns.  And so I have assumed that I simply do not belong to that community by any definition of the term.

But I’m somewhat surprised to discover that I do.  Faith among the early Christian communities did not mean doctrinal agreement as it has come to be taught by the Roman Catholic church today.  It meant faithfulness to each other, it meant helping when the other was in need, it meant respecting each other.  It meant the Good Samaritan not the hypocritical Pharisees presiding over the temple.

And by that definition, I find that I am absolutely still part of that community of which so many American nuns are such a heart-stopping example.

There is a gathering in support of American nuns being held outside New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral next Tuesday at 4:30.  If it didn’t involve my having to book an international air flight, I’d be there.

It might be that I am far too separated from American Catholicism to make a valid judgement.  But I just can’t see the Vatican winning this fight against American nuns.  I don’t give donations to the Catholic church.  But I would contribute to the pensions of nuns rather than see them out on the street like so many millions of people they have helped.

I’m surprised to discover just how roused I am capable of becoming over this issue.  But the thing is I don’t think I’m unusual.  The following letter to Cardinal Dolan in Rome rather catches the spirit, I think.

Posted: 05/08/2012 4:46 pm

 Dear Cardinal Dolan,

Because “60 Minutes” names you Our Man in Rome (as the most likely to become the first American Pope), I’m writing to ask about the Vatican’s investigation of American nuns — presumably for not being “Catholic enough.” Can you find out: What is the Pope thinking? Can you influence this disastrous endeavor?

Let’s assume the Vatican lacks knowledge of the role of nuns in American history: those women who pioneered health treatments, of cancer and hospice (Sister Rose Hawthorne Lathrop), of alcoholics (Sister Mary Ignatia) and of lepers (Mother Marianne Cope); who built schools –through college — to educate African- and Native-Americans more than 80 years before our Civil Rights movement began (St. Katharine Drexel); and the colonist who founded the first American religious order (St. Elizabeth Seton) to care for poor children. Does the Pope know that American nuns developed the first infant incubator, built and ran the hospital that became Mayo Clinic and founded the world’s largest private school system? That nuns were once THE educated working women in our country, establishing orphanages, hospitals and social service agencies with creativity, grit and perseverance (and sometimes being silenced by their bishops for their innovations).

If the Pope does not consider this history significant to today’s nuns, please appeal to the Vatican’s self-interest. I’m aware that public relations is not a Vatican concern (nor even a concept) and that our hierarchy responds globally to crises with advice only from its lawyers. But isn’t it time to ask the Pope: How’s that been working out for you? It’s time to suggest firing the lawyers and hiring a public relations consultant.

Please don’t forget to quote those adjectives the U. S. media use to describe this “insulting” “immoral” “abusive” “sexist” “hostile” investigation. Newspapers claim the nuns are “being bullied” by the Vatican, and speculating that the underlying motive of this “inquisition” is for the Vatican to raid the assets of female religious orders to help pay claims from the pedophile lawsuits. Note that this is just what our Catholic media is saying!

Please also warn the Pope about repercussions in terms of branding and image. These elderly women — their average age is 70 — who’ve spent their lives as poorly paid servants in parishes and communities, are still working because they were given no pensions or health care benefits. They cannot afford to retire. Their only rest will come in their coffins, when each sister is buried with the letter she wrote when she entered her convent decades ago, telling why she chose to serve God by serving others. Common decency aside, common sense dictates that sympathy will be for these women, rather than for the powerful men investigating them.

It’s also been reported that because the Vatican suspects our nuns of disregarding Catholic teaching on certain hot-button issues, it needs to determine if these sisters are verifiably Catholic. No doubt birth control is one of these issues. But why pick on our nuns? More than 77 percent of American Catholics consider using birth control morally acceptable. None of us can recall the last time we heard a priest support the Vatican’s birth control ban from the pulpit; even our pastors — looking into parishes with two-child families — know that that ship has sailed. It left way back in 1963, when the pill was prescribed by Catholic doctors for the health and welfare of mothers and families. Our nuns should be the last to be interrogated on this issue, and at this late date.

Our Catholic media also speculates that the investigation is an attempt by the Vatican to influence American politics, specifically to oust President Obama. Has anyone pointed out to the Pope that even Catholic Republicans did not vote for the Catholic, Rick Santorum, who championed the Church’s birth control ban? GOP Catholics support the Mormon!

Perhaps the sisters have been discussing the ordination of women and married people, though open discussion of this is forbidden by the Vatican. Please inform the Holy Father that we’ve all been discussing that, for decades. Tell him about the doctrines we cherish, the First Amendment to our Constitution, and Article 6, #1782 in the Catechism on “Moral Conscience”: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”

OK, let’s admit that the “f-word” has surfaced in coverage of this nightmare, as the most damning charge of all. U.S. bishops reportedly alerted the Vatican that many of our nuns are … Feminists. That may be because our American sisters took Vatican II and Pope John XXIII seriously 50 years ago, when they were challenged to rethink their vocations, “to make the truth of the Gospel shine,” and to “dedicate [them]selves without fear to that work which our era demands of us.” The nuns quit wearing the medieval habits that separated them from others, and many moved from convents into a larger community to serve in new ways. They also embraced the Council’s call for dialogue, by not only talking with but listening to those they serve, many of whom are poor women. Would that our hierarchy could seek and get such an education!

These questions remain: Does the Pope really want to force American Catholics to choose between standing with our nuns or with a male hierarchy interrogating them for nebulous infractions, with a stated agenda of keeping their findings secret? Where could we find Jesus in all this — among our nuns, whose life of service is based on the Gospels’ call to justice and charity, or in the Vatican, whose concerns appear to be power and secrecy? At the very least, let the investigators ask those who know our nuns best — the homeless, prisoners, battered women and their children, immigrants, inner-city students, the disabled, the bereaved and the bullied — if these elderly women are “Catholic enough.” And if not, then who is? Is even the Pope “Catholic enough”?

Carol DeChant founded the public relations firm DeChant-Hughes & Associates, Inc. Her recent book is “Great American Catholic Eulogies” (ACTA Publishers).


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