In April, 2008, at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), Pope Benedict XVI approved an investigation into the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) in the U.S. The state of women’s religious life in the U.S. was investigated in two formal ways. The first of these two investigations was a survey of nearly 400 separate institutions (the results of which have not been made public – or I was unable to find them). The second was a more in depth evaluation of the LCWR, the details of which were shared publicly (here).
According to the document, the CDF Prefect cited three reasons for the evaluation of the LCWR, among them that women in religious leadership have embraced “radical feminism,” “[taken] a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality,” supported women’s leadership roles in the church, criticized the “patriarchal” structure of church life, and distorted the (gendered) structure of religious life that Jesus had intended. As a result, an American Archbishop (read: a man) has been charged with overseeing the revision of the LCWR.
[W]hile there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose. (here)
I thought twice about posting on this as I’m sure there are many opinions out there on the matter. I’m not a Catholic, and I’ve never been accused of being a particularly religious person, but I decided that, Catholic or not, most of us can agree that nuns do a great deal of work few others would willingly undertake. Nuns are asked to do a lot of things I’d find difficult to do: they are abstinent, take a vow of poverty, care for the poor, run schools and hospitals, and the list goes on. They do work that must be done when there’s no one there to do it. I think it’s fair to say that the body of men living in Rome assessing women’s work in the United States is pretty far removed from the life conditions that nuns are attempting to tackle head on. It’s hard not to think of the scene in Doubt (2008) that juxtaposes the dinner of the priests with that of the nuns. Since news of the evaluation went public, there has been a great deal of public support for the nuns (see here, here, and here).
Occupational segregation is produced by and helps to reinforce gender inequality, but few workplaces are as sex segregated as the Catholic Church. It’s really unbelievable that American nuns are being publicly chastised, punished, and “reformed” for taking on issues of human justice.
Women in the U.S.—and around the world—are responsible for a disproportionate share of the care work that enables all of us to persist. While sex scandals and stories of embezzlement are a regular feature of news regarding men in the Church, nuns in the Catholic Church are perhaps its most redeeming element. The care work that nuns do goes on in spaces into which many of us never venture. The Church is primarily interested in the fact that nuns are not adhering to Church doctrine as strictly as the Church would like. I’m more interested in the fact that women who’ve devoted their lives to the Church are finding Church doctrine incompatible with solving the problems they encounter every day. This seems to me to be a powerful example of how the social spaces in which we live, work, and play have the capacity to challenge and transform even our most deeply held beliefs.
It’s a pretty bold claim to call Catholic nuns “radical feminists.” Regardless, here is a group of women who deserve feminist support.