The Vatican doesn’t like to back down. It has stood its ground when challenged by activists, politicians and ordinary parishioners over contraception, homosexuality and celibacy in the priesthood. But Rome seems to have met its match when it decided to take on American nuns.
In December, the Vatican quietly finished up a two-year investigation into American nuns. The charge? The sisters had strayed too far from the more conservative approach favored by Rome. In 2009, Cardinal Rodé, who called for the investigation, warned that U.S. nuns had a “secularist mentality” and a “feminist spirit.” Rodé and other Vatican leaders were unhappy with politically outspoken nuns challenging many of Rome’s positions.
But, as our interviews with several sisters living in New England shows, U.S. nuns are standing up to the Vatican and defending their right to serve parishioners as they see fit. And it appears that the Vatican has got the message: the Cardinal behind the investigation has been replaced and it’s looking very unlikely that Rome will issue any new edicts or force U.S. nuns to be like their more traditional European sisters.
The times they are a changin’
American nuns have had their own quiet revolution over the past 50 years. Take Sister Joanne Roy. In the 1960s, she showed up at a peaceful four-story convent in the coastal town of Saco, Maine and took the vows to be obedient to God and to the Church. Back then she woke up at 5.15am each day for morning prayers and would spend the day studying. She wore a traditional habit with a long dark skirt and veil.
Sister Joanne’s life changed radically with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Vatican II was an effort to modernize the church, and allowed religious orders more independence from Rome. And Americans nuns were ready to get out of the habit. They began wearing casual clothes, living alone and—most significantly—taking a more active role in fixing the injustices, as they see them, in American society. Sister Joanne moved out of the convent. She now shares a house with three former prisoners. She is a substance abuse counselor and goes with her clients to drug court.
Out of the habit and into politics
Nuns have not shied away from some of the most controversial topics in America. Nearby, in Portland, Maine, Sister Pat Pora has waded into the debate over immigration. Pat started a Spanish service for Hispanic immigrants. Each Sunday day laborers and cleaners pack the pews to hear accordions and tambourines play the hymns of their homelands. When people in the congregation are threatened with deportation, Pat advocates on their behalf, and she helps organize protests against anti-immigration laws.
This is a far cry from what was long considered proper nun’s work: teaching in a Catholic school or being a nurse in a Catholic hospital. Now, Sister Pat believes that the Vatican wants to turn back the clock. “I remember when I was a younger sister and I was in the habit,” she said. “I would get into an elevator and people would say ‘Oh, isn’t she cute.’ That’s a romanticized vision of what religious life is all about.”
Nuns vs. nuns
Over the past five decades over 50,000 U.S. nuns have left the convent and stopped wearing the habit, but not all. Around six thousand American nuns have remained doggedly traditional, and many of them feel that the more liberal nuns have strayed so far that only intervention from Rome can bring them back into the fold.
Sister Elizabeth Cobb is one of them. She lives with one other nun in Sanford, Maine, and teaches at the local Catholic school. She used to be in the same order as Sister Pat Pora, but in the 1990s their community split. The majority joined a more progressive order but Cobb was one of a dozen who resisted the change. They are known as the Diocesan Sisters of Mercy.
She thinks that the Vatican had good reason to be worried about the more secular nuns. “We have a special place in the Church as religious women, why would we want to separate ourselves from Rome?” says Sister Elizabeth. “Some of the sisters are more avant garde than we are. Separate from the Church, I don’t believe that we have a ministry.”
Nuns fight back
But Sister Elizabeth’s opinions are in the minority. Many nuns angrily denounced the investigation. Sister Janice Farnham lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. She says that no matter what the final report says, she’s not going back to the convent. In fact, she’s offended that the Vatican would investigate nuns in the first place. “With all the difficulties the Church is having in the West, especially with the sexual abuse crisis – why should the nuns be being studied?” she says. “The Vatican officials are still back in the 19th century when nuns have moved ahead.”
The Vatican did not anticipate the intense backlash to the investigation. According Kenneth Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns, the investigation has been “very bad public relations for the Vatican.” He believes that “the response from ordinary Catholics was extremely negative. They saw it as criticizing nuns for things that they shouldn’t be criticized for. They saw it as bullying.”
And the Vatican can hardly afford to have thousands of upset nuns. As it is, their numbers have been rapidly diminishing. In 1965 there were 180,000 nuns in the U.S. Now there are only 56,000. Briggs believes the Vatican’s actions will diminish those numbers further, “rightly or wrongly the investigation reinforces the notion that the Church is not protective of women and is not going to treat them fairly.”
Change at the top
There are signs that the Vatican realized that it may have overreached. Cardinal Rodé, who instigated the investigation, retired before it was completed. The person now appointed to study the report is the more moderate Archbishop Tobin, an American. In an interview with the Catholic News Service, Tobin stopped short of apologizing for the investigation, but did regret the way it was carried out. “I believe a visitation has to have a dialogical aspect, but the way this was structured at the beginning didn’t really favor that,” he said.
He made it clear that he had heard the complaints of American nuns and was committed to smoothing things over. “I’m an optimist, but also trying to be realistic,” he told the Catholic News Service. “The trust that should characterize the daughters and sons of God and disciples of Jesus isn’t recovered overnight. I think women religious have a right to say, ‘Well, let’s see.’”
And that, says Sister Janice, is the “closest Rome comes to saying sorry.”