Friday, June 1, 2012

What the Nuns' Story is Really About

By Fr. Doug Koesel
Pastor, Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, Cleveland OH

NOTE: This commentary was first published May 27, 2012, in the parish bulletin of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Cleveland, OH.

Many of you have asked me to comment on the recent investigation into the US nuns. Here goes. In short, the Vatican has asked for an investigation into the life of religious women in the United States. There is a concern about orthodoxy, feminism and pastoral practice. The problem with the Vatican approach is that it places the nuns squarely on the side of Jesus and the Vatican on the side of tired old men, making a last gasp to save a crumbling kingdom lost long ago for a variety of reasons.

One might say that this investigation is the direct result of the John Paul II papacy. He was suspicious of the power given to the laity after the Second Vatican Council. He disliked the American Catholic Church. Throughout his papacy he strove to wrest collegial power from episcopal conferences and return it to Rome.

One of the results of the council was that the nuns became more educated, more integrated in the life of the people and more justice-oriented than the bishops and pope. They are doctors, lawyers, university professors, lobbyists, social workers, authors, theologians, etc. Their appeal was that they always went back to what Jesus said and did. Their value lay in the fact that their theology and their practice were integrated into the real world.

The Vatican sounded like the Pharisees of the New Testament; legalistic, paternalistic and orthodox while the good sisters were the ones who were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, educating the immigrant, and so on. Nuns also learned that Catholics are intuitively smart about their faith. They prefer dialogue over diatribe, freedom of thought over mind control, biblical study over fundamentalism, development of doctrine over isolated mandates.

Far from being radical feminists or supporters of far-out ideas, religious women realized that the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic teaching are no longer valid. Women are not subservient to men, the natural law is much broader than once thought, the Old Testament is not as important as the New Testament, love is more powerful than fear. They realized that you can have a conversation with someone on your campus who thinks differently than the church without compromising what the church teaches. (For example, I could invite Newt Gingrich here to speak. You'd all still know what the church teaches about divorce in spite of him.) Women religious have learned to live without fear (Srs. Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clark, Ita Ford) and with love (Mother Teresa). And the number of popes and bishops and cardinals following in their footsteps, Jesus' footsteps, is __?

This is what annoys American Catholics. The Vatican is hypocritical and duplicitous. Their belief is always that someone else needs to clean up their act; the divorced, the gays, the media, the US nuns, the Americans who were using the wrong words to pray, the seminaries, etc. It never occurs to the powers that be that the source of the problem is the structure itself. We can say that now with certainty as regards the sex abuse crisis. It was largely the structure of the church itself, the way men were trained and isolated, made loyal to the system at all costs and not to the person, that gave us the scandalous cover-up.

US nuns work side by side with the person on the street. They are involved in their everyday lives. Most cardinals spent less than five years in a parish, were never pastors, are frequently career diplomats.

Religious women in the US refuse to be controlled by abusive authority that seeks to control out of fear. They realize that Jesus taught no doctrines, but that the church, over time, developed what Jesus taught in a systematic way. Nuns have always tried to work within the system. This time their prophetic voices may take them out of the system. They may take a lot of Catholics and a lot of their hospitals, schools, colleges, orphanages, prison ministries, convents, women's shelters, food pantries and, of course, the good will they have earned over the centuries with them.

This investigation is not about wayward US nuns. It is the last gasp for control by a dying breed, wrapped in its own self-importance. It is a struggle for the very nature of the church; who we are, how we pray, where we live, who belongs, why we believe. The early church endured a similar struggle. The old order died. The Holy Spirit won. Happy Pentecost Sunday!


  1. ""The Old Testament is not as important as the New Testament..." Bravo! So glad to know that Marcionism is alive and well!

    Koesel's invocation of Blessed Teresa is outrageous. The Missionaries of Charity do not belong to the LCWR, and quite deliberately so. Blessed T was all about obedience and commitment to the shepherds of the Church, a Church that is, as the Council reminded us, both mystical and hierarchical.

    The fact is that for so many beautiful sisters, sisters who have pledged their lives to Christ and the Church, a silent, "soft" persecution has existed for years. The communities to which these heroins belong have become spiritual wastelands and these sisters have become exiles in their own communities - women who still wear the habit despite the patronizing looks of the wilting and dying leadership of their communities. Women who shake their heads as they endure bizarre and radically anti-Christian propaganda spewed forth during study days and convocations. These are the real points of light in our Church - the women who pray for the world as they watch the community they love be destroyed by women inspired by great intentions but woefully unrooted from the Gospel, a Gospel which always leads us to union with the Church, an institution that is both mystical and visible.

    For these women, the reform of LCWR is a great gift, a gift that is long overdue and indeed, an answer to a whispered prayer for deliverance.

    1. Seems to me, these exiles should have transferred into congregations that more closely fit their concept of religious vocation. It's hard for me to generate much sympathy for women who preferred to stay in place and complain and gossip, rather than find spiritual life in another setting.

  2. Dear Anonymous. Does it have to be only one way, either/or? There has always been pluralism in religious orders; each congregation has its own charism. Is it reasonable to say that there should be no criticism of Church leadership? Isn't it more reasonable to say that Church leadership and all the different modes of being consecrated religious should be in dialogue about what the Gospel requires?

  3. Bravo, Fr. Koesel! I admire your courage, especially in these times when the witch hunts are alive and well among the conservative idealogues. They need to learn the history of the church. The church can be, and has been WRONG. Theologians of the past debated whether women have souls. The church taught as a matter of dogma that the sun revolves around the earth. The church was responsible for the torture and slaughtet of Jews and Muslims and any whom it deemed to be "infidels" in the days of the inquisition. The church forbade the burial of suicide victims in consecrated ground. Many of the great saints were reformers and dissenters who were determined to root out malignancy in the heirarchy. The papacy itself has been shockingly corrupt, riddled with scandal--including incest, murder, debauchery, fiscal and political corruption, collusion with nazism and fascism. Wake up, people! The Holy Spirit is calling for a new era, for a return to gospel values that have norhing to do with that insular club of deluded old men in Rome. Are they circling the wagons? You bet they are! Their day is fast coming to an end. Thanks be to God.

  4. Grandma,

    Um.... When exactly did serious Catholic theologians debate whether or not women had souls?
    And when did the Church define dogmatically that the sun revolves around the earth?

    If this is what your history books say, you need to get a new library.

    1. Anonymous - I'm not surprised that you don't allow your name to be known because if I were to defend an archaic,misogynist and deluded enclave of old men in Rome, I wouldn't want anyone to know either. Paula,grandma and Fr. Koesel have IMO seen the light that in this modern era, we need the Church and all its parts, the leadership, the nuns and the laity, to be in constant dialogue in understanding what the Gospels require.
      I must assume that you are a male since you do not value the great works done by the nuns in administering to those that need help and succor. The old guard in the Vatican is led by a pope who was one of the shock troops that oversaw the CDF when he was a cardinal imposing Rome's view of the world no matter how the rest of the church felt.
      Living with your head in the sand leaves your primary asset buried and exposes another.

      ciao from lee witoszkin,
      an old man who can still recognize the folly of dictatorship when it rears its head.