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Listen to the nuns

May 31, 2012

As a college student in the mid-‘80s, I took a class on Virginia Woolf. The professor, a youthful woman with swishy, black hair and a quick humor, liked to tell us that had she been around in past ages she would have been a nun.

The convent was a refuge for smart women, she liked to say. It was a complement to her, of course, but also to her friend, a nun, who came each week to audit the class. She sat in the back of the classroom to listen and knit while we all yakked about having “a room of one’s own” and what it meant to be a woman writer then and now. It’s all so hard to remember now—and who wants to remember some of the claptrap we talked about when we were young.

But I remembered her words when the Vatican last month announced its plans to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group that represents most of America’s Catholic nuns. It declared that the organization has strayed from Catholic doctrine particularly in not speaking out against issues currently prohibited by the church, such as women’s ordination and gay marriage. Others say that the Vatican’s censure is in response to the LCWR’s support of President Obama’s health care plan over the objections of American bishops.

All of this makes me sad. (In the interest of full disclosure, I attend Mass each week even as I struggle with my identity as a Catholic.) It seems yet again to affirm the church’s tendencies toward exclusion, cover-up and a stubborn inability to engage in real issues of change. Sometimes it feels like all these trivial changes are like rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship, as the saying goes. After all, can you really gender neutralize the words in classic hymns, as is the trend in recent hymnals, and call it progress?

I have known many nuns (as well as priests) of great integrity, truth and kindness who have spent their lives in service to others here and in far-flung places. And they all deserve better treatment.

An aunt of mine spent over 20 years in Brazil teaching health and nursing classes. As a kid, I looked forward to her tissue-thin aero grams with the exotic stamps that often asked for supplies for her classes (such as cast-off blood pressure cuffs). I vividly remember drying apples to send at Christmas so she could make an apple pie. When she came home, I sat under the table while she and her fellow sisters prayed in Portuguese. The nuns were smart then and they are smart now—and the church needs to listen to them.