The investigation by the Vatican looking into the actions of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) involves a question of loyalties. The Catholic Church's reprimand of the group for "spending too much time on social justice and poverty issues and not enough time condemning abortion and gay marriage," as reported by The Washington Post, is aimed at the independent thinkers of individual religious communities.
Many Catholics find the crackdown disappointing yet unsurprising. As they understand it, the LCWR was founded with the full approval and cooperation of the church. The group has a 50-year history of action fighting poverty, illness, discrimination, oppression and other pressing social issues, which the four popes previous to Benedict XVI found no problems with. This incident shows that the church's current leadership is exceedingly conservative and wants no dissent among its ranks.
Some conjecture has been made as to the reasons that led to the investigation based on the report by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF). It could be because many of the women religious backed Obama health reforms, including its controversial rules on contraception. Observers say it is an example of part of a growing crackdown on liberal dissenters. It could be because, some conservatives of the church say, these women are trying to create a new religion.
We are learning a lot more about Catholic sisters who are these days often seen as the best of the institution and the finest representatives it has — women who worship God and emulate Jesus, and workers who run schools and hospitals. In recent years, documentaries like “In Good Conscience” and “God Is the Bigger Elvis” show the humanity and the difficult choices nuns face in their life of devotion which have helped to dissolve the stereotypes of the harsher nun.
So who is right? Were the good sisters led astray by the influences of our decadent nation or are they acting on behalf of the people of God, justified in their commitment that everyone among us are all contributors of something good?
It’s not the first time women have come into conflict with the views of the church for their work in offering health care directly to the people of their communities.
Women up until the 14th century were able to play significant roles as caretakers of their entire community and became known as midwives. Older women, whether having borne children or not, had experience and knowledge of which plants worked best to cure certain ills and lessen one’s suffering. In contrast to this, church fathers in Europe became more vocal in their proclamations that only through prayer and God’s grace could people be cured of their ailments.
The church taught that women’s suffering was expected, especially in childbirth. It was one thing to help catch a baby when it was born; it was quite another to go beyond prayer to ease one’s pain during labor. Midwives used herbs to manage pain. They also employed knowledge handed down from the ancients on contraceptive herbs that helped women limit the number of children they would bear in their life time. This also contrasted with the teachings of the church in that families were encouraged to be as large as possible.
Midwives became identified with witchcraft and their role in the community turned suspect (but that’s another blog). When the nobility and the universities were established across Europe, medicine advanced and herbal wisdom was given a second chance. For women, however, that ship had sailed. Only men were allowed to enroll in higher education and the role of women as healers fell mostly, but not completely, into the realms of folklore and fairy tales.
In the Middle Ages, a nunnery was the only recourse for women if they wanted to avoid marriage and childbirth. During the high Middle Ages, a special interest in the Virgin Mary arose which led to increasing respect and veneration of women in religious life. Around this time many devotional texts were written by and for women who had entered the holy life as religious recluses.
Female mystics such as Hildegard de Bingen were revered throughout the Christian west for their ability to access a higher spiritual reality. Hildegard was a German abbess who experienced extraordinary visions and wrote beautiful music. More interestingly, she wrote profusely on topics which male writers rarely commented on, such as how to deal with menstrual cramps. Much of her medical writing included discussion of herbs for medicinal use, including prescriptions for what we would consider today gynecological wellness.
Hildegard enjoyed a small semblance of power. Perhaps because of her bravado or because she flouted ecclesiastical authority, she was never canonized yet was so loved by her community that she is still revered and celebrated as a local saint.
One of the loudest voices to flout her ecclesiastical views in the Catholic community today is Sister Jeannine Gramick who founded an organization called New Ways Ministry, which seeks to create an atmosphere in which gays and lesbians are included in Catholic communities. When the CDF tried to suppress Sister Jeannine by telling her that she could not do pastoral work with lesbian/gay people and that she could not speak about the Vatican’s investigation of her ministry, she responded with a courageous, “I choose not to participate in my own oppression.”
Sister Jeannine says that in the 1970’s, 80’s and early 90’s there were many pastoral bishops who supported the work of the nuns that led fulfilling lives serving their community. She adds that nuns were allowed to speak their own opinions about how to best serve the people they resided near. But most of those bishops have retired or are deceased.
Sister Jeannine is passionate about the issues that she works to improve. Her most recent passion is trying to understand and help the children who are victims of bullying because of their sexual orientation. Many of the youths are driven to consider and/or attempt suicide because their lives have become unbearable. She says she wishes to hear support from the Vatican on this.
They are in the trenches, these women caregivers, ministering to all of the populations, especially those that are underrepresented. Offering prayers and medicine in an act of direct service, the sisters understand that community work is making connections and leaving no one neglected because of race, creed or other differences. They do all of this because of their love of the Holy Spirit which they experience in their work. It’s not political, it’s personal.
Maybe, like Hildegard, several centuries from now history will reflect positively all that Sister Jeannine and her brethren are trying to accomplish.
***Many thanks to my friends, Cindy, Cami and Nadine for giving insight into Catholic and Episcopal views.
Johnson, Elizabeth. Quest for a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. New York: Continuum; Reprint edition, 2011.