Nuns' Story

The men who run the Vatican thought they could simply clamp down on what they saw as the wayward activities of American nuns. They didn't realize who they were dealing with.

 
At Caroline House in Bridgeport, clockwise from top, Irene Hughes, Peg Regan, Lorraine Quinn and Connie Corrigan.

At Caroline House in Bridgeport, clockwise from top, Irene Hughes, Peg Regan, Lorraine Quinn and Connie Corrigan.

Bob Grier Photography

On the East Side of Bridgeport, in a neighborhood  largely made up of empty, boarded-up houses and vacant lots, the tidy yellow Victorian with broad front steps and white-columned porch appears like an oasis for weary souls. This is Caroline House, an education center for low-income women and children, the majority of them immigrant and Hispanic.

Peg Regan welcomes a young woman and her 9-year old son who have come here on this hot summer morning for English classes. Regan, Caroline House’s executive director, has short gray hair and is dressed casually. She is motherly with the children, sisterly with the women. In addition to language classes, she and a staff of five others, along with some 60 volunteers, offer skills their students want to learn: sewing and knitting, computer literacy and American-style cooking, for example. A preschool situated in the rear of Caroline House cares for clients’ children.

In a side room, Regan, who is fluent in Spanish, conducts a blackboard session in American expletives—knowledge she believes useful for women, especially mothers, who are new to this country.

The only outward differences between Regan and her volunteers—the only signs, perhaps, of a higher calling—are the silver cross hanging from her neck and a slight limp on her right side, picked up in part, she explains, from kneeling on concrete prison floors to talk and pray with inmates.     

Peg Regan and the five other teachers here are School Sisters of Notre Dame, an international religious order founded in Germany in 1833 to educate children, care for the poor, support women and work for justice and peace. (Caroline House is named for Mother Caroline Friess, who founded the order in the U.S.) The six nuns are part of a community of 74 sisters based at Villa Notre Dame in Wilton.

Like many of the more than 55,000 Catholic religious women in the U.S. today, they and other nuns in Connecticut are following the mission statements of their orders but also the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s, which called for spiritual renewal and for reading the signs of the times in order to become more integrated in the communities they serve. Some two dozen women’s religious congregations currently live and work in the state.

“Basically, what many of us are doing is stepping up to the renewal of faith asked of us by Vatican II, which was to look to where we were called to service,” says Sister Rose Marie Greco, administrator of Daughters of Wisdom, a Catholic order of 1,700 sisters worldwide that runs Wisdom House, a retreat and conference center in Litchfield. As a result, she says, “We started to look at people as people. We started to live simpler lives among the people we were serving. We’ve been able to relate to other women within and outside the Church.”    

And therein—living and working among those they feel called to serve; relating to other women as women; responding to fellow humans’ earthly needs with compassion and respect—lie the roots of the present showdown between contemporary sisters in the U.S. and the primarily male Catholic hierarchy 4,000 miles away in Rome.

 

Last April, the Vatican issued a sharp repudiation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the organization representing 80 percent of Catholic religious women in this country. It charged that the officers had failed to espouse traditional church teachings on issues such as gay marriage, contraception, abortion and the ordination of women. It also accused them of promoting “radical feminist themes” incompatible with Catholicism. U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—once the office of the Inquisition—was appointed to oversee what amounts to a likely hostile takeover of the LCWR.

What hasn’t been widely reported is the role William E. Lori, the former Bishop of the Bridgeport Diocese, played in this crackdown on American nuns.

It was Lori who, in 2003, as a supporter of traditional women’s religious orders, formally petitioned the CDF to launch an investigation into the LCWR. His proposal was reportedly advanced in Rome by Cardinal Bernard Law, a member of a number of important Vatican offices, and ultimately authorized by Pope Benedict XVI. Lori is also chairman of the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, succeeding Levada. In March of this year, Benedict, who has been pushing for a return to doctrinal orthodoxy since being elected pope in 2005, appointed Lori Archbishop of Baltimore, the city where the LCWR is based. (Numerous calls to the Archbishop’s office requesting an interview were not returned.)

While the Vatican claims it is targeting only the organization’s leadership, not American nuns in general, that hasn’t exactly been the case.

On June 4, two months after the LCWR repudiation, the CDF publicly denounced  Sister Margaret Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School, claiming that the views on human sexuality she expressed in her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, posed “grave harm” to the faithful.  
 

As with the widespread sexual abuse that’s come to light in the last decade in an institution ostensibly obsessed with sexual repression and control, the Vatican’s actions against nuns come laden with irony.

The Roman Catholic patriarchy has elevated the Virgin Mary to near divine status but has relegated nuns to second-class citizenship, denying them pastoral roles and a voice in policy while demanding fealty and obedience. Popular culture has long portrayed nuns as dark, if often amusing, dispensers of rigid theology and corporal punishment to generations of Catholic youth, but in reality they’ve been the good shepherds all along.


Meanwhile, the men in the Catholic hierarchy have struggled in vain to manage their own affairs.

In Connecticut, Lori took over a diocese that, under Bishop Edward Egan and Bishop Walter Curtis before him, compiled a horrific record of covering up sexual abuses by local clergy and turning a deaf ear to victims. In an interview that appeared on connecticutmag.com last February, Egan, now a retired cardinal in New York, recanted a public apology he had previously made for the abuse crisis, saying the church had done nothing wrong. Meanwhile, Cardinal Law, now instrumental in the Vatican statements regarding nuns, had been forced to resign as Bishop of the Boston diocese following allegations that he had mishandled hundreds of complaints against diocese priests who were later convicted of molesting minors.

In its April statement condemning the LCWR, the Vatican also reprimanded the sisters for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” But the soundness of that approach has been further undermined by recent developments in the never-ending abuse cases in this country.

On June 22, a Philadelphia jury found Monsignor William J. Lynn guilty of endangering children in that diocese by covering up sexual crimes by priests under his supervision. A month later, he was sentenced to three to six years in prison. It marks the first time that a member of the Catholic hierarchy has been sentenced for his role in the crisis. Lawyers and prosecutors say it could open the door to similar actions against senior church officials in other dioceses..

Yet perhaps the greatest irony in the current situation is that, almost overnight, the Vatican’s criticisms have turned nuns into American folk heroes of a kind.
If Vatican II was the seminal event of the 20th-century Church, then the conflict between the Vatican and LCWR may be the defining moment of modern sisterhood.

 

The friction between Rome and the majority of U.S. sisters stems in part from an apparent disconnect between the Vatican’s traditional view of nuns and how the majority of sisters view themselves and their roles in the church.

In a way, Catholic religious women have always seen their role as living and working among those whom they’ve been called to serve. But this has been especially true since the Second Vatican Council, begun in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and ended in 1965 under Pope Paul VI, which set in motion a new relationship between the church and the modern world.

For Sister Peg Regan, Vatican II flung open the convent doors, allowing religious women to express themselves and better fulfill their ministries in society. Shortly afterward, she and other Sisters of Notre Dame quit the habit—the floor-length black dress topped with white veil and wimple (the piece of starched linen that frames the face) that for more than a century-and-a-half had distinguished them as women of the church.

“We looked like penguins, frankly,” she says. “In some ways I began thinking of myself a little differently. Without the habit, I could be more myself.”

They also felt freer to follow where their ministries led them.

In the early 1990s, with parochial schools closing, the School Sisters of Notre Dame found new ministries in Bridgeport. “Here you had a whole group of immigrant women coming into the East Side and they didn’t know what was up—not just the language but they didn’t understand the culture,” Regan says. In 1983, when they were offered the Victorian house in the East End for a dollar, she recalls, “We said, ‘Okay, this is a sign from God.’ The place fit our mission perfectly—which is that we are here to help people reach the fullness of their potential, whatever that is.”

Other religious orders in Connecticut have taken similar paths.

Daughters of Wisdom sends sisters to ministries throughout the state, including Bridgeport, where Sister Cathy Sheehan serves as executive director of the AmeriCares Free Clinic there, providing quality care to the poor and those without health insurance.

In West Hartford, members of the international branch of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chambery, an order founded in France in 1650, run a half dozen ministries. One of them, a soup kitchen on Main and Chestnut streets called the House of Bread, serves 500 meals a day to adults and 500 hot meals to children from three Greater Hartford Boys and Girls Clubs after school. Another, Tabor House, founded in 1990 in Hartford’s South End, provides housing and care for men living with HIV/AIDS.

The sisters’ commitment to their ministries has made the Vatican crackdown all the harder to take.  

“Most of us have been saddened and, first of all, totally surprised—kind of blindsided—by the investigation,” says Sister Barbara Mullen, mission advancement director and director of communications for the Sisters of Saint Joseph. “Our sisters have dedicated their lives to being of service to the poor, the homeless, to those who don’t have any voice. And we’ve gone out and done our work. In some cases, the implication is that we’re not doing something right.”

Others point to the inconsistencies in the Vatican’s approach to its various sticky issues. “The sisters right now are being transparent and talking about the issues instead of sweeping them under the rug,” notes Sister Rose Marie at Wisdom House in Litchfield.

One particularly polarizing issue in the conflict is the LCWR’s failure to “espouse traditional church teachings,” in the Vatican’s words, a perception that implies “a deliberate omission on our part,” Mullen says. “Our choices of one work over another aren’t so much dependent upon the Church’s determination as they are dependent upon where we find unmet needs requiring our attention.”

Once or twice a month Caroline House brings in speakers to address a variety of topics of interest to their students. When staff from a major healthcare provider visited to discuss health services, Regan was asked if they could mention contraception and family planning. “I said, ‘Mention it—I’m not going to say no,’” she recalls. “Women have told me they’ve had an abortion, they’ve told me all sorts of things. I’ve never met a woman who did it casually—I’ve only met people who’ve had struggles and who’ve said, ‘I simply could not face another pregnancy and bringing another person into this world.’ I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m saying. ‘I still love you, I still care for you, and I want to help you move on, whatever it is.’

“I believe in a loving God who loves all of us, warts and all,” she adds. “And I don’t have to judge anybody. I mean, Jesus never condemned anybody. The woman caught in adultery? He said, ‘Go and sin no more.’ But guess what? We’re all going to sin, and we know that. We try to do better and learn from our mistakes.”

 

The ultimate outcome of the conflict between the Vatican and American nuns’ representatives is unclear, though control most likely resides in Rome, where the power and the money are.

“These communities don’t necessarily own their buildings and grounds, and they need to be concerned about support for elderly sisters at a time when they have few younger members,” notes Nancy Dallavalle, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University.

There also appears to be considerable resistance on the part of a deeply entrenched and embattled hierarchy to negotiate with the nuns.

In June, the board of the LCWR requested and was granted a meeting with CDF officials in Rome. According to a statement posted on the LCWR’s website, the meeting was “difficult.” In an interview following the meeting, Cardinal Levada was quoted as saying that the talks were a “dialogue of the deaf.”

Further clouding the picture is the fact that in early July Levada was replaced as head of the CDF by Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, a conservative German theologian thought to be closely aligned with the German-born Pope Benedict.

The LCWR has said that it will not issue a formal response to the Vatican until some- time after its annual national meeting in St. Louis in August, which is expected to draw some 1,500 sisters from religious women’s communities across the U.S.

But in a July 17 interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell remarked, “The question is, ‘Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?’ That’s what we’re asking. . . . But the climate is not there. And this mandate coming from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops—that is not a dialogue. If anything, it appears to be shutting down dialogue.”
 

Meanwhile, support for the sisters has been building, which could influence decision-makers in the Vatican.

According to Sister Annemarie Saunders, director of communications at the LCWR’s Baltimore headquarters, the organization has received calls and messages from thousands of lay and religious individuals and groups, including those offering to launch campaigns to gather signatures in support of the sisters.

Among the first to side with them were the Franciscan Friars of the U.S., who in a letter made public wrote, “For us, there can be no dispute that God has been, and continues to be, revealed through the faithful and often unsung witness of religious women in the United States.”

In Connecticut, two women in Fairfield, Marion Najamy and Beth Bradley, launched a fundraiser in May that has raised several thousand dollars for local religious orders by selling t-shirts and totes imprinted with the words, “We Are All Nuns. ”

The slogan, which they borrowed from an essay by Catholic theologian Mary E. Hung, is superimposed on a long block of so-called “radical feminist themes”—parodying the Vatican’s charge—that Najamy says she found in the mission statements of women’s religious orders across the country. They include “social justice, education for all, abolishing the death penalty, dignity, charity, ending domestic violence, ecumenism, aiding the poor, the homeless, immigrants, the abused.”  

Such support signals a possible turning point for the estimated 68 million Catholics in this country as the conflict unfolds in Rome in the coming months.

“While American Catholics will readily laugh at jokes about nuns, they also have sort of a gut connection to women in religious life,” says Dallavalle. Arguing that the integrity of religious women is a fixed point in the Catholic imagination, she believes the Vatican’s actions have left U.S. Catholics bewildered. “In terms of the public conversation about Catholicism, the Vatican investigation serves as a deep point of alienation from the hierarchy for rank-and-file Catholics.”

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, nuns in Connecticut appear intent upon carrying on with their missions as they perceive them.

“Our work will not change,” says Sister Barbara Mullen. “This is our reason for being—to serve and advocate. That’s what we do and this is who we are.”
 

Nuns' Story

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