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.
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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.”