Nuns are struggling to find a meaningful role in Catholicism, but with Pope Benedict at the helm, the Church is doing everything it can to become more conservative—and force sisters back into lives of quiet obedience.
Since the reforms of Vatican II, and the dawn of mainstream feminism in the 1960s, many nuns have been trying to gain authority and redefine their position within the Church. Now, Rome is launching an investigation into liberal American nuns. The goal: to find out whether nuns’ movement into untraditional ministries (such as social justice work) and refusal to live in convents or wear religious robes is leading them astray.
“It’s a witch hunt,” says a Canadian religious sister who wishes to remain anonymous. “Women were just trying to build up the Church.” She wants change, but it’s almost impossible to push back—the Church has a history of punishing activist nuns, and religious sisters aren’t allowed to be adversarial to men. “It’s hard to make big changes. We just don’t have enough influence.” Nuns are also frustrated by the Church’s duplicity. While a recent ruling welcomes conservative Anglican priests fed up with female and openly gay clergy into the fold, religious sisters remain handcuffed, their subjugation enforced.
Kenneth Briggs, a journalist and author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns, says sisters deserve support, not questioning. “Priests aren’t being investigated like this. There’s a lot of people saying, ‘Hey, aren’t we investigating the wrong people?’
During the reforms of the 1960s, there were many women working for change within the Church. But with an average age hovering around 70, today’s nuns are often too tired for activism. Still, even a simple refusal to wear robes is seen as rebellion, and Briggs says Rome wants sisters silenced. “Nuns have a reputation of being more active, of picking up some of that feminist wave. This [traditionalist movement] is aimed at trying to oppose and eliminate that free spirit.”