The Catholic Church’s war on nuns

‘It’s a witch hunt,’ says a Canadian religious sister


The Catholic Church's war on nunsNuns 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.”


The Catholic Church’s war on nuns

  1. Every few generations the clergy, led by the Pope and his closest advisors, becomes ultra-conservative and forgets who it is that really builds the Roman Catholic Church. More often than not, the zealots within the ranks always attack the feminine element because they have seen to it, through the years, that women, whether nuns or otherwise, have no power or word within the congregation. When women point out the injustice of this situation, they are branded "radical" and "subversive". In the end, this looks and feels like the Taliban and Sharia Law to me, and I am very sad and disheartened that such a wave of stupidity continues to be perpetrated within the Roman Catholic Church. Whatever happened to the promises made by John XXIII and John Paul II?

    • "Whatever happened to the promises made by JOhn XXII and John Paul II?"

      Three words: Burned to ashes.

      • There is Vatican II, which was where a bunch of higher clergy got together to discuss evangelizing to the modern world. Then there is "the spirit" of Vatican II, which is the idea that the Catholic Church is going to adopt the current zeitgeist of the far left, and Hegel's philosophical ideas of zeitgeist to boot.

        The two are pretty much mutually exclusive.

  2. "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."

    The nun's orders with an average age of around 70 are the ones that got stuck in '60 acitvism instead of building the church. The young dynamic nun's orders, such as Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity are building the church by following the Church's teachings instead of fighting them as these tired old fossilized sixties relics are doing.

    You reap what you sow said Paul the Apostle.

    Having sown seeds that had nothing to do with the gospel, are they now surprised that they have nothing to show for their efforts, except grumbling and bitterness?

    • It is true. The more heterodox a chapter of a monastic or mendicant order is, the more likely they are to be dying out.

      Liberals don't attend mass. They don't attend mass so their children don't attend mass. Their children don't get a vocational call, and even if they did there is no way a liberal parent is going to allow their child to pursue a lifestyle without sex (which they consider the greatest perversion).

      So young people with a calling to religious vocation are going to be conservative, and their probably going to care about orthodoxy. They probably aren't going to pursue a vocation with heretical clowns.

      • Kind of. It's more like as religion becomes less and less relevant to society overall, only the die hards in general are left.

        • I wouldn't dispute that. The influence of religious life has always waxed and waned from century to century.

  3. Oh please. It couldn't be because of abuses like nuns working as abortion clinic escorts, or deciding that Mary is equal in godhead to the Trinity, performing the sacraments and other liturgical abuses, or preaching heresy that goes against what we affirm in the Nicene Creed. I'd like to see any priest do any of that and not get investigated, so the accusation "they aren't investigating priests" is absolute twaddle. Remember liberation theology, the idea that Marxism is the truest expression of Christianity, and we should help rebels shoot up aristocrats? That got investigated. I can also name dozens upon dozens of priests that have been barred from teaching or preaching for heresy, most famously Hans Kung.

    As for power, women control pretty much all the finances in the church, as well as a huge chunk of the bureaucracy. They can also preach, study and teach theology, and administer church property. The only thing they can't do is the sacraments, and it is not hard for a woman to achieve a level of power comparable to that of a bishop, if power is what you crave.

    I have to say though, that I have soured over the idea of women's ordination over the years as I have watched the protestant experiment with it. Every single denomination that has tried it has lost their ability to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy to the Nicene Creed. Is this a matter of women being more experience-focused (good spiritual feelings) than on the intellectual side of faith, or is it because those denominations that ordain women are pretty much ready to ditch orthodoxy anyway? Either way, I wouldn't mind a woman conducting mass, but I'm not going to toss the Creed aside in favour of gender equality.

    Oh, and LJ, if liberal ideology really grows the church, then all the young people involved in the church should be more liberal. How's that working out? Doesn't seem to match the evidence on the ground to me.

    • The word of God is the vital message here, not the voice that is delivering it. Men continue to use their power over women all around the world. Why should the United States be any different? Time will cast the absurd treatment of women into the light and things will change. History has a pattern all over the planet, and it goes something like this… White men, men of color, white women, women of color, gay men, gay women, animals and finanly the planet itself. Ignorance is taught and learned. The teachrs of our church are sick individuals. What daycare center would allow their employees to molest little children but then use its power to research the misbehvior of its women.

  4. Christ did not say that women shouldn't be given fewer rights than men.

    I know a number of ex-nuns who left their order because they were involved in political social justice issues. They continue to do good work for the poor and the marginalized members of society. None of them regret the choice they made because they feel they are following in Christ's footsteps and I believe that's true.

    • What rights does the church deny to women that it gives to men? To serve in the priesthood isn't a "right" of anybody, so I'm sure you don't mean that. In fact, claiming that you are entitled to serve as a priest is the surest sign that you don't deserve to be one.

      As for the ex-nuns you mention, I'm sure that they are happier where they are. You don't need to live under a religious rule to pursue social justice. You do have to be an orthodox catholic to live under a catholic religious rule however.

      • I think the right Diane is referring to is not some strange entitlement to be a priest, but simply the right to be considered for the priesthood based on one's reasonable merit, rather than be excluded a priori for being one of the 50% of humanity that happened to be born female. If we considered the position of priesthood as a normal job, how long would this exclusion be able to hold before it became a question of job discrimination?

        The Catholic Church claims to be the one true path to salvation. So I'll put on my Christian scholar hat for a moment… If so, they are denying 50% of the human race the opportunity to serve the Great Commission the particular manner of ordained ministry. That is what seems so unfair to many. Considering the divine precedent of Moses' sister Miriam, who was a prophetess equal to that of Moses' brother Aaron, it doesn't seem like this exclusion is divinely justified, but merely a stubborn human patriarchical bias that has persisted since biblical times, which much like sinning and rebellion, Jesus didn't manage to stamp out of even his disciples (you know, the fishermen and tax collectors).

    • yes he did

  5. typo – should be given fewer rights

  6. This is another of the many instances that proves the Roman Catholic Church is an abusive, lying, thieving criminal organization. It should be outlawed the same way the Mafia and Hells Angels have been. It leaders should be jailed and made to serve very long jail sentences.

    • Hey Bruce;
      I don't think a crazy ex teacher, habitual complainer; momma's boy; who lives on disability; and contributes nothing to society should be commenting on just about any subject. Isn't it time for your nap. Get a life loser!

      • Its amazing how brave people are when they’re anonymous.

  7. Henheffer may be right about one thing: it may quite possibly be a genuine witch-hunt.

    Other than that, this piece looks like a lot of ignorant accusations strung together into a large piece of hooey.

    • You mean in terms of asking nuns who are neo-pagan to stop calling themselves Catholic nuns right?

      • Or who are genuine Satan-worshippers, yes.

        • Yeah, the depressing thing is that you're not necessarily exaggerating. I mean, its a free country, but if you shouldn't necessarily expect the wider church to continue to pay you a stipend for believing whatever you feel like. If you have reorganized yourselves into a Wiccan coven, or follow in the footsteps of the groups started by LeVay and his lot, you should pay your own way and represent yourselves for what you are.

          Those are extreme (but not non-existent) examples of course, but there are many orders which have decided that orthodoxy isn't important and have largely formed communities that have ceased to be catholic but still expect the church and its parishioners to pay the bills. It is not a new problem, there have always been situations where the Church has had to investigate and dismantle monastic communities that have ceased to function as Catholic institutions. The Benedictines have a saying for this. You have to cut away the dead vines to get the regrowth.

    • Yet another male who has failed to grasp the basics of human kindness. It really does include Nuns. They do invaluable work and from my personal experience, they do a better job than Priests who tend to think of themselves as God, rather than servants of God

  8. What surprises me is that anyone could be surprised by this, the catholic church has been suppressing women since it's inception, what has changed?

    • It is no accident that the women enjoy the most equality with men in the West. That equality comes from the maturation of the Christian ideal. The Church in other words has done more to foster the emancipation of women than any organization on the planet.

  9. I'm amazed anyone wants to be an official of the Catholic church any longer, this ossified relic that spirits bishops out of the US to the vatican to avoid extradition to stand trial for complicity in pedophilia. The Catholic church is a blunt instrument from which intelligent, moral people would be abandoning in droves.

    • I couldn't have said it any better myself. Years ago it was always said that the orphanages run by the Catholic chruch were filled with children produced by the nuns and the priests…rumour maybe, but it does make you wonder.

  10. I love seeing new faces to the Macleans site, in every story about Catholicism, saying the same thing, so obviously just trolling the internet for stories about Catholicism to hurl abuse…

    • No one has to troll the internet for abusive stories about the Catholic church. They are everywhere for all to see and have been for hundreds of years.

      • Welcome to the Maclean's boards… whoop you're already gone.

  11. The essence of religion is control, if you object, leave. Millions have.

  12. These liberal American nuns deserve what they get from the Vatican. Actually, the Vatican is NOT doing enough. Outright supression of some of these Orders (which probably will come anyway), should be initiated, also the supression of liberal Orders of nuns in Europe, Asia, and similar liberal Orders of priests and brothers in the USA and elsewhere….especially those with dozens of members accused of pedophilia and other crimes against young boys etc.

    • Yes and while we are at it why don’t they eliminate Jesus from Christianity as well since he was the most outspoken liberal of his time. Read the Beatitudes. And how about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. Or how about the rich man being told that he must give away all of his wealth and follow Jesus.

  13. Since when is social justice not a part of being Roman Catholic? I must have missed the Church of Rome throwing out those sections of the New Testament when Jesus spoke of caring for the poor and downtrodden and sinful. Oh, that's right – you would then have to throw out most of the New Testament. Men as priests exclusively? Most nuns I know would not want to be priest, that is why they are nuns. Their calling is different. But, just to give this its context, men as priests is set on the tradition of the Roman Church not from biblical reference in the New Testament. Now understand, the Church considers it's historical tradition to be as important as the tests themselves. This seems to be more of our new Pope's extremist, narrow view of Catholicism in the tradition of pre WWII Vatican. Again, Nun's who are called to work within their communities are prayful, dutiful wonderful examples of Christ doing what he did first, being with those who need him most.

    • You'll notice that all of the priests in the New Testament were men. No doubt you think that was either (a) coincidence, or (b) Christ putting his social justice on hold to accommodate the prejudice of the time. Let us all know when you come up with a rational explanation.

      As to social justice, that would be great. However, currently there are "nuns" doing things like escorting people to abortion clinics, teaching Marxist doctrine, and forming Wiccan covens. It should be obvious that Christ would not be (a) helping people go to a doctor to slaughter their children, (b) advocating an ideology that is both explicitly atheist and brutally degrading to all those it holds in sway, and (c) allowing followers to engage in pagan worship.

      Based, that is, on the New Testament. I'm sure things would look entirely different if we all had your broader, more mainstream view of Catholicism rather than the narrow, extremist one held by the Pope.

      • You'll also notice that all the priests in the New Testament were Jewish. The early Christian church didn't have priests, they had brothers of the faith, some of whom were apostles (literally, missionaries).

        Jesus was much more open towards woman than many of the people that followed him. Consider that famous scene where Jesus rebukes his disciples for saying Mary should be in the kitchen rather than listening to him talk. Contrast that with later when the apostle Paul says that women should not speak in the church and should cover their hair.

        As for Liberation Theology, to some extent the choice between supporting the poor and supporting the rich and powerful when they are at conflict is an easy one with scriptures like these:

        "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." – Acts 2:44-45

        "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." – Matthew 19:24

        • Regarding your first point that all those with the Sacrament of Orders in the New Testament were Jewish, that's incorrect. Stephanos (Greek) comes to mind as just one example. In fact the presence of non-Jewish members is what led to the famous dispute over whether circumcision was required.

          Christ did indeed make a point that women were not chattels to be dominated, but rather souls to be respected and values as much as men. It is therefore even more noteworthy that no women were made priests or bishops, which reinforces the Church's position that male ordination is not a matter of choice but a matter of nature.

          As to your other point about Liberation Theology, you are confusing respect and love for the poor with Liberation Theology. The Church has consistently preached the former (albeit not always living up to that standard), which made for quite a bit of ridicule directed at Christians in ancient Rome. The latter, however, is not about fostering love for others and voluntary charitable support for those in need. Rather it preaches that poverty is a result of sin and something to be fought via class warfare. Christianity holds poverty to be a good thing: this is why nuns and monks take vows of poverty. Furthermore Christianity teaches that the best way for the rich to save themselves is by willingly giving to the poor, that this is in fact why they have been given their largesse…Liberation Theology in its Marxist form teaches that the rich must be forcibly robbed to give to the poor, that largesse is a sin rather than a gift to be used well.

          • Yes, read the Qur’an. It contains a whole chapter called “the Women” where they are praised and cherished. Talk is cheap. When men are in charge it seems women suffer.

      • Don’t know of any priests in the New Testament. Please name one.

  14. They don't want women to be nuns because of historical scripture or word of mouth and because women are less likely to touch little boys (and thus prepare them for more inappropiate touching as they enter adolescence).

    There is no social justice in religion. There is the book and the teachings–that is it. You don't like it?


    • Yeah, because the social safety net can run in this country without the countless volunteer hours and influx of charitable cash from the Catholic Church. As people have stopped going to church, the amount of volunteer hours have precipitously dropped among everyone under 40 compared to their parents and grandparents, but the new atheists and agnostics really care about social justice.

      Oh, and nice stereotypical bigotry in the first paragraph. As if the denominations who ordain women don't have sex abuse problems, nor the public education system.

  15. seems strange to me our tax dollars go to pay for Catholic schools when the Church preaches anti Ontarien values…..which of course, most Catholics don't believe

  16. People are surprised by this??? An institution run by men who make all the rules and enforce those rules by the blind obedience of its membership upon threat of (excommunication) being barred from heaven. Is this not like any other religion in the world? I don't have to mention one in particular, they are all the same.

  17. The review of women religious orders in the US is called an "Apostolic Visitation". The stated purpose of the visitation is to "safeguard and promote consecrated life in the United States." The lead reviewer is a US nun. See

    Those who hang around the Catholic Church and complain about orthodoxy must ask themselves "why am I lurking around here? what am I looking for if not orthodoxy? how come I can't bear to leave when there is such a big supermarket of faiths out there?"

  18. recent research indicates that the majority of young people looking at consecrated/religious life are looking to more traditional orders and communities it's not the pope or anyone else telling them they have to be conservative it's their own choice. It's is great to see Sisters in active roles such as social worker. Prison and uni chaplains, youth ministry, uni lectures…. etc. However, it is also great to have more traditional places & communities that offer and traditional way of life to those seeking that. That is one of the wonderful things about the church it's big enough and diverse enough for both.

  19. Just like dominoes, religious denominations have fallen victim to the vacuous drivel from religious "progressives" and one by one these same denominations now resemble second rate service clubs and less of what was in their original message of Christ. The Catholic church is the last bastion of what real religion represents and THAT'S why we have this steady progression of lies, concocted media spin and street theatre from heretics accompanied by their bottom feeding lawyers.

  20. The denigration of women is common to all Abrahamic religions. The Pope says women are subservient to man and he is infalible. Makes sense does it not ?
    Christianity: …the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. Makes sense does it not ?

    • Well, some of that is allegory, but yeah… the Christian narrative is hard to believe to say the least. Largely you have to trust an humanly fallible and unreliable authority (clergy and tradition), a scattered collection of writings (the New testament), and your own subjective spiritual experience (the most unreliable source of all). Then you basically have to trust that God hasn't allowed all of this to go wrong (which is why you largely have to accept papal infallibility and the authority of church councils, otherwise it could go wrong at any moment).

      However, your snide comments seems to assume that Christians haven't had doubts about this narrative or don't realize how profoundly odd this whole narrative is for roughly 2000 years give or take a few decades. Thus, you largely come across as arrogant and uneducated rather than enlightening.

      Oh, and being confused about what papal infallibility is and how it functions doesn't help you look intelligent either. The inability for the Church to ordain women was not declared infallible teaching from the chair of St. Peter, but rather an inability or the Church to find evidence that it has ordained women. The only way to get priestly ordination within the Catholic Church is to show that apostolic succession passes through women. With no evidence that women were ordained in the past, and no evidence that Jesus or his apostles desired the ordination of women, it doesn't look good for the prospects of women's ordination in the Church.

      • "and no evidence that Jesus or his apostles desired the ordination of women" : this is arrogance considering that it is now coming to light that there is little or no " evidence " that historical Jesus existed. Constantine and his cohorts gave us Christianity . Constantine was the planet's first "christian", and that his ecclesiastical (ahem) historian and minister for religious proaganda, Eusebius of Caesarea fraudulently misrepresented
        ancient history.
        Constantine envisioned Christianity as a religion that could unite the Roman Empire, which at that time was beginning to fragment and divide. While this may have seemed to be a positive development for the Christian church, the results were anything but positive. Just as Constantine refused to fully embrace the Christian faith, but continued many of his pagan beliefs and practices, so the Christian church that Constantine promoted was a mixture of true Christianity and Roman paganism.
        The supremacy of the Roman bishop (the papacy) was created with the support of the Roman emperors. With the city of Rome being the center of government for the Roman empire, and with the Roman emperors living in Rome, the city of Rome rose to prominence in all facets of life. Constantine, and his successors, gave their support to the bishop of Rome as the supreme ruler of the church. Of course it is best for the unity of the Roman empire that the government and state religion be centered in the same location.
        Roman Catholicism was a political invention and tool to control the masses.

        • You need to get yourself to a undergraduate class in Roman late antiquity I'm afraid.

          Sure, Constantine was the one who made Christianity a legal religion and supported it heavily, with his successors making it an official religion of the Roman Empire. However the episcopate does precede the adoption of the faith by the Holy Roman Empire. Also, while Eusebius has some problems (with bias as you note) we base a lot of the historical record on far less reliable sources than he. Plutarch is an example that springs to mind. Luckily we don't have to rely on Eusebius alone among our written sources. We can also see what we can piece together from the archeological record.

          As for the "mixing of Christianity and Paganism" that precedes the adoption of the faith by Constantine as well. Christianity was quite at home amongst the other Hellenized near-eastern religious movements at the time, and was both influenced by and influenced the wider religious culture. It amuses me constantly that people expect this to be a smoking gun, but we answered the question "what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem" centuries ago. We didn't deny the influence of God within pre-Christian cultures in the first millenium of the faith, so I fail to see any reason why I should do so in the third millenium.

          As for the belief that the historical Jesus never existed, I suppose it is possible… but highly unlikely. Regardless, it isn't an excuse in the church to make up any doctrine you wish whole cloth. Even if Jesus didn't exist (and it is an article of faith that he did) then we can turn to many other Church fathers who have authority, like Paul.

          Oh, and your assumption that Catholics don't know anything about the origins of their own faith makes you look hilariously inept. I am absolutely confident that I have probably heard every theory about the origins and development of ancient Christianity that you would have. Yours is certainly not the worst I've seen in terms of compliance with the current academic consensus, but you would certainly receive a very poor grade for such half-baked assertions.

  21. I hope these nuns run away, and leave behind a hollow Church.


  22. I just wish there were more nuns teaching our young in catholic elementary schools like I had when I was young. There is nothing wrong with teaching young catholics. On a selfish note it would also make catholic schools more affordable for those of us struggling to give our children a catholic education early on.

  23. your article is very misguided and misinformed. Your picture is of faithful orthodox sisters who Love the Church and have no problem with it, and the Church has no problem with them. But the words are of new age nuns who have rejected Christ, and his Church and are trying to destroy both Christ and his Church. Amazing these liberal sisters are dying, my aunt was a sister (two actually) in a liberal congregation, she herself was orthodox, and felt betrayed by her community. Her community is dying a slow death. What is happening in the Catholic Church is that their is a resurgence of the orthodox, where traditional communities are thriving, and the liberal feminists are dying. Also, good orthodox women in the Catholic Church have just as much power as the men do. The only thing that feminists are sore about is that they can’t become priests. Theology is the reason women can’t become priests, because they can’t become “FATHERS”. Anyway, God will hide himself from the proud and arrogant, like those that work for McLean’s! You will never understand unless you become humble, and let God be God!