The endangered species called Catholic nuns

“For more than a thousand years, becoming a nun was the best – and often the only – way for a young Catholic woman to get an education and to earn a modicum of independence. In the modern West, though, women have many other options preferable to joining a ‘patriarchal apartheid’ in which female clerics are given no voice in the power structure and yet are expected to submit to it.”

That’s Lisa Miller, author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife – bad news for organizations described as ‘patriarchal apartheid’.

You have both a catastrophic public relations and staff recruiting crisis at hand.  

A frightening example of this ‘patriarchal apartheid’ is the recent excommunication of a nun at a Catholic hospital in Arizona because she approved an emergency abortion last year to save the life of a critically ill patient.

Ironically, although it has taken years, sometimes decades, to bring sex-abusing predator priests to justice, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated in a matter of months – all because a few dozen celibate men in Rome believe they have God-given moral authority over the sexual and reproductive bodies of all the women in the world. One wonders how many of those predator priests have been excommunicated like the evil Sister Margaret was?

But Sister Margaret may not be alone.

The Vatican has now launched an “apostolic visitation,” or investigation, of every one of America’s 60,000 religious sisters, accused with having what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls “a feminist spirit” and “a secular mentality”. At a time when the male leadership can be blamed for bringing the church to a state of global crisis, even the modest roles accorded to female clerics have come under attack from these men.

Not surprisingly, the appeal of joining a Catholic religous order as a career choice is plummeting. Fewer than 4% of North American Catholic women have even considered becoming a nun, according to 2008 data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. And that’s less than half the number compared to just five years earlier.

And no wonder. Dr. Tina Beattie, who teaches Catholic Studies at Roehampton University in the U.K., gives far more disturbing examples of how the Vatican treats its nuns.  For example:

“In 2001, senior leaders of women’s religious orders presented evidence to Rome of the widespread rape and abuse of nuns by priests and bishops, with a particular problem in Africa which has no cultural tradition of celibacy, and where the threat of HIV and AIDS means that priests are more likely to prefer sex with nuns than with prostitutes.

“The Vatican acknowledged the problem and there was a brief flurry of media interest, but this is a scandal which has disappeared without a trace.

“What mechanisms of repression and denial allowed the men in Rome to ignore these complaints and suppress the voices of those who spoke out on behalf of the victims?”

Considering the deliberate systemic cover-up and protection of priests who have been abusing generations of minors, “repression and denial” appear to be what the men in Rome are really good at.

In 2001 after the nuns’ evidence was presented in Rome, the Vatican made the extraordinary admission that it was in fact aware that Catholic priests from at least 23 countries have indeed been sexually abusing nuns. Most of the countries were in Africa, but abuse of nuns by priests was also confirmed by Vatican sources in India, Ireland, Italy, the Philippines and the U.S.A.

Confidential Vatican reports obtained at the time by the National Catholic Reporter, a weekly magazine in the U.S., revealed that some members of the Catholic clergy were exploiting their financial and spiritual authority to gain sexual favours from nuns, particularly those from the Third World who are more likely to be culturally conditioned to be subservient to men.

Forced to acknowledge the problem, the Vatican in typical sidestepping bafflegab fashion tried to play down its gravity. In a statement issued at the time, Vatican spokesman Cardinal Joaquin Navarro Valls said from Rome:

“The problem is known and involves a restricted geographical area. Certain negative situations must not overshadow the often heroic faith of the overwhelming majority of priests.”

One of the most comprehensive of the initial reports on this history of nuns being sexually abused by priests was submitted by Sister Maura O’Donohue, AIDS Coordinator for the London-based Catholic Fund For Overseas Development. She included the original confidential report from Sister Marie McDonald, mother superior of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa,  entitled The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and Rome.

In 2001, Sister Marie tabled the document to the Vatican’s Council of 16, made up of delegates of the international association of women’s and men’s religious communities and the Vatican office responsible for religious life. Her report noted that a contributing cause was the Catholic church’s conspiracy of silence that protected priests and bishops.

When Sister Marie addressed bishops at the Council of 16 about this crisis, they responded that it was disloyal of the sisters to send reports“.

Nine years after the story broke, is this abuse still going on? Lisa Miller of Newsweek revisited the 2001 scandal in her February 2010 report, The Trouble With Celibacy, quoting three separate categories of abuse issues as uncovered by the National Catholic Reporter. These were:

  • priests raping religious sisters and then insisting on/paying for their abortions
  • sisters fearing to travel in cars with priests for fear of rape
  • sisters appealing to bishops for help only to be told to go away

Where does the Vatican stand on such troubling realities? Miller reported that the Vatican has been well aware of this issue for some time but has done appallingly little if anything to address the crisis. When Pope Benedict traveled to Africa in 2009, he explicitly addressed the question of celibacy in the priesthood, but instead of getting tough on priests and bishops who were known to be raping nuns there, he urged the priests and bishops to:

” … open themselves fully to serving others as Christ did by embracing the gift of celibacy.”

Well, that sounds like a scathing warning if there ever was one, doesn’t it? He was otherwise known as a zealous authoritarian when it comes to defending the doctrinal absolutism of the church’s teaching on issues such as contraception and abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women.

You’ll be relieved to know, however, that the Vatican has now issued a public statement revealing that some issues involving Catholic women, like the ordination of women to the priesthood, while still  of course considered to be a “crime” within the church, is not exactly the same crime as its priests’ sexual abuse of minors, just in case you thought it was. (Priests’ sexual abuse of nuns in the 23 countries confirmed by Vatican sources was not even mentioned in this statement of church crimes).

In a Papal document describing revised Vatican responses to church crimes, the sexual abuse of minors by priests was described as a crime against morality while the attempt to ordain a woman priest was a crime against a sacrament referring to Holy Orders (the priesthood).

Jon O’Brien, president of the U.S.-based group Catholics for Choice which does favour a female priesthood, said that while he understood the technical distinction of different types of church crimes, putting these two together in the same announcement was another example of what he called bungled communications. He elaborated in an interview with the news agency Reuters:

“If there is an opportunity for authorities in the Vatican to shoot themselves in the foot, they do so in both feet.”

He added that the Vatican feels threatened by a growing movement in the Church demanding a female priesthood.

The Catholic church teaches that it cannot consider ordaining women as priests because Jesus Christ chose only men as his apostles. Proponents of a female priesthood reject this stance, however, saying Christ was only acting according to the norms of his times.  Speaking of norms, I refer readers to Leviticus for an entertaining take on other norms of Biblical times.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, social activist, co-chair of the UN partner agency called Global Peace Initiative of Women, and author of over 40 books on Catholicism, wrote recently in her Huffington Post column:

“Gender equality will be one of the major social issues of the 21st century. Churches that cling to sexism in the name of God will find themselves ignored on other issues. Young women will begin to wonder how it is that churches that teach equality are the last bastions of sexism in the modern world. People of faith will be hard pressed to explain how the question of equality of the sexes is being led by secular institutions rather than by ministers who proclaim the Good News – but then stop it from coming.”

Find out more about the Arizona nun’s excommunication, or read the Reuters report called Women Priests and Sex Abusers Not Equal Crimes: Vatican from Agence France-Presse, (July 16, 2010), or Dr. Tina Beattie’s Open Democracy essay called The Catholic Church’s Scandal: Modern Crisis, Ancient Roots

See also:

14 thoughts on “The endangered species called Catholic nuns

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  3. Hello Carolyn. It used to be that the fondest dream of every Catholic parent was to have at least one son enter the priesthood or one daughter enter the convent. Or both!! Somehow, it’s hard to imagine that still being the case given these scandals. Keep up the fantastic work here — I like the wide variety of thought-provoking topics on your site.

  4. It’s likely that the only growth in the numbers of women who want to enter the convent these days now comes from Third World countries.

    • Joining religious life requires humility which the western world has limited in form of liberal freedoms and distortion of the family institution, so who mentors young ladies to become nuns in families which do not promote humility. BRAVO our sisters from third world countries.
      MUNGWE de Jesus, Kampala

      • Actually it seems that what drives these women to ordaination is the same that drove European women in the past. It’s their best chance for an education, job security and escaping a violent marriage culture.

        This is proven by the fact that educated, middle class third world women do not consider ordaination, for the most part.

        It might be a sad truth, but it seems that if women have another chance for education/work/survival, they won’t choose vows.

  5. How can any rational, thinking woman even consider becoming a nun or even a parishioner of this archaic, irrelevant, misogynistic organization? I just don’t get it.

  6. Great blog. I am constantly writing about these issues on my blog. My hope is that we can expose more of those ‘secrets’ the Catholic Church wishes would stay secret.

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  9. This is simply a secular and liberal take and attitude about a 2000 year old institution. These people think the church should evolve the way they think society does.

    The American society is a country, a democracy. The Roman Catholic church is not, never has and never will be. It’s a world wide church.

    It’s true I’m sure that bad things happened inside the church, still do I’m sure. It is after all inhabited by mere mortals that are subject to the same temptations all people are. And just because there are some catholics who are of the opinion that the church should come what they invision it to be does not make them right . there is a book called the catechism of the catholic church . It details what is to be catholic, what the church teaches, and how its members are expected to behave.

    If these left wing liberals want the catholic church to change to what they think it should be they have an eternal wait. It’s really quite simple, if you don’t like the way the catholic church is then leave it! if you don’t want to leave it, then all of you must change and accept the catholic church the way that it is, the good the bad and the ugly.

    • There is no doubt that catholics are indeed leaving the church in droves. In 1958, about 74% of North American catholics attended Sunday Mass weekly – a number now closer to 25% according to a Fordham University study, and far worse in Europe (from 20% in Ireland down to single-digit stats in France). Even in Italy, where 97% of the population considers itself catholic, church attendance even once a month has now fallen below 30%. Pope Benedict XVI has himself said that “the erosion of the church in Europe is one of the greatest challenges facing his papacy”.

      The question to me is not why so many are turning away from the church, but why so many still stay despite its systemic corruption, cover-up and protection of criminal predators, as described in this article.

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