An outspoken US nun who was recently embroiled in a censorship row with Melbourne’s Archbishop has warned Australia’s Catholic Church it faces an inevitable decline unless it stops suppressing rank-and-file members pushing for reform.
The nation’s bishops are under pressure to overhaul the church after years of sex scandals and internal unrest, and one of America’s most prominent Benedictine nuns, Sister Joan Chittister, has now renewed calls for women to be ordained and for laypeople to be given more power over their parishes, declaring that the church needs to “grow up” if it wants to thrive.
Such reforms were meant to be thrashed out at the most significant conference Australian Catholic bishops have held in 80 years, the Plenary Council, which is scheduled to take place in October.
However, working documents prepared for the event have prompted concerns that some of the more contentious issues on the agenda could be cast aside or not addressed properly by the bishops, despite past assurances that “everything is on the table”.
“Everyone knows that the church in Australia needs a major overhaul of its governance, culture and structures, but instead of setting out a clear, concise and coherent blueprint for reform, this document is a ground plan for inertia,” said Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson. “It is very disappointing.”
Sister Joan, who this month headlined an event by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she shared concerns that “suppression by the bishops” would impede much-needed improvements. This, she warned, would prompt more members to abandon their parishes.
“There are one of two ways that this can end. The bishops can embrace the concerns and the need for resolution or they continue to ignore the laity – at which point the church will some day wake up in the morning and find out that the church is in fact gone.”
In a speech to a 3000-strong audience this month, Sister Joan added: “Catholicism must grow up, beyond the parochial to the global, beyond one system and one tradition to a broader way of looking at life … Why not married priests, women priests, or women cardinals?”
Sister Joan is a writer, feminist and theologian who has spent 50 years advocating for social justice and church reform. However, the prominent US nun found herself at the centre of an Australian censorship saga two years ago, when she was disendorsed from speaking at a Catholic education conference soon after Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli learnt of plans to include her.
The snub prompted a fierce backlash from rank-and-file Catholics, but the Archdiocese initially sought to dismiss the matter as a misunderstanding, saying the Archbishop had simply requested “that more names aligned to the themes of a national Catholic education conference be considered”.
Sister Joan disagreed, describing the episode as an “insult” to the Catholic education system.
“Of course it was censorship; there wasn’t any doubt about that,” she said this week. “Nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to think. That is not helpful to any organisation – state or church. You’re only burning it down from the bottom up if you do that.”
Sister Joan’s appearance in Australia comes at a critical moment for the church ahead of October’s Plenary Council. Expectations were high in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, which found the hierarchical nature of the church, coupled with its lack of governance, had created “a culture of deferential obedience” in which the protection of paedophile priests was left unchallenged.
However, rank-and-file Catholics have become increasingly concerned about the church’s will to change. Such fears were compounded in March when a working document prepared for the Plenary Council did not give enough credence to critical issues that members have been seeking to address.
Peter Johnstone, the head of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, urged Australia’s bishops to use the Plenary Council to genuinely tackle the “existential crisis” the church faces.
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By Una Mullally
For my generation she was Margaret, without the nun’s habit; for the previous generation she was Sr Benvenuta, in full canonical clothing. For both generations her office in UCD became a place where secrets could become shared and thus diminished burdens, opprobrium eschewed and independence of mind encouraged.
I came to appreciate Margaret MacCurtain’s tenaciousness over 30 years and let me pay tribute to her on the occasion of her 90th birthday; to applaud her humanity, humour and brilliant teaching, and also her stubbornness, determination and creative subversion.
MacCurtain’s life and work reflect the second wave of the feminist movement in Ireland that emerged in the late 1960s, a reminder that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the announcement of a commission on the status of women. The commission’s report was published in 1972 and, alongside its many recommendations, expressed the aspiration that women would retrieve their own history.
MacCurtain was drawn towards the idea of the sun coming through a gap ‘because a gap between the fields in Ireland is usually a hostile gap’
MacCurtain embraced this challenge with gusto, despite the fact that, as she recalled: “Writing women into Irish history became a subversive activity for women historians in the 1970s. The universities were not ready for an innovation which, in the opinion of the historical establishment, possessed neither a sound methodology nor reliable sources.”
Despite such hindrance, as MacCurtain has recalled, there was a sense of optimism and determination about challenging this resistance in the 1970s, and for MacCurtain this involved building alliances within and outside academia. At a debate in UCD in October 1971, MacCurtain shared a lecture theatre platform with Mary Anderson and Nell McCafferty. Anderson suggested each of them make a short opening statement about the personal difficulties under which they laboured as women.
Anderson said: “I am a bastard.”
McCafferty said: “I am a lesbian.”
MacCurtain said: “I am a nun.”
McCafferty recalled: “The audience erupted in yells of pure, unadulterated pleasure. The exchanges that evening were a runaway train of untrammelled speech.”
That train ran into many barriers in subsequent years as there was still much resistance to equality and vocal women, but MacCurtain underlined the significance of translating alliances into meaningful retrieval of women’s history. Her mission was a way of giving meaning to her assertion, the previous decade, that the question of education “now lies within the domain of justice”.
MacCurtain remained a historian of the Reformation centuries; it gave her a wider sense not just of divisions in Ireland but also of common inheritances, including the heritage of the Middle Ages. But the spirituality that interested this Dominican sister most was non-sacramental; she recognised the greatness of Patrick Kavanagh and his epic poem The Great Hunger (1942) because he brought out both the longings and spirituality of the small farmers. Kavanagh had laid bare frustrations and suffocations, but also the moments of discovery:
“Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:
The Holy Spirit in the rising sap,
And Christ will be the green leaves that will come
At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.”
MacCurtain was drawn towards the idea of the sun coming through a gap “because a gap between the fields in Ireland is usually a hostile gap”, and “you don’t go though gaps easily”.
MacCurtain was the nun coming through the gap when it came to the retrieval of the history of Irish women and wider questions of justice and equality, and it was a hostile gap from which she had to emerge.
That is why, as well as being full of humanity, and carrying an older, Celtic spirituality, she had to be tough and brave in order to open up what she described as “a locked room in the memory . . . the time comes when you have to take it out and honour it”; to go beyond a self-centred quest “for a meaning to ‘my’ life”. She was a champion of what became one of the most important aspects of the women’s liberation movement: personal testimony born of personal experience; and, as she recognised, “there was no break in the development of Irish feminism”.
I thought of all these things as Lyra McKee was laid to rest after that extraordinary funeral on Wednesday; the funeral of a gay woman, from a Catholic background in Belfast, who found a home, love and, ironically, a horrible death in the Derry cauldron as a ceasefire baby, after which the failed politicians were shamed into standing exposed.
Margaret MacCurtain campaigned for an Ireland in which McKee could find solace and purpose. MacCurtain championed what she called “that larger dimension of history, that seeks to reconcile and synthesise the past, rather than divide people into camps and set antitheses between ethnic groups and religious sects”.
McKee had to emerge from a hostile gap to do that too; real leaders lead when they emerge from that gap, despite the vicious snipers who stand in their way.
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By Carol Zimmermann
The National Black Sisters’ Conference issued a “clarion warning” to U.S. Catholics saying church members and leaders have not done enough to speak out against the sin of racism.
“In this moment of dual life-threatening pandemics; COVID-19 and racism, the voice of the church in America is, for the most part, eerily silent when it comes to the racial unrest in this country,” said the Sept. 16 statement by the national organization of more than 150 Black Catholic women religious and associates in the United States.
The group said they felt compelled to “hold up the light,” referring to an old spiritual with the same title, where light is held aloft to “expose the darkness of evil and sin, thereby destroying its power.”
“We are holding up the light,” the sisters said, “against the sin of racism that is still alive and well in the Catholic Church today.”
They said this has been happening “since the first Catholics set foot on this continent, armed with papal bulls sanctioning and blessing the enslavement of Africans and the removal of native peoples from their lands, all in the name of Christianity.”
This continued, they added, during the civil rights movement when Black Catholics continued to experience “racism, segregation, Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement, police brutality, and socioeconomic inequality in society and in the Catholic Church,” while church leadership, “for the most part, remained silent and disinvested.”
And now, during this current moment of racial unrest, the sisters maintain that Catholics are not doing enough.
“Very few bishops have spoken out in support of the peaceful demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter movement; very few have called out the racism and hypocrisy of many white Catholic priests and laity. Sadly, the leadership of the church is not addressing the slaughter of Black lives in the streets of our cities by those sworn to serve and protect as a pro-life issue,” they said.
The sisters also questioned why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hadn’t “publicly issued a strong statement in support of the courageous actions of their brother bishops,” referring to Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, as well as other bishops and priests who have shown support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In response to the sisters’ statement, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, said: “We have great respect for the women religious who do so much for their communities, the laity and the church at large.
“We invite the sisters to be in conversation and deeper collaboration with their local bishops, many of which have spoken out boldly in confronting racism as an attack against the sanctity of life and contrary to who we are and are called to be as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
In a statement to Catholic News Service, he added: “In response to the strife, anger, anxiety, and anguish felt by people due to ongoing racism in our church and society, dioceses and entire conferences of bishops have had listening sessions, webinars, calls for prayer and fasting and task forces formed to confront racism.”
The bishop, who led the bishops in writing their 2018 pastoral, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” added that laity-led efforts responding to racism have been taking place across the country.
But he said that “until racism is eradicated from our church and society, it is impossible to say that any one of us has done enough,” and he said he welcomed “the light the sisters hold up to shine upon us all.”
Another focus of the sisters’ statement was the need to view efforts against racism as a pro-life issue, quoting Pope Francis who said: “We cannot close our eyes to any form of racism or exclusion while pretending to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
To that end, the sisters pointed out that every year tens of thousands of Catholics gather in Washington to demonstrate against abortion. They questioned if they would ever see a time when “tens of thousands of Catholic will gather to protest the sin of racism, which aborts the lives of millions of people of color every day in this country?”
“If we as Catholics are truly to ‘Open Wide Our Hearts,’” the sisters said, referring to the pastoral, then Catholics must “hold up the light of Christ against the sin of racism. We must speak the truth not only in love, but we must speak the truth forthrightly about the complicit, systemic and structural racism that continues to exist in the American Catholic Church today.”
If Catholics don’t commit to this, the sisters said, “it will make a fallacy of all that we profess as members of the one body of Christ.”
Until racism is eradicated, the sisters said they would “continue to hold up the light” for the church they love and “to which we have dedicated our lives.”
In May, the sisters issued a statement about recent deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police and said they would not remain silent about it.
They said that if the bishops’ pastoral on racism is to “have any moral legitimacy, then our episcopal leaders must give more than lip service to addressing the sin of racism that is destroying communities of color around this nation. As Christians, as Catholics, as people of faith, we must do more than just pray; we must model Jesus’ message to love one’s neighbor.”
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By Nicole Winfield
The Vatican women’s magazine is blaming the drastic drop in the number of nuns worldwide in part on their wretched working conditions and the sexual abuse and abuses of power they suffer at the hands of priests and their own superiors.
“Women Church World” dedicated its February issue to the burnout, trauma and exploitation experienced by religious sisters and how the church is realizing it must change its ways if it wants to attract new vocations.
The magazine published Thursday revealed that Pope Francis had authorized the creation of a special home in Rome for nuns who were kicked out of their orders and all but left on the street, some forced into prostitution to survive.
“There are some really tough cases, in which the superiors withheld the identity documents of the sisters who wanted to leave the convent, or who were kicked out,” the head of the Vatican’s religious orders congregation, Cardinal Joao Braz di Aviz, told the magazine.
“There were also cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves,” he said. “These are ex-nuns!”
“We are dealing with people who are wounded, and for whom we have to rebuild trust. We have to change this attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore.’’”
“All of this must absolutely change,” he said.
The Catholic Church has seen a continuing free fall in the number of nuns around the world, as elderly sisters die and fewer young ones take their place. Vatican statistics from 2016 show the number of sisters was down 10,885 from the previous year to 659,445 globally. Ten years prior, there were 753,400 nuns around the world, meaning the Catholic Church shed nearly 100,000 sisters in the span of a decade.
European nuns regularly fare the worst, Latin American numbers are stable and the numbers are rising in Asia and Africa.
The magazine has made headlines in the past with articles exposing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and the slave-like conditions sisters are often forced to work under, without contracts and doing menial jobs like cleaning for cardinals.
The drop in their numbers has resulted in the closure of convents around Europe, and the ensuing battle between the remaining sisters and diocesan bishops or the Vatican for control of their assets.
Braz insisted the assets don’t belong to the sisters themselves, but the entire church, and called for a new culture of exchange, so that “five nuns aren’t managing an enormous patrimony” while other orders go broke.
Braz acknowledged the problem of nuns being sexually abused by priests and bishops. But he said in recent times, his office has also heard from nuns who were abused by other nuns — including one congregation with nine cases.
There were also cases of gross abuses of power.
“We’ve had cases, not many thank goodness, of superiors who once they were elected refused to step down. They went around all the rules,” he was quoted as saying. “And in the communities there are sisters who tend to blindly obey, without saying what they think.”
The international umbrella group of nuns has begun speaking out more forcefully about the abuses of nuns and has formed a commission with its male counterpart to take better care of their members.
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The Lord’s Prayer filled the marble dome of the Russell Senate Office Building on Thursday as 70 Catholic sisters, clergy and parishioners were led away in handcuffs.
“Forgive us our trespasses,” the demonstrators recited, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
On a day they dubbed the “Catholic Day of Action,” hundreds of Catholics gathered outside the Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies and its treatment of migrants.
“We hope that by being here and putting our bodies on the line, we can give people, members of Congress, courage to do the right thing,” said Sister Marge Clark, from the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It’s important to go beyond words, to put your body where your words are, where your beliefs are.”
In their hands and fastened to their bodies, demonstrators carried photographs of migrant children who died in federal custody into the Russell building, where more than 30 senators have offices. As five protesters lay on the floor of the rotunda to make the shape of a cross with their bodies, the group recited the children’s names:
“Darlyn,” protesters chanted in unison. “Jakelin. Felipe. Juan. Wilmer. Carlos.”
Thursday’s demonstration was the second protest this week in which people of faith decried Immigration and Customs Enforcement and called for an end to the federal practice of detaining migrants at crowded detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ten Jewish demonstrators were arrested Tuesday for refusing to leave the lobby of ICE headquarters in Southwest Washington. More than 100 others locked arms and formed barriers around the building’s doors and garage, disrupting the agency’s daily operations.
Thursday’s protest, which called for an end to child detention, was organized by a coalition of more than 15 Catholic groups, including the Sisters of Mercy, Faith in Action and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
“We are here today because of our faith. The gospel compels us to act,” Sister Ann Scholz, associate director for LCWR’s social mission, told the crowd. “We are outraged at the horrific treatment of families and especially children. The inhumane treatment of children being done in our name must stop.”
Though Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have long affirmed their support for migrants and refugees, Catholic voters are split on the issue of immigration, according to surveys conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center.
Catholic Democrats are more likely than Catholic Republicans to view immigration as a boon rather than a burden to the United States — 86 percent to 47 percent — and are more likely to oppose expanding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We can and must remain a country that provides refuge for children and families fleeing violence, persecution and acute poverty,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a statement last month. “All people, regardless of their country of origin or legal status, are made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and respect.”
Claribel Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, bounced her 17-month-old daughter in her arms Thursday as demonstrators read aloud the words of migrant children detained at federal facilities.
Guzman, afraid of being deported to a country she fears and of being separated from her child, said she has been weighing her options. Maybe, she said, she would seek sanctuary at a local church.
Later, as Franciscan brothers in brown robes were arrested alongside Catholic sisters, Guzman looked on, her head shaking slightly.
“This is my fight now, for my daughter,” she said in Spanish. “It’s very frustrating, very difficult. I am alone here. But in this moment, seeing people like this helps me.”
The demonstration came less than a week after President Trump promised a crush of immigration raids in cities around the country. Though they failed to materialize Sunday as the president promised — Trump said he wanted agents “to take people out and take them back to their countries” — several sisters who work with immigrants said they have seen a lingering fear grip their communities.
“It’s so much worse now. So much worse than we’ve ever seen it, and every day my stomach sinks when something new comes out,” said Sister JoAnn Persch, 85, a Chicago nun with the Sisters of Mercy. “But you know what I’ve learned? I’ve learned that nuns have power. And that’s why we’re here.”
Persch and Sister Pat Murphy, 90, began working with immigrants in 1990, when they took over Su Casa, a Chicago refuge for Central American women, children and torture survivors. In 2007, they began sitting vigil outside the Broadview Detention Center, an ICE facility near Chicago that is often a last stop before immigrants are sent back to their home countries.
They return every Friday — no matter the weather — to pray the rosary.
“Those little children and their mothers and fathers coming across the border, those who are here in the United States, are maligned, called names. It’s rude, crude, disgusting,” Murphy said. “The climate in the country now is very sad, and it’s scary. It’s a scary time.”
The sisters were among about 50 nuns who participated in Thursday’s act of civil disobedience.
As police officers led the last group away, hands zip-tied behind their backs, the demonstrators sang a hymn.
All that remained were photographs of the deceased children, scattered across the Capitol’s hard, cold ground.
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