The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drove their own new cars when nuns rode the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialized in arrogance, the nuns in humility.
There was a vogue, just after the Second Vatican Council, for some Catholics to demonstrate their liberation from Catholic schooling by making fun of nuns, as strict disciplinarians or prissy moralists. I wrote at the time that this was untrue of the many nuns I have known, beginning with the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan, who taught me for five of my grade school years. They taught me the Latin of the old liturgy; Father Sullivan, our pastor, just got angry at words mispronounced or forgotten. The Dominicans never physically punished anyone that I saw or heard of.
They were more supportive of talent than were most of the lay teachers I met in a brief experience of public school. I had no artistic inclinations, but classmates who did were encouraged. The nuns’ genuine interest in their pupils can be seen in the fact that my seventh-grade teacher kept in touch with me for all the years until her death in 1996. She was Sister John Joseph when I met her, but she recovered her real name after the council, and as Anne O’Connor congratulated me on anything I wrote. (I would no more have kept up with Father Sullivan than with cholera.)
Anne O’Connor was just the kind of nun the Vatican is now intent on punishing. She had been a social worker before she became a nun, work that she loved and went back to several times as a Dominican. She was quick to shed the old habit (which was designed to hide the fact that there was a woman somewhere in that voluminous disguising of hair, breasts, and hips), and quick to take back her own name. After she was appointed to several high offices in her order, she became the mother provincial of the California branch of the Dominican order during the 1960s, coping with the changes of that volatile era on her college campuses.
Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist). Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens.
I saw their regard for the neglected or despised when our grade school had an influx of Mexican immigrants during World War II. The…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.