Blame the popes, not the nuns

—Margaret M. McGuinness

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to resign from the papacy has generated a number of commentaries, op-ed pieces, and blog posts on the significance of the pontiff’s actions for the future of both the throne of St. Peter and the greater Catholic Church. Some writers have focused in particular on what this means for U.S. sisters and nuns who have had their differences with Catholic clerical leaders over the years. Most American women religious, the prevailing institutional argument claims, have deviated from traditional Catholic teaching, especially those related to abortion, same-sex marriage, and an all-male priesthood. In addition, sisters have moved too far from their convents and are now engaged in advocacy work—or ministry, depending on your point of view—that focuses too much on the poor and underserved.

When examining the history of women religious, however, it is hard to ignore the role the papacy played in leading sisters and nuns to embrace the world and its problems. Although Bonifice VIII issued a bull, or proclamation, ordering nuns to be cloistered in 1298, twentieth-century popes have taken a somewhat different approach. In 1929, Pius XI encouraged sisters to receive the education necessary for staffing parochial schools. Almost thirty years later, in 1958, his successor, Pius XII, urged religious communities to abandon those practices that kept them from being in touch with the modern world.

By the time of Pius XII’s call for women religious to consider their role in contemporary society, sisters and nuns had taken Pius XI’s admonition to heart. Focused on the education of nuns, the Sister Formation Conference (SFC) developed the Everett curriculum, which focused on the liberal arts, Catholic social teaching, and ways to effect “structural change in society.”  Their education, combined with several documents produced by the bishops at the second Vatican Council (1962-1965)—notably Lumen Gentium (1964), Gaudium et Spes (1965), and the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, (Perfectae Caritatis, 1965)—led sisters to conclude that they were called to return to the original reasons behind the founding of their communities; in other words, they were to read the “signs of the times” and meet the needs of twentieth-century Americans.

American women religious of the twenty-first century continue to teach school and nurse the sick, but they also minister to the undocumented, the poor, and those living on death rows throughout our nation’s prisons. Who is to blame for women religious leaving the traditional cloister and entering a ministry devoted to advocacy and social justice? Maybe, just maybe, it’s the popes.

Margaret M. McGuinness is Professor of Religion and Executive Director of the Office of Mission Integration at La Salle University, Philadelphia. She is the author of Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America (NYU Press, 2013).

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