Sister Courage

Regardless of faith, advocates of social justice have reason to applaud LCWR

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) used to be called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. That came to mind last week when the CDF cracked down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for tolerating “radical feminist themes” and focusing too much on social justice instead of opposing abortion and gay marriage.

I called my favorite nun, Sister Katherine M. Donnelly, to express my solidarity. She is one of my Boston cousins, chaplain at a small inner-city school for girls in Boston where the focus is on the ”Catholic social teachings” and the need for the young women to become productive citizens and leaders in their community.

Katherine has also worked for more than 30 years in the field of child abuse prevention. In 1992, with Thomas F. Carr, a family therapist and highly respected child abuse investigator for the Boston Juvenile Court, she co-founded the Pastoral Response Assistance Team Inc., a multidisciplinary team of highly skilled professionals, to deal with the crisis of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. Over the years the team has donated countless thousands of hours to fill gaps in service to any religious institution where allegations had been made, to help empower survivors of sexual abuse to take positive action, and to promote an honest discussion of sexual abuse within a church setting.

Katherine’s work is about ministering to people. Amid so much controversy, the Pastoral Response Team quietly but effectively lives out the purpose outlined in its application for tax-exempt status in Massachusetts: “We have been called [in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi] ‘to heal wounds, to reunite what has fallen apart and to bring back those who have lost their way.'”

Katherine’s effort to be a healing presence does not preclude her from taking a strong stand against injustice. As far back as 1985, in a guest editorial in the Boston Herald, she condemned the vitriolic anti-gay rhetoric that brought about a change in the foster care policy “in two weeks, with less debate than the bottle bill. If only traditional families can provide a ‘warm, stable, nurturing home for a child,’ what about single parents and nuns ‘without previous parenting experience’ who have cared for children throughout the years?”

Others have noted the irony of the CDF cracking down on LCWR in the same week that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized Rep. Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal as neglecting the poor. One action emphasizes the Catholic Church’s doctrinal authority, the other its pastoral mission; but the nuns are laboring in the same vineyard as the bishops who challenge the government to help the vulnerable.

Citing comments by Sister Nuala Kenny, a pediatrician from Nova Scotia, on the need for the church to address its “underlying systemic issues,” Katherine writes, “These women, who on a daily basis reach out to those in pain over all that has happened to the church they love, may have the wisdom needed to help point the systems in the church in a new and life-giving direction. Reaching out to include them in a positive dialog about how to heal the church would be far more productive than another investigation of these gifted women.”

I hear the question, “Why don’t they leave?” But it avails nothing to judge others’ choices by one’s own experience. I deeply respect nuns like my cousin who follow their consciences as they did when they took up their vocations. They work together on a national and global level with organizations like LCWR to confront grave injustices like human trafficking. They prod the Catholic Church to face the challenges of life today. Whatever our faith, these brave witnesses for justice deserve our applause.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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