Since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released its doctrinal assessment of the LCWR in April, women religious in the U.S. have been the subject of a plethora of news stories. Such attention has come not only from Catholic media sources, but has pervaded the secular media as well. A quick online search reveals well over a thousand news stories, and now there is even a website dedicated to disseminating coverage of American women religious. Similarly, the recent Nuns on the Bus campaign by the liberal Catholic organization Network has drawn much attention from both mainstream and Catholic media, even seeing support from numerous members of the U.S. Congress. Network’s Executive Director, Sr. Simone Campbell, has likewise made appearances on major media outlets, including the popular Colbert Report. Women religious have suddenly gained the attention of many.
The popularity of news stories about the LCWR doctrinal assessment and Nuns on the Bus deserves reflection. In comparison, notably fewer stories have been dedicated to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ lawsuits against the HHS mandate. Likewise, other issues promoted by liberal Catholic groups, such as rallies by liberal Catholics in support of gay marriage, have failed to generate the same kind of media blitz as the LCWR and Nuns on the Bus. While some conservative commentators have accused the media of being biased in pushing the Nuns on the Bus story, arguing that wealthy donors have orchestrated an impressive PR campaign, the LCWR assessment and Nuns of the Bus have no doubt resonated with many Catholics throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, PR campaign or not. Without people attending rallies in support of the sisters, the stories would be much less compelling. In South Bend, for example, the local news reports that close to 350 people came to a local Catholic school for a “friend raiser” in support of Nuns on the Bus.
Why are so many Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, interested in the affairs of an organization of leaders of the majority of women’s religious communities throughout the U.S.? Is this merely about polarization in the Church? In pondering this question, I am reminded of an interview I did with a young sister a few months before the CDF released its assessment of the LCWR. In the quotations below, we see Sr. Faustina, a 26-year old sister who belongs to a newly formed religious community (incidentally unaffiliated with either conference of U.S. women religious), speaking about the reactions she has received from people in both the U.S. and abroad. Belonging to a religious community that wears a traditional habit, and thus standing out wherever she goes, she notes stark comparisons between her experiences being out in public in the Canada and Spain as compared to in the United States:
“In the United States, people still love sisters. Whether they’re atheist, whether they’re Jews, whether they’re former Catholics, Protestants. They all love to see religious. And they want to see us in the habit. And it’s very, very rare that I’ve ever had, in the United States, a negative reaction… And people don’t have the same reaction to the clergy as they have for nuns. But for some reason in the United States, everyone still loves nuns.”
Whereas in Canada and Spain, reactions to Sr. Faustina’s habit were negative, even hostile, her experience in the U.S. has been completely different. When I asked her to explain what she meant, she expounds on the above:
“Well, in the United States, religious sisters have done so much. Schools, hospitals. They’ve done so much for the immigrant people. That it seems to have just gotten to the heart of the culture, a real love for sisters. Just passed on. Not everyone has had good experience with sisters, which is very painful. And a lot of the times, that’s not always the case. But even those who have had bad experiences, I think once they meet us and they see a friendly face and the friendship they quickly build with us really seems to heal the past. But like I said, the culture as a whole seems to really love sisters. They’ve just done so much for immigrants. When you think of Saint Elizabeth or Mother Theodore Guerin or Katherine Drexel. Even if they weren’t born in the States, they did so much for the American people and they were sisters who were greatly loved. So [Americans] don’t see from sisters so much the authority of the Church like they do with priests or bishops. Which is a shame because I love our priests and bishops. They don’t always receive such a welcome in people’s hearts as sisters do.”
In Sr. Faustina’s interview, I argue that we see two reasons for why women religious are loved so much in the U.S., and with that, two potential reasons why the LCWR assessment and Nuns on the Bus have resonated with so many. The first is that women religious of the past did many great works for the people, and a love for sisters has worked its way into our culture. While people may not always show it, women religious are valued for their many good works. Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are thankful for the work of women religious, and it is likely that the LCWR and Nuns on the Bus have been connected with the work of past sisters. The second reason as to why the stories might resonate with people is because they do not associate sisters with strict authoritarian teaching like they do the U.S. bishops. While they may have had strict sisters as teachers, sisters do not carry the same authority status as bishops. Thus, women religious may be interpreted by some as not emphasizing some of the more hot-button issues as compared to the bishops, in turn making them more likable among moderate and liberal Catholics. We also find this thinking in Sr. Pat Farrell, the president of LCWR, as she spoke to NPR last week.
Questions to consider:
- Do you agree with Sr. Faustina that women religious are loved in the United States? What do you think of her reasoning?
- What do you think of the media coverage surrounding the LCWR and Nuns on the Bus? Have you noticed many stories in the secular press?
- What do you think accounts for the interest in the story among so many secular news organizations?
Update: I explore the lack of support for women’s religious vocations here