For the First Time In History, Nun’s Hit the Front Page

(Disclaimer: This is really only armchair sociology…nothing real analytical here…)

I knew it was only a matter of time before word got out.

I awoke this morning to a flurry of activity on Facebook and e-mail, citing this article in the New York Times discussing the Vatican-mandated “sweep” of convents in the US. Some people even went out of their way to e-mail it to me, making me warm and fuzzy inside because now I have a legitimate “hook” as a sociologist…I’m the Nun Girl writing, as Judy Wittner calls it, “That Nun Thing.”

In an attempt to preserve credibility and comment on this “breaking story” (and shore up my ability to say “I told you so” in a couple years), I felt it necessary to put to virtual paper my commentary on this little story that I’ve been following since the news broke the first time about a year and a half ago. (See people, I have been working…it’s just on the sly…)

My Thoughts on the Article and the “Sweep”:
1. I think it’s funny that people are buzzing about this now that they’ve seen an article that uses the word “sweep” to define what’s going on. Also “investigation” tends to be a hot-button word. Emotions run high. Also, the interviewees (Sandra Schneiders, for example) happen to be the most outspoken, most radical commentators on women’s religious in this country. Awesome NYT, for just relaying the facts…if relaying the facts means instigating a fight…

2. Everyone seems to assume that the Vatican is “beating up on the little nuns” by asking for assessments of their congregations. This is fascinating to me; clearly many seem to espouse natural sympathy for these women regardless of what they might be doing. It’s a very gendered image that our general, collective mind has about nuns in this country: as girls, overly naive, virgins, overly humble, overly meek. Just look at the Grand Inquisitor, over here. Seriously. In no way do I mean to say that some aren’t this. But it’s good to remember that this population of women varies as widely as any population of women. This is important to keep in mind because…

3. …They could be complicit in their own downfall. It’s no secret that the social climate in the US (meaning the opportunity structure for women) creates a platform for this kind of phenomenon to be unique to this country. HOWEVER, I’m aware of many communities of women who have gone off the deep end in terms of employing a seriously manipulated theology to navigate this social climate. What do I mean? I mean, they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (and sometimes more) and have re-written them over time to mean different things that seem to privilege certain values over others. Does poverty mean having a credit card as long as you can pay off the balance? Does it mean wearing jewelry (and I’m talking diamond earrings) and expensive clothes as long as they are “gifts” from your family? Does it mean having a personal car that no one else can use as long as the community signs the lease? Because for some (and by some I mean NOT ALL) communities, it does. And this raises questions in terms of their initial promises to the institution of the Church. I’m all for letting these strong, well-educated, saavy women find their own way but I think they’re drowning and, for many, they don’t know how to get out. A little accountability and belt-tightening might be the answer in restoring a little bit of vitality to those congregations that are flagging.

4. “Blame” will be assigned I’m sure. But that waggling finger should be pointing directly back at the Vatican. They, out of fear and disdain, have neglected this issue since the effects of Vatican II have been visible (that would be, since the early 1970s…). They have ignored the very social climate that has created the bedrock for this American phenomenon and, in typical fashion, have prayed that it would disappear. Sorry boys–especially a fella named Benedict–you cannot put Vatican II back in the box. It’s time to start having some insight into the reasons this is happening and owning the fact that you’ve poorly managed the Church in this country–on both the men’s and women’s sides. (Don’t even start me on the ways the laity in this country have been completely left on their own

At this point, I realize, I could keep going for hours. I could write an estimated 200 pages (the convenient length of, oh I don’t know, a run-o-the-mill sociological dissertation) on just such a topic. So I’ll stop here and tell you to go buy the book (in 2011). But, I think in general everyone should see this process much as teachers view evaluations by department chairs or principals. We all know that the teachers who have been fucking around, pushing the boundaries too far, and basically taking a too-liberal tack on their job are the ones who should be sweating it and, usually, for good reason.

In the end, this process could save those who may have grown unable to save themselves…or it could send women in the Church back into the dark ages at which point reading a little bit of Karl Marx might come in handy.

Either way, only time will tell. But I’ll sure be watching.

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