Margaret Susan Thompson, professor of history at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, New York, responds to the crackdown on American nuns by the Vatican. Writing in The Tablet, she talks about the contribution Catholic lay religious women have made to the Church's witness in the US and the support many Catholics feel for the nuns.
The questions left unanswered is whether the laity will act to support them and do laity believe that the hierarchy would listen if they did speak up?
US sisters have faced other crises in the past. Two notable ones were the suppression of the Los Angeles, California, IHM Sisters in the late 1960s, and the attempt by Rome to discipline the so-called "Vatican 24" (more than that number of sisters, actually, who signed a 1984 statement published in the New York Times that "faithful Catholics" held a "diversity of opinions" about abortion). But this situation is different. First, it has direct, canonical implications for the relationship of the overwhelming majority of US sisters to the institutional church hierarchy. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is not happening behind closed doors.
Within moments of the announcement of Sartain's appointment, the internet exploded. Discussion groups of sisters, of Catholic women, of academics, and of rank-and-file believers began circulating statements, petitions, insights, and any news they might be able to find. Blogs, news sites, Twitter, Facebook, and countless other websites were inundated. The support for sisters has been overwhelming. And it is likely to remain active and engaged for as long as circumstances warrant.
Today's sisters are both more educated and more socially engaged than either their counterparts in the past or the bulk of the clergy who claim authority over them. And they are not alone. The Catholic laity in the US are also more alert and astute than their forebears were. At a time when the Vatican's demand that sisters spend less time on "social justice" and more on opposing abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, the congruence of this investigation with the current presidential campaign (not to mention the US Supreme Court's current review of President Obama's healthcare programme, which most bishops opposed and most LCWR sisters supported) is impossible to ignore.
It is hard to know what that "support" will translate into. There is a considerable gap between the beliefs and action of the average Catholic and the stands taken by their hierarchy. Many Catholics simply ignore what the hierarchy says, or else don't challenge because they take the hierarchy as a given. Furthermore, many Catholics are taught to believe that their church is the only valid church so if they leave, they don't consider other churches (like us) who are Christians and aren't as flawed in our hierarchy.
Our observation through years of public anger over the child sex abuse scandals, church closings, and other controversies, is that there are three choices for the average Catholic: exit, voice and neither. While a handful have joined our church and others denominations, most choose "neither."
But will this time will be different? Father James Martin, SJ started a Twitter campaign #WhatSistersMeanToMe to drum up support.
"Catholic sisters are my heroes. In light of the Vatican's desire to renew and reform their main organizing body, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I thought it would be a great time to speak a word of support for Catholic sisters, and to acknowledge the hidden ways that these women have generously served God, served the poor and served this country."
Lots and lots of Catholics were educated by nuns and feel affection toward them. Many others recall their work in healthcare. Will that make a difference?