Guest ColumnistThe Great Nunquisition response

What does the Church want from her Religious Sisters?  A response to Jo Piazza’s “Great Nunquistion.”

Every nun stands before a “Grand Inquisitor” when she makes her final promises.  Why would she freely commit to obedience on that day? Let us return to that question and first respond to the claim: The Church is uncomfortable with women.  Since this statement appears to be serious, let’s highlight that one church lady, known affectionately to Catholics as, “Our Lady,” who is more revered, respected, and followed than any Pope has ever been.  In fact, most Popes attribute their spiritual lives to her guidance and have told us to do likewise.  Yes, that would be Jesus’ own mother: Mary, the Mother of God.  

There are hundreds who we could mention here, but I’ll note two: Saint Catherine of Siena, who famously told the pope how to “rule the world,” and Mother Teresa, whose alliance with Pope John Paul II is well known.  The world is buoyed up by contemporary sisters – Little Sisters of the Poor, Conventional Franciscans of the Renewal, Dominicans, Sisters of Life, Servidoras, and Carmelites, just to name a small portion of the most incredible women revered and loved by the Church today.  What is it about these nuns that doesn’t catch the attention of this author?  Perhaps it is that they embrace their vow of obedience as a beautiful thing – something they equate with obeying Christ Himself.

Piazza’s complaint stems from a worldview (and ecclesiology) which views the Church in an over-politicized way.  Everything seems to be judged on a progressive/conservative scale.  Pope Francis, and those Catholics who enthusiastically call him, “Pastor,” recognize that the ultimate measure of the Church cannot be political.  Instead, the question, “Is the Church as it should be?” can only be answered by the degree of her faithfulness to Christ.   Instead of asking, “Is the Church progressive enough?” we must instead ask, “How faithful is the Church to her Head?”

The problem of infidelity has been taking place for 2,000 years within the Church, that’s one essential reason for authority.  St. Paul censured lots of people claiming to hand down the Gospel.  Was that overbearing?  What about Jesus, did he not accept that woman as he should of when he told her, “Go and sin no more?”  The problem with the Vatican is the problem with Jesus Christ: his intolerance of sin, his expressions of truth over distortion, and his love (sometimes tough love) amidst willful defiance.   (Note, I do not propose conservatism over progressivism, but faithfulness over the ever-present temptation to make oneself the pope).

The Church is the Bride of Christ (hence “her” or “she”), and the Church is the Mother of the faithful, who are born from the womb of the baptismal font.  Nuns are incarnate individuations of the Church.  They’re living, breathing metaphors of what each Christian is ultimately called to: union with the Bridegroom.

As a bride, each pledges her faithfulness to Christ.  And each is a “mother” to those who are part of the Christian family.

Is it degrading for Vatican representatives to “investigate” nuns? There are good reasons for any authoritative clergy to criticize, chastise, or censure any members of the Body of Christ, the Church.  Catholics are called to faithfully follow Christ, and that includes accepting Church teachings and living them out.  Of course, it is a concern of the Church if unfaithfulness is celebrated or codified by a person or group of persons claiming to represent Catholicism.  To throw out a fundamental aspect of Catholicism for some perceived gain always results in actual loss.  You cannot be more Catholic by being less Catholic.  As Pope John Paul II once wrote, a Christian has “the right to receive ‘the word of faith’ not in mutilated, falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigor and vigor. Unfaithfulness on some point to the integrity of the message means a dangerous weakening of catechesis and putting at risk the results that Christ and the ecclesial community have a right to expect from it.”  Does “the Vatican choose not to celebrate” nuns?  A nun who proclaims the Gospel should be celebrated.  One who distorts the Gospel should not be.  You cannot uphold something contrary to Catholic belief and still be a faithful Catholic. 

What about the claim that “nuns are an endangered species?”  Are the statistics presented an indicator that perhaps the Church needs to redefine religious life in order to increase the amount of nuns?  First, I would point out that faithfulness is not measured by numbers. The members of the universal Church are referred to as “the faithful” because they faithfully follow their shepherd – not because there is a certain number of them.  The statistical reference shows a huge decline in women religious since Vatican II.  It’s helpful to realize that the overall numbers of faithful Catholics declined in that same period.  Is the decline due to an oppressive and closed-minded male hierarchy?  Maybe those religious left because they chose not to be faithful.  Maybe the laity left because they lost their mothers.

Second, God calls us to be devout, not to redefine His Church. Faithfulness is hard.  But that’s what makes is beautiful!  And that’s what makes it a vocation.  After years of marriage, a man seeking to be faithful to his wife cannot redefine the definition of their marriage and still claim to be faithful.  He can either love sacrificially, or not.  He can’t expect her to change the foundation of the marriage and then call her closed-minded if she will not.  So why should anyone be faithful?  The only thing that can motivate one to fidelity is love.  Not that feeling of love, but the unwavering commitment of the will.  “Till death do us part” kind of love.

You can spot a nun embracing that decision by the contagious joy that flows from the fact that she loves her spouse, the Church, unto death.

Ms. Piazza referenced a woman who did not become a nun because the order was not a NGO. One should not become a nun for the wrong reason, just as one should not get married for the wrong reason.  A woman should not become a nun because “the Church values what she values.” Conversely, the only reason a woman should become a nun is because she comes to value that which the Church values.  She discovers the “pearl of great price.”  One discovers the truth of Christ, one submits to Christ, and so one happily places her own desires below the will of her superiors. 

No one should become a nun to get an education and travel the world.  That’s what college and airplanes are for.  One should become a nun because she loves Christ so much that she wants to join herself to him alone and serve his Church.  She becomes a nun to make of herself a living sacrifice.  She becomes a nun because it brings her joy to humbly serve.  Not because she has an agenda.  Not because she needs to be empowered. 

The author actually references vows, including obedience, perhaps in a positive light.  Yet, this article paints the virtue of obedience as a weakness.  Ironically, the author contributes to what she complains about – she furthers the attitude that leads to fewer nuns – an attitude of dissent.  If she would like more nuns, she needs to discover the joy of faithfully following the Holy Father as one follows Christ, even when it’s hard.  A dissent-oriented disposition cannot embrace obedience as a good and beautiful thing, but only an obstruction that prevents freedom and power.  Such a stance will never give birth to vocations.  Alternatively, many nuns embrace Jesus’ words, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit.” 

Nuns are awesome because they love and serve Christ.  And they believe the body of Christ to be the hierarchy typically referred to as “the Vatican.” Obedience is how they joyfully live that spousal love.   The incentive to be a nun today is the same as always – to sell all she has and go and follow Christ.  The most joyful and beautiful nuns show us how to lay down their lives, to die every day by offering their bodies to God as a spiritual sacrifice.   Nuns who do that multiply the numbers of religious in the Church.  Those who complain like Piazza do not. 

Nuns do rule the world, just not in the way Piazza would like.  Or perhaps not the world she would like. 

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