The Catholic Church has taken a lot of abuse lately, and for good reason. On the first day of February it was announced that retired LA Cardinal Roger Mohony would be stripped of his duties. Under his watch, an unprecedented number of children were sexually abused by various priests. Instead of addressing the problem, he pushed the problem aside. He looked the other way and transferred the priests to other churches, resulting in even more children being abused.
The Los Angeles area is not alone in having their children suffer at the hands of molesting priests. It’s estimated that thousands of children were abused in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Most horrifying among those cases are hundreds of children from the St. John’s School for the Deaf. It is believed that at least 200 boys were molested over three decades by one priest at the school. The cover up of the problem not only span several decades, but the cover up goes all the way to the Vatican. The current pope, then Jacob Ratzinger, continually ignored pleas by Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland to convene a canonical trial to defrock the offending priest.
The cover up of the sex abuse over decades has resulted in the least, the fleeing of faithful from the religion, the bankruptcy caused by the payout for the lawsuits, and at the worst, the loss of innocence of thousands of children. This surely churns the stomach just thinking about it all. Despite all the tearing down by the priests, nuns have been quietly toiling away doing the churches real work.
Nuns have never been ones to push back the Red Sea, but instead they’re the ones who help to tend to those who were swept up in it all. Those unfamiliar with the work of nuns may think of Sally Field in the Flying Nun or of a stern looking teacher carrying a ruler who warns scared little children that they may burn in hell for passing a note to their friend. In reality, most nuns aren’t like that. They’ve been working with those who society often pushes aside.
They work with migrant workers to help them find suitable housing. Sister Cathy Buster, a Catholic nun in Florida, has worked tirelessly to fulfill her dream of helping immigrant farm workers to find safe housing. Yes, nuns do have dreams. She told a reporter for CNN
“I dream a lot, and people all think I’m nuts when I tell them what I intend to do to help.”
Not only is the housing safe and clean, it’s also green. She sees firsthand the challenges that immigrant farm workers face. More than any other group, migrant workers are exposed to high risk or injury while working. Once they leave work, the dangers don’t cease. A quick scan of articles on this problem show the housing is often without adequate sanitation, riddled with insects, and just plain not fit for human habitation. While some of us complain about our house only having one bathroom, migrant workers often don’t have one that even works. We don’t see it. The nuns do.
Drug addicts and former felons are also ministered to by the quiet work of nuns. One such case was featured on CNN. The non profit organization, Hour Children, has helped over 9,000 mothers who are imprisoned. By getting past the judgement of what the women have done, the nuns help to restore dignity and self-esteem. Sister Teresa Fitzgerald describes the challenges that are faced.
“Everybody loves children, and they’re an easy sell. But the mothers, for many of them, their lives were so horrific growing up, and they didn’t have what children deserve. They ended up on the negative side of life. If you don’t get the support and tools, you can’t give it to your child. … It’s a dead end all around.”
The two examples above are just a small sampling of what Catholic nuns do every day. Some may see their work as hopeless because it seems they are fighting an endless battle. While others say that all that hard work is for naught because the safety net programs these nuns provide are being scrapped or effectively neutered due to changes at the national level.
Well, it seems that there is a crusader for the bigger picture. If there ever was a nun who was also a super hero, it would be Sister Simone Campbell. While charisma is rarely associated with nuns, Network lobby group has one in Sister Simone. She disarms with her warm smile and pleasant demeanor, and then strikes at the heart of issues with her breadth and depth of her knowledge on social justice issues. She and a small cadre of nuns drove to various cities throughout the United States this past summer on a tour called the Nuns on the Bus tour. She was greeted by small but enthusiastic crowds of people to spread the word of the devastation that this country faces. She breathed life into the statistics on child poverty, hunger and homelessness. She took special aim at one person who was going to make the situation worse – Senator Paul Ryan.
Sister Simone was featured on Bill Moyers, The Colbert Report and MSNBC. A video of her interview with Chris Matthews handily illustrates that she’s not just spewing rhetoric. She’s telling the story of her experience with those less fortunate, and how it impacts them. But she’s not afraid to tell it like it is. She’s not afraid to say that Senator Ryan is not correctly following the Catholic doctrine of serving those less fortunate.
All of this is great, but if there’s one thing that the Catholic church doesn’t like, it’s uppity nuns. In fact, Sister Simone’s activism even resulted in her being called out by higher ups. The interview with Stephen Colbert makes light of this, but Sister Simone and the majority of the nuns did receive a rebuke by the Vatican. It charged that the nuns were being too radical in their approach.
The problem is not with the nuns’ work with the poor and dispossessed, but instead specific subgroups they are serving. The nuns disagree on casting out those who struggle with issues of sexuality. They believe that the priesthood should not be reserved only for men. The rebuke even went so far as to call the sisters group, who represent over 80% of American Catholic nuns, radical feminists.
While the din has died down since then, it still demonstrates the divide in the Catholic church. It brings up several questions on the future of the Catholic church. Will the sex abuse scandal be the final straw to break the Catholic church, and never to be repaired? Despite their lack of power in the Church, is the work done by the nuns enough to breathe new life into the church? Will the activism by Sister Simone and those with Network give charge to changes in the church? While there will certainly be much opinion offered on those questions, the truth can only be seen with the passing of time.