Thank the women

Time has come to draw some distinctions. First, recently and not far apart, the Vatican announced that it has ordered a review of the American organization of superiors of women religious, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Then Roman officials criticized the theology of Mercy Sister Margaret Farley. These steps followed a study of all American communities of women religious a while ago. 

Regarding the Vatican’s dialogue with the LCWR now under way, the choice of Seattle’s Archbishop Peter Sartain to lead the process reflects good will in Rome. He is a man of the highest integrity, experienced as a pastor, well-schooled as a theologian, and a priest and bishop deservedly of the highest reputation. Knowing him, I am certain that it will be no kangaroo court. 

The distinction that needs to be made at present is this: These events have caused some to judge harshly all American women religious, and what they do, and this simply is unfair, untruthful and harmful to the best interests of the Church. 

This is a fact: the Vatican’s actions are not indictments of American women religious. As these actions have been reported in the media, the Holy See specifically has complimented the dedication and generous apostolic work under way at this moment by American women religious at home and overseas. 

Dorothy Stang
Sister Dorothy Stang, American Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. CNS photo

Usually, and unfortunately, the works of women religious go unnoticed. Some women religious have been, and are, heroines for the faith. Some have been martyrs — in this day and time. In the not too distant past American women religious literally have given their lives simply for representing the Gospel and the compassionate Savior. 

For example, Sister Dorothy Stang, an American Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, aggravated elements in Brazil determined to rip from the area every natural resource at the expense of local residents. Assassins ambushed her in 2005. She looked them in their eyes and held up her Bible, saying that she followed the Lord, and serving God’s people was her only purpose. They brutally shot her nevertheless. 

She was typical of so very many American women religious. When I served in Tennessee, I knew women religious who provided health care to the poorest of the poor in Appalachia, without charge. They raised the necessary funds from donors. 

I also am reminded of a nun who struggled to maintain a facility for poor African-American children with learning disabilities. The public school system cannot assist them, nor can the local parochial school system. One day, these children will have a chance at a decent life, because of this sister. What a marvelous example of Christian love and of Christian discipleship she is! The memory of her will enrich her students throughout their lives. 

As for Sister Dorothy Stang, read the many papal statements about respecting the environment and people’s rights. As for the other sisters, educating youth and caring for the sick are ancient, revered Catholic ministries. 

I recall a laywoman whose brother, a priest, often spoke strongly for marginalized people and was criticized in the process. Once, a critic got to his sister. His sister asked the critic, “How many years of your life have you given to God?” 

To repeat, no one should use the current LCWR case, the case of Sister Farley, or even the Vatican review of American communities of women religious several years ago, to demean thousands upon thousands of sisters. 

Instead, thank women religious for the great works they accomplish, and at least acknowledge that they have given their lives to God. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.