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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Nuns in American Public Life

Event Recap

Among the important outcomes of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a call for the world’s nuns to adapt their ministries to better serve the modern world. Over time many sisters in the United States increased their participation in social justice movements and political activism. In recent years, however, Pope Benedict XVI and some members of the Curia grew increasingly concerned that the modern sisters had strayed too far from their original mandates. In 2011, after a two-year investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella organization representing approximately eighty percent of America’s Catholic nuns, a Vatican report raised serious doctrinal concerns. To better understand the controversy and the historical role sisters have played in the American Church and broader society, the Boisi Center hosted a panel discussion with two prominent nuns and an historian of women religious on October 18.

Syracuse University historian Margaret Susan Thomson noted that Catholic sisters have always responded to social problems within the larger society, so their work is controversial by nature. During the Civil War, for example, nuns worked as nurses, defying political boundaries by treating soldiers from both the North and the South. Catholic sisters also provided the earliest form of health insurance in America, selling inexpensive tickets to miners and loggers that guaranteed medical care. These examples indicate the significance of public action and advocacy for social justice among Catholic nuns in America.

Boston College theology professor Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, I.H.M. added that nuns’ advocacy work can be a source of tension between the Vatican and American nuns. Case in point is the Vatican’s critical review of the LCWR, which was ostensibly simply aimed to assess declining numbers of women religious, but was felt by many sisters, said Sr. Hinsdale, as a mistrustful intrusion on their genuine efforts to put Catholic teaching into practice.

Finally, political scientist and Aquinas College administrator Sr. Mary Bendyna focused on the educational role of contemporary American nuns. Sr. Bendyna argued that many Catholics are unfamiliar with basic Church doctrine, leading them to prioritize their political ideologies ahead of their religious commitments. While affirming the crucial importance of other aspects of their mission, Sr. Bendyna argued that theological education and spiritual formation of the Catholic laity is central to the public witness of religious sisters today.

Of course the panelists discussed many more controversial and important topics that we cannot cover here. The lively exchanges among panelists and an audience with many nuns is worth viewing in its entirety, and we encourage you to do so at http://frontrow.bc.edu/program/nunsinamerica. (Most of the Boisi Center’s other events have video posted on their event pages as well.)