Sisters Got 99 Problems: Will Pope Francis Be One?

Quick, what do Jay-Z and American nuns have in common?

Answer: More than you might think.

Jay-Z’s classic 99 Problems tells of how not women but the police are the biggest threat against him (okay he doesn’t say “women” but let us overlook for the moment his precise term). For progressive nuns, it is not a world full of sin but the Vatican and its witch-hunting posse that has seemed to pose the gravest danger. In both cases, those entrusted with protecting the vulnerable instead hunt them down.

We all know the sickening tale of children abused by Catholic priests and how the Vatican looked the other way and even protected the pedophiles. You might think this was more than enough shock and scandal for the church, but evidently earning their very own Wikipedia page documenting the sex abuse cases was not enough.

Instead of dealing with the festering crisis, the Holy See launched a loony inquisition of U.S. nuns, allegedly to investigate and correct the women’s doctrinal deviance and “radical feminist” agenda. These women include some of the most socially progressive sisters, like the rad nuns on the bus who traveled around the country largely to expose the Catholic Paul Ryan as a sham, a devotee of Ayn Rand and little else.

To put it gently, the inquisition did not go well for the men of the cloth. The outcry was fierce and did great damage, weakening public faith in a church that already stands on shaky ground.

How did the nuns in question respond to this medieval madness? They initially rejected the Vatican’s claims with some force, but late last summer, Sister Pat Farrell of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious called more meekly for “open and honest dialogue” with top church officials.

I know, I know, it’s disappointing. If you’re like me, you were hoping the sisters would throw down an old-fashioned knuckle-wrapping gauntlet. It’s long been time for someone to call out the holy boys and their rotten club; the latest crackdown against the nuns was the last straw.

Alas, wrath is a capital vice. Instead of slamming the pope and his minions with the righteous anger they so deserve, the sisters went all Pollyanna with their tepid offer of dialogue.

Or did they? Are the sisters saving face all’italiana or might they be giving the Vatican a run for its money after all?

Actually, the nuns have offered both war and peace. If we understand what their call for dialogue really means in the context of Catholic authority, it’s clear the sisters have indeed thrown down a gauntlet. And yet they have no intention of giving up the habit and (nearly) all it stands for. What might this challenge in the face of conformity mean?

If you’re a secularist like me, you might ask who cares. It’s easy to write off nuns because it seems so utterly insane for any women to accept much of what the Church prescribes – from the stone-age views of birth control to the patriarchal hierarchy that drives away the flocks with discrimination and abuse. If nuns want to play, shouldn’t they expect to pay?

Maybe, but that’s the easy way out. The harder and more interesting task is to imagine how the sisters can obey the Church’s rigid authority enough to remain Catholics in good standing while pushing the boundaries of wildly outdated thinking.

But why should we care if we don’t share their religious beliefs? Because progressive nuns are one of the few groups who are serious about battling poverty and the economic injustice driving it. And for those who do share their Catholic faith, the fact of the matter is that if the Church is to survive, it will have to change in major ways, like accepting birth control and making the priesthood a vocation to which half of humanity might aspire. For the sake of love and justice, we should care about the nuns’ right to be recognized and respected as equals.

The New Testament explicitly forbids women to teach, let alone lead. But by definition, a call for dialogue presumes a certain measure of equality and becomes an implicit claim of leadership – leadership that brushes aside St. Paul’s call for female obedience. And the nuns are already leading on the issue of poverty, or rather leaving their bosses in the dust. The nuns’ call for dialogue demands recognition for their work and implies a call to reform the New Testament’s antiquated restraints.

It is no accident that American nuns should be the ones to raise the Vatican’s proverbial hackles. Whether the women want to admit it or not, their resistance arises partly from the spirited history of American democracy and feminism. On the other hand, the sisters know full well that they act in a long tradition of powerful female precedents in Catholic history who also challenged Paul’s injunction against teaching and leading. Women mystics like the charismatic Catherine of Siena, whose influence allowed her alone to convince Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome in 1377.

Enter Pope Francis in 2013. Will anything change under his leadership? As a Jesuit, he has not just worked but lived among the poor. His humility in his first speech seemed genuine, with his simple white cassock and sweetly gentle humor, a far cry from Benedict’s icy learning. Francis has evidently taken library breaks. And naming himself after Francis of Assisi is cool; according to legend, St. Francis literally divested himself of his father’s wealth in public so that he could marry “Lady Poverty” and spend his life serving the poor.

But let’s not allow the new pope’s paternal humility to mask the fact that he has walked among the people as a conservative theologian, one who has already condemned abortion, birth control, same-sex parents, and female ordination. So. It remains to be seen whether Francis will continue the nasty harassment that Benedict began against the sisters. But even if he backs off, the nuns will likely remain second-class religious citizens. At least for now.

So far, the Vatican has shown itself to be the sinners in this messy story. And so, hounded by the clerical cops, the nuns face a situation sort of like the one in Jay-Z’s song. Except that Jay-Z sings about police who systematically imprison and murder black men. For the nuns, the Vatican can still bring spiritual banishment through excommunication, but these days the Holy See has mostly become a sad accomplice to the world’s crushing spiritual and material poverty. And poverty is the sisters’ real challenge. They have ninety-nine problems and more. With its crumbling social power, the Vatican is not the biggest one.



77 thoughts on “Sisters Got 99 Problems: Will Pope Francis Be One?

  1. I’m betting on the nuns. I went to Catholic school and you don’t mess with them. But seriously, they are on the right side of history, and like you said are benefiting from secular democracy and feminism.

    • Good question. I’m also concerned that his populist rep will make the masses (at least some) love him and stall any progress in making the Church more welcoming. But my hopeful side thinks at least some progress is inevitable.

  2. Certainly a fiery post, sure to spark debate (if you let it).

    At the very least, the Catherine of Sienna who told the Pope to get back to Rome is, on the contrary, quite likely to have had a word of rebuke for nuns riding around on a bus politicizing: “Obedience and her sister patience show whether the soul is in truth clothed in the wedding garment of charity.” Dialogue 163.

    • I don’t remember who said, ‘humility is the sin of women’, but we have far too many recent historical examples of obedience and patience being turned to bad ends. Knowing when to be humble and when to be vehement is the challenge.

      • Yes, that really is the challenge isn’t it? And for women in the church it’s an especially charged tension because obedience is one of the central vows.

    • Thanks for your comment. I have no doubt that Catherine took obedience seriously in theory, but her letters document more of how she actually lived and reveal a soul far more inclined to leadership (including getting involved in politics) than to obedience. She routinely admonishes her spiritual advisor Raymond of Capua to the extent that she seems to do far more advising than he. In one letter from August 1379, she even tells him not to act like a “feminella,” a little woman, or she will complain about him to Christ and Mary.

    • Fare le primarie per il Comune? A cosa serve se poi si elegge un candidato scelto dagli elettori, ma che tale candidato si forma intorno a se stesso una squadra di truffatori è di incapaci, la mia codainerszione sarebbe che se la sinistra vuole per davvero avere dei FUTURI risultati sul territorio deve cominciare adesso ad essere più presente sul territorio, e prendere seriamente i problemi dei cittadini, ma che tali impegni verso i cittadini non li prenderebbero gli stessi “buffoni” che oggi governano le municipalità. Giuseppe Formisano

  3. As an egalitarian, evangelical Protestant, I still have hope for the pope ( Perhaps the best way the Catholic church could begin a metamorphosis is to return to a practice that existed for the first 1000 years of Christianity: clergy marriage. I have the feeling that a pope with a wife might think differently, and there’s no inherent reason why the RCC needs to continue its vows of celibacy.

  4. @Pastor James Miller- celibacy is not a sin, nor is it only Catholics who practice it. Bhuddist monks and nuns take vows of celibacy as well and they are very good people too. Most religions have a celibacy option and all of them view it as a positive. If you are freed from all that desire for sexual acquisition you have a lot of extra energy to pursue education and a lot more time to help people.

    Nuns are not second class religious citizens. Just like male orders of brothers and monks, they have to follow God and God’s representative on Earth is the Pope. He does his best to lead the flock. God has spoken to both women and men, giving them specific instructions for making the world a better place, Ste Bernadette and the healings of Lourdes, St Andre and the healings in Montreal, etc.

    As for being against birth control, it’s not a stone age mentality of male ownership of lineage, at least not anymore. All secular studies, in peer reviewed journals, have found that children raised in a mother-father family unit statistically turn out better, happier and smarter than children born out of wedlock. There are always exceptions of course, but the Church loves babies and wants to see them all raised in the best possible way and the best possible way has been scientifically proven to be with a Mommy and a Daddy who live together.

    • “All secular studies, in peer reviewed journals, have found that children raised in a mother-father family unit statistically turn out better, happier and smarter than children born out of wedlock. There are always exceptions of course, but the Church loves babies and wants to see them all raised in the best possible way and the best possible way has been scientifically proven to be with a Mommy and a Daddy who live together.”

      Reality has proven a lot of that statement wrong time and again.

      All the studies, statistics and peer reviewed journal entries won’t change the fact that mommy and daddy “Keeping it together for the kids” or some similar nonsense is most certainly not the best possible way for those kids. Sadly, there’s a lot of that around; mommy and daddy don’t love each other anymore and use the kids as an excuse to keep the needless charade going.

      I think everyone has gone to school with kids who had both parents at home and were born inside wedlock that were as ill-adjusted, emotionally miserable or dim-witted as your comment indicates kids born out of wedlock tend to be.

    • As a non-practicing “cradle catholic” (the only way the RCC lets you quit is to excommunicate you – otherwise you are considered “non-practicing, historically “fallen away”) the church has influenced my life horrendously, directly and and through my family. My take on the new pope is that he was likely for qualities in the same way a new CEO would be brought in to rehab a failing global corporation. Jesuits as an order are committed to serving the poor primarily by bringing education to them. In order to do that, they become highly educated. It is not a coincidence that the Jesuit Universities are located in poor (or historically) poor neighborhoods. A “humble Jesuit” imo is an oxymoron. I hope for the sake of those that can still find comfort with the RCC that Pope Francis is the exception.

      Contrary to what most people believe, the RCC does not forbid all forms of birth control. They allow use of the rhythm method. This is recognized and taught by doctors and women’s clinics. It is not the most effect type of bc, but it is a form of bc.

      I have to check on the link about Paul Ryan – I really try to avoid anything catholic but this it too tempting. (Especially since my mom called pre-electional to tell me to vote the ticket with Ryan since our grandma’s played bridge together. Serious.)

      • My less optimistic side tends to agree with what you say about Francis brought in to try to rehab a bad situation. It will be interesting to see how he deals with the sisters in question.

      • I forgot about the rhythm method, you’re right though it’s a method of birth control and actually, if you learn it properly, any priest can give you the name of a medical doctor who teaches a free course, it’s extremely effective. At least you’re in charge of your own body and what happens in it rather than putting your entire life and health into the hands of a drug manufactured by people who only care about money.

      • @sedrate: actually it is very common knowledge that the rhythm method is not particularly reliable as a birth control method.

      • No one in the Catholic Church has advocated the rhythm method for decades. Natural Family Planning (NFP) teaches a woman and her spouse to understand and respect the way the female body works, and includes close attention to temperature changes and other physical changes that take place in the female body. By paying attention to these physical changes, NFP practitioners can decide when or if they wish to have sexual relations; this may be to plan or avoid pregnancy. It also teaches couples how breastfeeding properly can be used to space or (for a time) avoid future pregnancies.

      • Yes it is the same in that conception is prevented by not having vaginal intercourse during the time around ovulation. Yes it is still a common term used by the CC and by its members and other organizations that work to provide information to women in a language that they understand.
        The ccli has NO affiliation with the Catholic Church so please do not imply that the church is endorsing this organization.

  5. Wow, interesting piece. I am not Catholic but have many friends who are Catholic. In fact, someone who was once very close to me chose to become a Dominican priest. I have not followed all of the latest news about the Catholic church, so I am not “up” on everything, but I find your comparison of late events to Jay-Z’s song interesting. I don’t see the Catholic church letting up on its views towards birth control or celibacy any time soon. Probably never. And I don’t know if they’re *really* the problem anyway. The problem lies somewhere in forgetting the focus. So many fights and finger-pointing over things that take our eyes off of the true picture, which is, of course, God.

      • Esta sociedad creada al amparo del dios dinero no sólo deja sin futuro a los jóvenes sino que,además,crea está terribles bolsas de pobreza que,cuando se dan entre niños ,son deasvtadorsa.Hasta cuándo el ser humano dejará de ser tan vil? A lo que parece,no por ahora.Qué rabia más contenida!Saludos

  6. The Catholic church has a lot to be ashamed of- and a lot to be proud of as well. Let’s see if Pope Francis can at least break the logjam. First indications are hopeful.

  7. The Vatican’s attempts to distract the world by going after the nuns didn’t work, but I don’t think they’ll learn their lessons. After all, they believe they have God on their side, so why should they change? But in the end, I believe the nuns and those who think like them will win this war of words. After all, I grew up with a lot of women in my family. I know as well as anyone that women can do the same things as men and plenty of times they’ve done it better.

  8. Several quick thoughts. One doesn’t have to belong to a religious order to be celibate. Jesus is God’s representative on earth. If a person is called to serve God as ordained to a religion, and also called by God to be married, the Catholic Church isn’t for them. And good for nuns and others who obey God rather than man.

  9. I thought from the title that you were going to list out the “99 Problems” 95 Thesis style. This is a way better read than that would be though. For my own part, I was brought up in Protestant churches – some of which allowed women to lead prayers and make short talks and some of which forbade them to utter a peep during the service (except for singing). The latter seemed a bit extreme, even for someone who didn’t really want to be involved in the church. We all know God must have some faith in female leadership. Otherwise, why would he have allowed a woman to be Judge in the Old Testament?

  10. I am very interested in your point about women in the roles of leading and teaching. I’d love to hear your thoughts/talk to you about it. As I am genuine in my interest and understand how comments can get hostile, is there a way I can mail you, or perhaps read something you’ve written? Thank you.

    • I would be happy to discuss this further, but I’d also like to allow other people to read/participate. I moderate all comments, so any trolling/inappropriate comments will simply be deleted. I also think it’s important that women claim the right to speak about this stuff in public spaces, so I’d love to hear what you have to say here in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!

  11. To quote another song, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves. Standin’ on their own two feet and ringin’ on their own bells.” I can’t think of anything better to say than all the other thoughtful comments above. All excellent insights.

    • Annie Lennox really does rock. In high school my friend won tix off the radio and we went to see her. Amazing show. Thanks for reading!

  12. Check sources, be balanced. Read the encyclicals and other catholic documents and then ponder whether RCC is anti-women or not. I just hope that arguments are laid for the search of truth and not for the sake of feminism as a principle. Sometimes, I am led to think whether we are still Christians or Feminists… Thanks for the perspective.

    • Well, perhaps it’s possible to be both a Christian and a feminist, if one simply follows the teachings of Jesus. Thanks for reading.

      • Totally. But extreme is not very christian, IMHO. Being what you are does not make you above (nor below) any other human being. However, what you are gives you obvious limitations in what specific roles we can be in. By following God’s design, we become more like his Sons and Daughters; otherwise, IMHO, is like eating the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil (putting the “divine law” into our hands). Cheers and happy Easter!

      • Yes, and that’s why the extreme behavior of the men in the church (abusing children, covering it up, persecuting nuns) has been so damaging. They have not behaved like Christians. Feminism is simply the notion that women are human beings deserving of equal rights. Nothing extreme about that.

      • Following ALL teachings of Jesus, without bias. That would mean a good feminism, that one which uplifts human nature as well as becoming a good follower of the Will of the Father. Cheers! Thanks.

  13. Of course, everything hinges on how much power there actually is in the position of Pope.

    Is the Vatican power structure such that the Pope is simply a public face and more symbol than substance with the Vatican Secretariat of State behind him doing most of the decision making?

    It’s well known that the heads of state in many political systems actually have little to no power to enact anything on their own, the agreement of lower houses is almost always required unless the state is a complete dictatorship.

  14. Great article. My bet is with the nuns. They play such an important part as you say. Biggest problem is Vatican bureaucracy but I am still on the side of the nuns.

    • It will be interesting to see how this all pans out, but the nuns definitely have the public on their side. Thanks for reading!

    • Well, it’s a stretch to imagine that an institution as patriarchal as the Catholic Church could progress to allow a female pope, at least anytime soon, but it’s not at all a stretch to imagine female-centered religion because goddess worship was widespread prior to Christianity. For example, Diana was such a powerful goddess throughout the ancient Mediterranean world that according to legend, when Paul came to Ephesus to spread the word of Christ, he was shouted down for hours by a crowd chanting “Great is Diana of Ephesus.” This was roughly two thousand years ago, which seems like a long time but is less than a drop in the bucket in evolutionary terms.

  15. Interesting perspective …
    “O mankind! Be dutiful to your Lord, Who created you from a single person (Adam) and from him (Adam) He created his wife (Eve) and from them both He created many men and women: and fear Allah through whom you demand your mutual rights and do not cut relations of the wombs. Surely, Allah is ever an All-Watcher over you.” Quran 4:1

    Liberate your housecats!

  16. How could ANYONE sit back in their chair at the computer and advocate celibacy as being a ‘good thing’? That shows lack of empathy, knowledge of history or understanding. Forced celibacy IS a sin because we, the people say it is so. It is also, and unfortunately, asinine, and only introduced so that the church could claim all assets of deceased clergymen and not partners. It is medieval and quite evil, frankly.

  17. Reblogged this on swytla and commented:
    This post is a great continuation to a newspaper article I recently read about the brave nuns and their fight for the principles that used to guide the Church and Christianity. My bigget beef with the Catholic Church is just this archaic and patriarchal world-view and the propensity to willfully disregard the reality that a.) women have the right to control their bodies, b.) that same-sex couples are not going away any time soon no matter how many times they are declared sinfull, c.) that there is serious problem with abuse and molestation, and d.) that battling poverty and illness goes hand in hand with women-liberation and access to contraception. I’m not a believer, but a powerful organisation that the Catholic Church is has a great impact on the world and the future of mankind.

  18. I’m not Catholic and I barely paid attention to the conclave or the election of the new pope. But I must say it’s nice to learn something new about the struggles inside the Catholic church. Thanks for enlightening us on the sister’s plight.

  19. Pingback: Rev. Sisters Got 99 Problems: Will Pope Francis Be One? | Adama J. Adama (A.J.A) Blog

  20. It’s interesting how the nuns are actively trying to make changes in the church. I never really thought much about them when I was kids, other than that they were very devout people to give their lives over entirely to their faith.

    • They are certainly leading on certain key issues, like poverty, but I don’t know how actively they are pursuing church reform at the moment. Thanks for reading!

  21. “For the nuns, the Vatican can still bring spiritual banishment through excommunication, but these days the Holy See has mostly become a sad accomplice to the world’s crushing spiritual and material poverty. And poverty is the sisters’ real challenge. They have ninety-nine problems and more. With its crumbling social power, the Vatican is not the biggest one”

    This quote led me first to think that yes, the world is truly impoverished as you say, spiritually and materially. And to the extent that the Vatican has focused on doctrinal purity, it is true under Pope Benedict that it failed in to address real problems in the world. Yet, somehow, I am still an idealist. And I know I’m not alone because I see so many people willing to accept the potential for change.

  22. An interesting article, thank you! In reading this I’m once again thankful that I’m Anglican and not Catholic. There is a lot to be learned from looking at other denominations and I do think that if the RCC were to relax the celibacy rule for their priests they might find life a lot easier – and they may get a greater number of vocations from men who thought that they couldn’t go forward because they’re already married. In the Anglican tradition, we have married and single clergy, and both do as equally good a job. They just bring different experiences to the table – which is a good thing for pastoral reasons. If someone’s experiencing marital difficulties, someone who is also married may be in the better place to offer support.

    Obedience, in a religious order, is (or should be, according to my understanding of the Rule in my community) to God first, then to the Order’s Rule of Life, and then to people (meaning the Abbess/Prioress/Mother/Leader, one’s fellow Sisters and then clergy). So the Sisters are perfectly within their rights and their Rule to stand up for themselves and for the poor of the world, and I would say are required to do so.

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