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.