Kristof: Catholic Nuns as our Best Superheroes

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Transform Now Christian anti-nuclear activists, including Sr. Megan Rice (illustration by Jeffrey Smith)

Nicholas Kristof wrote a great column in the NYT on Saturday about American Catholic sisters. Part of his op-ed focuses on Sr. Megan Rice, age 82, who is spending 3 year in the federal pen for exposing U.S. nuclear hypocrisy. Watch for Dan Zak’s new book coming out about “The Prophets of Oak Ridge,” including Sr. Megan. (Editor’s note: This Washington Post article series by Dan Zak should be a required Bible study for all U.S. Christians.)

Here’s an excerpt from Kristof’s column:

IN an age of villainy, war and inequality, it makes sense that we need superheroes. And after trying Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, we may have found the best superheroes yet: Nuns.

“I may not believe in God, but I do believe in nuns,” writes Jo Piazza, in her forthcoming book, “If Nuns Ruled the World.” Piazza is an agnostic living in New York City who began interviewing nuns and found herself utterly charmed and inspired.

“They eschew the spotlight by their very nature, and yet they’re out there in the world every day, living the Gospel and caring for the poor,” Piazza writes. “They don’t hide behind fancy and expensive vestments, a pulpit, or a sermon. I have never met a nun who rides a Mercedes-Benz or a Cadillac. They walk a lot; they ride bikes.”

One of the most erroneous caricatures of nuns is that they are prim, Victorian figures cloistered in convents. On the contrary, I’ve become a huge fan of nuns because I see them so often risking their lives around the world, confronting warlords, pimps and thugs, while speaking the local languages fluently. In a selfish world, they epitomize selflessness and compassion.

There are also plenty of formidable nuns whom even warlords don’t want to mess with, who combine reverence with ferocity, who defy the Roman Catholic Church by handing out condoms to prostitutes to protect them from H.I.V. (They surely don’t mention that to the bishops.)

One of the nuns whom Piazza profiles is Sister Megan Rice. She earned a graduate degree at Boston College and then moved to Nigeria in 1962 to run a school for girls she had helped establish in a remote area with no electricity or running water. After eventually returning to the United States, she began campaigning against nuclear weapons.

In 2012, at the age of 82, she masterminded a break-in of a nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to call attention to the nuclear threat. As she was handcuffed by armed security guards, she sang “This Little Light of Mine.” She is now serving a prison sentence of almost three years.

Read the whole article here.

St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix: ‘Catholic’ is More than a Name

Sister Margaret McBride, RSM

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s ran an excellent column yesterday on the rival religious approaches within the Catholic church. One approach focuses on dogma, sanctity, rules, and punishment of sinners. The other lifts up compassion for the needy, mercy for sinners, and a profligate invitation to the least, the lost, the left out.

Examining the battle between Phoenix’s Bishop Olmsted and St. Joseph’s Catholic hospital – particularly Sr. Margaret McBride, in Tussling Over Jesus, Kristof says:

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us. Then along comes Bishop Olmsted to excommunicate the Christ-like figure in our story. If Jesus were around today, he might sue the bishop for defamation.

There is nothing new in this dynamic. It’s the yin and yang of the world. Conservatives preserve institutions so that there is a mechanism for advancement from one generation to the next. Liberals draw from an original animating spirit and push the edges of what currently exists in order to allow it to fulfill it’s purpose in the present. In other words, liberals will say If the church isn’t truly the church in the here and now, then what good is it. And conservatives will say, If we don’t have a core belief system that is clear and transferable from one generation to the next then what good is it just acting on what we feel in the here and now.

The trouble is that conservatives tend to consolidate power and then that power bloc needs to be pushed back on so that it doesn’t become a dry and lifeless shell. St. Joseph’s Catholic hospital is one example of many where Catholics are pushing back. Kristoff writes:

Bishop Olmsted initially excommunicated a nun, Sister Margaret McBride, who had been on the hospital’s ethics committee and had approved of the decision [to terminate a pregnancy to save the life of the mother]. That seems to have been a failed attempt to bully the hospital into submission, but it refused to cave and continues to employ Sister Margaret. Now the bishop, in effect, is excommunicating the entire hospital — all because it saved a woman’s life.

Make no mistake: This clash of values is a bellwether of a profound disagreement that is playing out at many Catholic hospitals around the country. These hospitals are part of the backbone of American health care, amounting to 15 percent of hospital beds. Already in Bend, Ore., last year, a bishop ended the church’s official relationship with St. Charles Medical Center for making tubal ligation sterilizations available to women who requested them. And two Catholic hospitals in Texas halted tubal ligations at the insistence of the local bishop in Tyler.

The National Women’s Law Center has just issued a report quoting doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals as saying that sometimes they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives. More clashes are likely as the church hierarchy grows more conservative, and as hospitals and laity grow more impatient with bishops who seem increasingly out of touch.

Apparently, Bishop Olmsted thought that by excommunicating Sr. McBride – a Sister of Mercy – and then effectively excommunicating the hospital itself so that Mass can no longer be celebrated in the hospital chapel that he could somehow make the hospital “unCatholic.” What he fails to realize is that it’s not the name that makes the hospital Catholic, it’s the people serving in the ministry of Jesus and the tradition of the saints. Linda Hunt, the president of St. Joseph’s said, “St. Joseph’s will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus. Our operations, policies, and procedures will not change.”

Many ordinary Catholics have reached a breaking point and St. Joseph’s heralds a new vision of Catholicism. As Jamie Manson writing in the National Catholic Reporter put it: “Though [St. Joseph’s hospital] will be denied the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist, the Eucharist will rise out of St. Joseph’s every time the sick are healed, the frightened are comforted, the lonely are visited, the weak are fed, and vigil is kept over the dying.”

Kristof: A Church Mary Can Love

supermaryWhen I was in Venezuela in in 2004, the country was 95% Catholic and 60% of the people lived in poverty. Hugo Chavez–for better or worse–was trying to change the poverty statistics. But he was alienated from the Catholic hierarchy (the cardinal had plotted a coup against Chavez) and he was not well-connected to the popular Catholic Church on the ground.

It was with this “popular church” that I spent most of my time. In one very poor barrio high in the mountains above Caracas, I met Norma who talked to me about there being “two Catholic Churches”: one is the hierarchy and one is the people.

She said: “The bishop in his black cassock and scarlet came once to our barrio and said it was the most horrible place and he hated coming here, but I said this is my life, my reality, can it be so terrible for him? Our question is why are the church hierarchy not coming to be involved with us rather than always expecting that we will be involved with them?”

I remembered Norma’s wisdom when I read Nick Kristof’s wonderful op-ed in the New York Times titled A Church Mary Can Love. I’m reprinting the whole thing here, as a sign of encouragement to all of us downcast and discouraged by the Vatican’s child abuse scandal. Read Kristof’s column below:

I heard a joke the other day about a pious soul who dies, goes to heaven, and gains an audience with the Virgin Mary. The visitor asks Mary why, for all her blessings, she always appears in paintings as a bit sad, a bit wistful: Is everything O.K.? Mary reassures her visitor: “Oh, everything’s great. No problems. It’s just … it’s just that we had always wanted a daughter.”

That story comes to mind as the Vatican wrestles with the consequences of a patriarchal premodern mind-set: scandal, cover-up and the clumsiest self-defense since Watergate. That’s what happens with old boys’ clubs.

It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.

The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. The Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic text from the third century, declares of Mary Magdalene: “She is the one the Savior loved more than all the disciples.” Likewise, the Gospel of Mary (from the early second century) suggests that Jesus entrusted Mary Magdalene to instruct the disciples on his religious teachings.

St. Paul refers in Romans 16 to a first-century woman named Junia as prominent among the early apostles, and to a woman named Phoebe who served as a deacon. The Apostle Junia became a Christian before St. Paul did (chauvinist translators have sometimes rendered her name masculine, with no scholarly basis).

Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.

The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.

The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.

That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.

But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.

So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

It’s high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime — even divine — side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile.