We Are All Nuns
Op-Ed Columnist Published: April 28, 2012
CATHOLIC nuns are not the prissy traditionalists of caricature. No, nuns rock!
Vatican Reprimands a Group of U.S. Nuns and Plans Changes
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof
(April 19, 2012)
They were the first feminists, earning Ph.D.’s or working as surgeons
long before it was fashionable for women to hold jobs. As managers of
hospitals, schools and complex bureaucracies, they were the first female
They are also among the bravest, toughest and most admirable people in
the world. In my travels, I’ve seen heroic nuns defy warlords, pimps and
bandits. Even as bishops have disgraced the church by covering up the
rape of children, nuns have redeemed it with their humble work on behalf
of the neediest.
So, Pope Benedict, all I can say is: You are crazy to mess with nuns.
The Vatican issued a stinging reprimand
of American nuns this month and ordered a bishop to oversee a makeover
of the organization that represents 80 percent of them. In effect, the
Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not
enough about abortion and gay marriage.
What Bible did that come from? Jesus in the Gospels repeatedly talks
about poverty and social justice, yet never explicitly mentions either
abortion or homosexuality. If you look at who has more closely emulated
Jesus’s life, Pope Benedict or your average nun, it’s the nun hands
Since the papal crackdown on nuns, they have received an outpouring of
support. “Nuns were approached by Catholics at Sunday liturgies across
the country with a simple question: ‘What can we do to help?’ ” The National Catholic Reporter recounted
It cited one parish where a declaration of support for nuns from the
pulpit drew loud applause, and another that was filled with shouts like,
“You go, girl!”
At least four petition drives are under way to support the nuns. One on Change.org
has gathered 15,000 signatures. The headline for this column comes from an essay by Mary E. Hunt
a Catholic theologian who is developing a proposal for Catholics to
redirect some contributions from local parishes to nuns.
“How dare they go after 57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well
over 70 and who work tirelessly for a more just world?” Hunt wrote. “How
dare the very men who preside over a church in utter disgrace due to
sexual misconduct and cover-ups by bishops try to distract from their
own problems by creating new ones for women religious?”
Sister Joan Chittister, a prominent Benedictine nun, said she had
worried at first that nuns spend so much time with the poor that they
would have no allies. She added that the flood of support had left her
“It’s stunningly wonderful,” she said. “You see generations of laypeople
who know where the sisters are — in the streets, in the soup kitchens,
anywhere where there’s pain. They’re with the dying, with the sick, and
people know it.”
Sister Joan spoke to me from a ghetto in Erie, Pa., where her order of
120 nuns runs a soup kitchen, a huge food pantry, an afterschool
program, and one of the largest education programs for the unemployed in
I have a soft spot for nuns because I’ve seen firsthand
that they sacrifice ego, safety and comfort to serve some of the
neediest people on earth. Remember the “Kony 2012” video that was an
Internet hit earlier this year, about an African warlord named Joseph
Kony? One of the few heroes in the long Kony debacle was a Comboni nun,
Sister Rachele Fassera.
In 1996, Kony’s army attacked a Ugandan girls’ school and kidnapped 139 students
Sister Rachele hiked through the jungle in pursuit of the kidnappers —
some of the most menacing men imaginable, notorious for raping and
torturing their victims to death. Eventually, she caught up with the 200
gunmen and demanded that they release the girls. Somehow, she browbeat
the warlord in charge into releasing the great majority of the girls.
I’m betting on the nuns to win this one as well. After all, the sisters
may be saintly, but they’re also crafty. Elias Chacour, a prominent
Palestinian archbishop in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, recounts in a memoir
that he once asked a convent if it could supply two nuns for a
community literacy project. The mother superior said she would have to
check with her bishop.
“The bishop was very clear in his refusal to allow two nuns,” the mother
superior told him later. “I cannot disobey him in that.” She added: “I
will send you three nuns!”
Nuns have triumphed over an errant hierarchy before. In the 19th
century, the Catholic Church excommunicated an Australian nun named Mary
MacKillop after her order exposed a pedophile priest. Sister Mary was
eventually invited back to the church and became renowned for her work
with the poor. In 2010, Pope Benedict canonized her
as Australia’s first saint.
“Let us be guided” by Sister Mary’s teachings, the pope declared then.
Amen to that.