In his New York Times column this month, Nicholas Kristof wrote about “A Church Mary Can Love.” If you didn’t read the column, you might not be shocked to learn its contents: He’s not that into the Vatican, and he doesn’t think the Blessed Virgin would be either. He’s more into a priest who reportedly told him that he “would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.” However, Kristof also wrote something sensible: “I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.” Amen. And in the following interview with Sister Mary Prudence Allen, I think you’ll begin to see why. Sister Prudence is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., an order with a special focus on health care. Sister Prudence is also a philosophy professor and a published author, having written the two-volume The Concept of Woman and contributed to The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision (a compilation from the other “nuns” in the health-care debate, the ones who stood by the bishops conference’s objection to the abortion provisions in the legislation — and by Catholic doctrine on the most innocent human life).
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: During the recent health-care debate, we heard a lot about some Catholic religious sisters — the Network — who supported the president’s health-care legislation, despite abortion-funding issues. Were they representative of the Catholic Church or Catholic religious sisters?
SISTER PRUDENCE ALLEN, R.S.M.: This question should be more fully answered by a theologian whose area of specialization is ecclesiology. However, as a Christian philosopher, I see two obvious contradictions that could be initially noted.
The first contradiction relates to the meaning of “Catholic.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#830-831) states, “The Church is catholic in a double sense:” First, because the whole Christ, head and body, subsists in her, and second because Christ sends the Church out on a mission to the whole human race.
By comparing the statements of the Network religious sisters on health care with the statements of Cardinal George and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on health care, it is clear that there are fundamental contradictions between them. Thus, the Network religious sisters have separated themselves from the head, and therefore cannot be included in the meaning of “catholic.” Therefore, they are not representative of the Catholic Church.
The second contradiction relates to claims about numbers of religious sisters. Network’s letter stated that “we represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States.” The director of media relations for the USCCB challenged them to do the math. The letter had “55 signatories, some individuals, some groups of three to five persons.” Since there are several hundred communities of women religious in the U.S., the most that could be claimed is that the Network sisters represent a much smaller portion of women religious sisters, more likely a few thousand.
Network’s claim that their position in favor of the health-care bill “is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholic are all for it” needs to be assessed by Catholic physicians and health-care personnel to determine the truth of its claims.
LOPEZ: They were, by the way, referred to as “nuns.” That’s not technically correct, is it? You’re a Religious Sister of Mercy in full habit, but you are not a “nun,” are you?
SISTER PRUDENCE: You are right that it is wrong to refer to the Network religious sisters as “nuns.” The official meaning of “nun” is a religious woman who makes solemn vows and who lives in an enclosed convent, referred to as a papal cloister. None of the signers of the letter written by the Network religious sisters has made solemn vows or lives in an enclosed convent. Therefore, they are not properly called nuns.
Those of us who make simple vows, who live in a convent with an area that is established as an enclosure, and who engage in apostolic work outside of the convent are properly called “sisters.” As a Religious Sister of Mercy in full habit, I am a “sister,” since I was received into the religious institute, have made simple vows, and live in a convent with an enclosure within it.
LOPEZ: Why should that matter at all to the world?
SISTER PRUDENCE: To answer your question about “why it should matter,” we need to consider the deeper question of the relation of truth to language and the relation of reality to the human mind. According to a realistic philosophy, truth is the union of the mind with reality. There are two complementary pathways to the truth: reason and faith, which correspond to philosophy and theology.
For a Christian, language matters a lot. In Genesis 1:1-3, we learn that before God spoke and there was life, the earth was “without form and void.” From John 1:1, 1:4, and 1:14, we learn that the Eternal Word was with God and was God from the beginning, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ, this Eternal Word made flesh, leads us to the Truth; He told us that He is the Truth. So, by faith, we believe that Truth and reality are important and that we are created with intelligent minds able to grasp truths.
We do this by apprehending different forms capable of being grasped. However, if reality is simply a void and is without form, truth is not possible for us to know or to live by.
Language is at the heart of Catholic philosophy. In the United States, where pragmatic theories of truth and postmodern approaches to knowledge abound, the relation between truth and reality is undermined. All becomes superficial, and imagination replaces the union of human mind to reality. So the answer to “Why should it matter at all to the world” is embedded in the deeper question of whether a person cares about truth or not, and how much he or she cares.
LOPEZ: There is an ongoing Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation evaluating women’s religious orders in the United States. Have you been a part of that at all? Is the average sister or nun?
SISTER PRUDENCE: The superior general or leader of each religious congregation is responsible for seeing that each sister in her congregation or institute participates. The extent to which this has occurred would likely vary.
In my own religious community of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, each sister and each local house has already participated in the apostolic visitation in two ways.
First: In each local house, we were invited to write responses to the Lineamenta (or preparatory document sent in to the visitation). This document asked a series of questions and provided Church documents for reference. We downloaded all these documents and considered them in relation to the questions asked and to our daily practices in living our religious life. The responses were typed up and sent to those preparing the report.
Second: After the report was written, drawing from all the suggestions of each local community, one of the members of the General Council came back to each local community sharing (with photocopies given to each sister) the actual documents sent in. In each house she provided opportunities for discussion of the report in whatever detail the sisters wanted.
A third way of participation will happen this spring: Since our institute has been chosen for an on-site visit by the visitation team this coming May, every sister has been invited to be interviewed if she would like, either in person, by Skype, by telephone, or by writing a letter. Every sister was invited to return a signed form directly to the office of Mother Millea by a certain date stating whether she would like to be interviewed and by what means.
This has been a wonderful process of self-review for us. The mother general initiated the very thorough participation of every sister, and the local superior is the one who makes sure that it is carried out in her convent. Since I am the local superior here in Denver (and for our extension in Edwards, Colo.), I have been very much a part of it.
LOPEZ: Does that represent a crackdown from the Vatican? Are some sisters liable to be punished, for instance, for taking issue with the bishops over the health-care bill?
SISTER PRUDENCE: Regular review is a common process for all businesses, professional associations, academic institutions, and governmental agencies such as police, firemen, etc., so it is improper to consider it a “crackdown.” Visitations have been a regular part of the life for centuries. It is prescribed in canon law not only for religious institutes (can. 628, 683), but also for seminaries (can. 259), parishes (can. 396, 535), and dioceses (can. 436). As in all reviews, when weaknesses, elements of corruption, or gaps between goals and practices are discovered, we are always encouraged to improve and grow in self-knowledge and integrity.
LOPEZ: What does your average day look like? How long do you pray?
SISTER PRUDENCE: My day during the week usually begins at 4:30, when we rise. Beginning at 5:30, we pray together, singing the Liturgy of Hours in our chapel in the convent where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. At 6:45, we have Mass celebrated in the convent chapel, usually with a priest who is associated with the seminary where four of us teach (philosophy, canon law, Scripture, and liturgy and sacraments). Then we share breakfast together and go out to our apostolic work. One of our sisters works for the office of the vicar of clergy here in Denver; and we have two sisters in the mountains near Vail — one is principal of a Catholic elementary school and the other a teacher of music and religion there.
At noon we return to the convent for lunch together, and then return to our various apostolic works. At 5:15, we return to the convent for a Holy Hour, which includes exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a time of silent prayer, common prayers, chanting the Divine Office of evening prayer, and when possible, benediction. After that, we have a short choir practice for the music of the following day, a common dinner together, followed by various charges (dishes, walking the dog, setting up for Mass the next day, etc.) and then usually a time of recreation together. We complete our day at 8:00 with night prayer chanted together in the chapel. After that there is quiet time until 10:30, when lights must be out. Many sisters use this time at night, the early hours of the morning after rising (and before our official beginning of the Divine Office together), and brief moments during the day for sacred reading and private prayer.
Although it is difficult to tally up the time, it likely adds up to three or four hours of formal prayer together and variable times of informal individual prayer each day. On Sundays we add an extra individual hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to that. We also get up a little later on weekends.
The schedule may have some slight variations, but the content of the daily schedule is basically the same. This is what we call our “horarium,” in which all time is made sacred for the Lord. It gives us much strength to be present to the Lord Jesus Christ in our convent chapels and to pray together this way. A fundamental part of our vocation is prayer and intercession for the Church and the world and its needs.
LOPEZ: You’ve got a Ph.D. Why would you ever take the vows you have, wear a heavy, colorless habit, and spend so much time praying?
SISTER PRUDENCE: The simple answer is that I received a call from Jesus Christ to follow Him, who was poor, chaste, and obedient, and who came to serve. The specific way of following was revealed over time not only to me but also to those in charge of the formation of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma. The vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and service we freely take bind us to Jesus Christ forever, in a spiritual marriage. We live a common life in a spirituality of communion with our sisters, who are formed in the specific charism of our foundress, Venerable Catherine McAuley. Our particular charism is expressed in works of mercy at the professional level. So we become educated, not for ourselves, but to give ourselves in service to the Church and the world. It is a joy to serve this way.
We wear a religious habit as a sign of our consecration. It represents the spousal bond with our Lord, as we belong totally to Him. It is an individual sign and a communal sign, as we wear the same habit. We sew them ourselves as a way of living the vow of poverty. It frees us to be who we are called to be for the Church and the world, witnesses of the Kingdom of Heaven, the final reality to which we are all called. In our case, they are not “colorless,” because they are blue or black. If you check our website or the website of over 100 religious communities, you will see that there are lots of variations in color and style. Our religious habit is also only heavy (wool) in the winter; in the summer — and for our sisters who are living in or working in education or medicine in warm climates, such as in Australia, Africa, India, or Haiti — it is a light-blue pinstripe material.
LOPEZ: And you did this of your own free will? Chose to be subservient in a patriarchal church?
SISTER PRUDENCE: The first part of this question is important. A simple answer is: “Yes.” I asked to be received into the Catholic Church while I was studying for my Ph.D. in philosophy, and later asked to enter the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma as a postulant, asked to be received as a novice, asked to make first vows, asked to renew my vows, and then asked to make perpetual vows — each request from the depths with which I was capable of exercising my own free will. The Catechism (#1733) has a wonderful description of how freedom increases within us: “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.” Through the years, I experience myself making devotional renewals of my vows (at Easter and after retreats) with an ever greater sense of freedom to give myself to the Lord and to my neighbor.
In religious life, we practice our vow of obedience in simple acts to one another, to our religious sisters who are either local superiors or our general superiors, and to the Holy Father, who is the superior general of all religious. These acts are always out of a reverence and obedience to Jesus Christ, who was obedient unto death to His Father. This is not the subservience of someone without a free will, but it consists in many free acts of self-gift. Through these repeated acts, we hope to become ever more capable of total, rather than partial, self-gift, so that at the moment of our death we will make the ultimate gift to Jesus Christ, whom we will then see face to face.
The second part of this question is framed within a feminist political ideology. As we say in Catholic philosophy, the mind receives according to the mode of the receiver. If the mode of the receiver is a political feminist ideology, then that is how he or she will perceive the Catholic Church. The word “subservient” as used in your question seems to imply serving in an inferior way, which is not what we do. We serve as Christ, who came “not to be served but to serve.”
The reality of the Church, however, is very different. The Church is the mystical Body of Christ. In the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, the Church described itself from within: “The Church, in Christ, is in the nature of a sacrament — a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men.”
The Church is also a communio of three paradigm and complementary vocations, and others derived from them. If we consider the spousal mystery, then the ordained priestly vocation represents the place of the bridegroom, the lay married vocation represents the love between the bride and the bridegroom, and the religious vocation, the response of the bride to the love of the bridegroom. These are spiritual realities that permeate our faith from beginning to end. (See Foundations of Religious Life, Chapter 2, pp. 61-77.)
The difficulty is that, throughout history, there has been a struggle between basically three different positions about the relation between women and men: 1) traditional gender polarity, which viewed men as naturally superior to women, and its modern counterpart, reverse gender polarity, which views women as naturally superior to men; 2) unisex positions, which claim that there are no significant differences between women and men; and 3) complementary positions, which argue for the simultaneous fundamental equality and worth of women and men and their significant differentiation. Some complementary positions can be called “fractional,” because they claim that a man and a woman each provide some fraction of a characteristic, which when added up make one single person. Others — and this is the one that I defend — can be called “integral,” because they claim that a man or a woman is an integral or whole human person, and when together, they generate something more than two.
Over different periods in history, one of the paradigm vocations has assumed a de facto cultural superiority over the others. Thus, in medieval times, abbesses and abbots in the monastic religious vocation often were considered superior; in modern times, the clerical priestly vocation held a culturally superior position until the 20th century, when the lay vocation with its sacrament of marriage seemed to be considered culturally superior. As mentioned before, the Second Vatican Council laid the groundwork for a true communio of vocations in which each one is a gift of self to the others.
When a person is called into the Catholic Church and becomes specified in a particular vocation, he or she is always called to serve others in the Church and the world in complementary ways to others. This mutuality of self-gift in service in the Church fulfills the definition of “solidarity” in the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes, #32): Jesus Christ founded the Church after His death and resurrection as an institution in which “everyone, as members one or the other, would render mutual service according to the different gifts bestowed on each. This solidarity must be constantly increased until that day on which it will be brought to perfection” at the end of time in Heaven. The goal of our vocation is mutual service in total self-gift. When this is practiced, the Church continues to spread throughout the world.
LOPEZ: In case you haven’t been watching MSNBC, as I have, you should know that the pope may resign and that he is akin to Richard Nixon, caught in crimes and cover-up. Aren’t you ashamed at all to be a part of an institution that has such a scandal-rich contemporary history, which it still hasn’t cleaned house over?
SISTER PRUDENCE: The statement in the first sentence reveals such a lack of knowledge and understanding of the Church and of our present Pope that it does not merit a response. The Church is not just another human institution, but one instituted by Jesus Christ.
Although off the mark, the second question is more approachable. You ask about shame and being ashamed to be a part of an institution. An analogy might be useful here. Consider other kinds of institution, such as we find in sports, academia, businesses, etc. If one person in that institution is accused of doing something wrong — an athlete, say, or a university president, or a businessman — should that imply shame on the part of all who participate in the sport, study at the university, or invest in the business? Rather, it would likely evoke the passion of sorrow for the one who has strayed and for the people who have been wounded by his or her straying. A further analogy can be drawn from these examples. Should a sport, university, or business be judged on the basis of one of its members who does something poorly or wrong? Shouldn’t we rather try to judge the sport, university, or business by the best examples associated with it? Thus, shouldn’t the Church be evaluated more by its saints, such as Mother Teresa, and the many others who through it have done so many works of charity through the years?
It might be useful to you to find out, diocese by diocese, how many men and women are entering the Catholic Church this Easter. Likely there are many thousands across the United States. These persons reveal by their acts how much the Church is loved, even when some persons in it commit terrible sins and crimes against those to whom they were entrusted.
Personally, I love the Church and I love our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict. I believe that he is a holy man and a wonderful leader in this new millennium. As you may be aware, many false statements and accusations are being made about him. The facts, however, seem to indicate that Pope Benedict has been at the forefront of reforming the procedures to confront scandalous behavior. John Allen’s “Keeping the record straight on Benedict and the crisis” begins the hard work of clarifying what is true and what is false, what is accurate and what is approaching slander and calumny. I pray that God will have mercy on those who promote and repeat false positions against people in an attempt to ruin their reputations.
LOPEZ: In the wake of the latest news stories, I’ve also heard, once again, that the Catholic Church simply must have more women involved, as priests and in the hierarchy. I’ve heard one prominent reporter simply declare that the Church needs more women. What is the role of women in the Church, and is that at the heart of the Church’s current problems?
SISTER PRUDENCE: Again, this question is wrongly framed within a political model of power struggles. Rather, the Church is a communion in which all the baptized are called to holiness through complementary vocations. In the apostolic letter “On the New Millennium,” John Paul II summarized it this way: “The unity of the Church is not uniformity, but an organic blending of legitimate diversities. It is the reality of many members joined in a single body, the one Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:12). Therefore the Church of the Third Millennium will need to encourage all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the Church’s life” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #46).
As mentioned before, integral complementarity of vocations holds an interior tension between the fundamental equality of dignity and worth of all vocations and the significant differentiation of vocations. When one part or another of this tension slides out, the result is either a unisex model of interchangeable roles (the sliding out of significant differentiation) or a rigid polarity model (the sliding out of fundamental equality of dignity). This sliding out can happen in relation to a particular vocation, such as marriage, or it can happen in relation to the interrelation of the vocations within a parish or particular Church.
In his essays on Genesis, Mulieris Dignitatem (9-11), and other documents such as The Gospel of Life (99), Pope John Paul II discussed the rupture in relations through the effects of sin. Simply put, for men this takes the form of a propensity towards domination of others, especially women, rather than the assumption of a properly held dominion in areas of responsibility; for women this takes the form of seeking to possess others, especially men, rather than fostering their personal growth.
The answer to the final part of your question is “Sin”; sin is at the heart of the problems in the Church. The different vocations (not roles) of women and men, giving themselves in service to one another for the good of the Church and the world, are not a problem. They are the solution to the problem.
For further reference to ways that Catholic women are being formed in their vocations, see the work of ENDOW (Educating on the Dignity and Vocation of Women).
LOPEZ: If I’m watching these news stories and wondering whom or what to believe, do you have any recommendations that are not about spin and not going to preach to a simple fact-seeker?
SISTER PRUDENCE: If you are seeking to understand and report the truth about something, you should read the original sources, interview trusted people, ponder what you find, develop a hypothesis, test it out, and reformulate it. Always seek greater accuracy, and always maintain gentleness (truth persuades by its own gentle power) and love for the good reputation of everyone.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.