Let's Hear It for the Sisters

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 25, 2012 - 09:10:00 AM

In the latest New York Review of Books. Garry Wills does something I’ve been intending to do for a long time: He speaks up for American nuns, who are now under attack by the Vatican, clueless as ever. 

Wills, an ex-Jesuit and still a practicing Catholic, is the living writer I most admire since Tony Judt is gone. His knowledge of history is both broad and deep, so he’s in no way fooled by the pretensions of the current crop of Catholic hierarchs. Here’s his lead from his piece, Bullying the Nuns

“The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drove their own new cars when nuns rode the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialized in arrogance, the nuns in humility.” 

In the same issue of NYR another writer criticizes the abuses of his co-religionists. Israeli professor David Shulman writes under the title Israel in Peril a review of Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism. Like Wills, he deplores a situation in which ultra-conservative members of his own community are exercising power in an extreme anti-democratic way: Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian territory to allow “a mini-state run by settlers, some of them violent and fanatical, that disenfranchises a huge Palestinian population and continually appropriates Palestinian land in the interests of expanding and further entrenching the colonial project of the settlements”. 

Wills and Shulman each spotlight a key value in his own tradition which is being trampled. For Wills, it’s the broadly Christian ideal of compassion; for Shulman it’s the Jewish love of justice. Both are worth honoring, and worth preserving. 

And both are under attack all over the world, even in bastions of liberalism. Here in Berkeley some members of the congregation of St. Joseph the Worker parish are up in arms because the local bishop has assigned a conservative pastor to a church with a traditionally activist role in promoting social justice. And a talk that author Peter Beinart was scheduled to give in April under the joint sponsorship of Berkeley’s Jewish Community Center and KPFA was cancelled because the JCC objected to the choice of a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace as moderator

I’m someone who hasn’t been able to sustain any form of religious belief for most of my life, but I still appreciate the moral guidance which sometimes comes from the world’s religious organizations, though I am frequently annoyed when they do stupid things like these. It’s tempting to reject all forms of religious belief out of hand because of the abuses which have perpetually been committed in the name of faith, but that might be throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

As far as the nuns themselves are concerned, however, I have no ambivalence. As someone whose first thirteen years of education were provided by nuns of the old school, complete with habits which appeared to be derived from the daily dress of medieval peasants, I appreciate the early grounding they gave me in basic feminism. 

That’s right, feminism. At the all-female schools I attended (both students and faculty) it was obvious that women were perfectly capable of running their own show. No one ever told me girls weren’t supposed to get the A’s in algebra or Latin or even sports. Even in the fifties in St. Louis the basketball tournaments for the Catholic school girls were supported by passionate fans — and there was never a suggestion that cheerleader was the only appropriate role for women students. 

Garry Wills notes that “there was a vogue, just after the Second Vatican Council, for some Catholics to demonstrate their liberation from Catholic schooling by making fun of nuns, as strict disciplinarians or prissy moralists. I wrote at the time that this was untrue of the many nuns I have known…” That’s my own experience—though the nuns that taught me were normal members of the human race, which is to say that some of them were small-minded, shallow and disagreeable from time to time. I think that a good measure of the resentment some of their (mostly male) critics enjoy displaying is actually deeply buried misogyny: fragile male egos chafing under open female authority. 

(For a contemporary example of this tendency, check out the reports of the male Safeway vice president who made a “joke” at a recent board meeting comparing Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, educated by nuns herself, unfavorably with pigs.) 

Most of anything I know now, certainly most of what I can still remember in middle age, I learned from a nun. One, in the sixth grade, gave me a firm grip on English grammar. Another, in the seventh grade, devised a game to drill our class in quick mental arithmetic, so that I can still compute tips from checks with no need for a calculator. A ninth grade teacher encouraged me to appreciate and use my writing skills.  

And in my senior year Latin class, the nun who taught us to read the Aeneid brought in, on smudgy purple mimeograph pages, the steamy passage where Dido and Aeneas consummate their unwed romance in a cave—something which had been omitted from our fourth year “Catholic school version” Latin textbook, probably under orders from some bishop. The love of literature triumphs over censorship—what a fine lesson that was. 

Sadly, the nuns of old are much diminished in number. There are still nuns of the type Garry Wills so justly praises, deeply engaged in good works, enough of them to attract the bishops’ wrath.  

But there are not nearly as many whose lives are focused on producing strong women like Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein. Expanded opportunities have encouraged well qualified women to seek broader employment challenges, which is probably a good thing. 

Both of the schools I attended, in St. Louis and Pasadena, are now run and staffed by lay persons, probably well qualified—but I can’t imagine that they could be as dedicated to the task of educating young women as my nun teachers were. Today’s girls—including my granddaughters—are the poorer for their loss.