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Sister Brigid McDonald calls Vatican’s reprimand of U.S. nuns group a ‘misuse of power’

‘I think it is pretty impossible for us to all change our beliefs on these issues to coincide with his beliefs.’

Sister Brigid McDonald

As a rule, Sister Brigid McDonald tries not to pay too much attention to papal pronouncements, but Pope Benedict XVI’s recent decision to rein in American nuns, found by a Vatican investigation to harbor “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” caught her attention.

Last month, Benedict announced that a four-year Vatican investigation had found the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has challenged church teaching on homosexuality, the ordination of women and the 2010 health-care reform popularly dubbed Obamacare. Nuns, the investigation also concluded, spend too much energy on poverty and economic injustice and not enough on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Leaders of the group, which represents some 80 percent of U.S. nuns, including McDonald’s order, are not yet ready to speak publicly about the Vatican’s decision to appoint a bishop to oversee five years of reform, screen every speaker at its public programs and replace its handbook for talking about matters the Vatican said should be settled doctrine.

At 79¾ years old, McDonald is not about to stop calling things like she sees them. One of three biological sisters who are all members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, where she devotes her time to the peace movement, she doesn’t seem to fear Rome’s displeasure. All of which must make her precisely the kind of radical the Vatican hopes to whip into doctrinal shape.

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McDonald recently shared her personal reaction to the news with MinnPost. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

MinnPost: What are you hearing in your community about the decision?

Sister Brigid McDonald: Well, some are shocked that he would go that far, you know, to start using his power. To me, it is a misuse of power, a misuse of authority where he can step into religious communities and dictate how they should speak about these issues.

MP: When you say “he,” you are talking about Benedict?

SBM: Yes. I still call him Ratzinger. That fits him better. But that is just a personal bias.

I think they are overstepping their jurisdiction to expect that nuns are going to think as they tell us to think. To me those issues are not spiritual issues; many of them are political issues and some, of course, are social justice issues. I think that our personal spiritual life, it is another matter and that is our private belief.

I can’t even begin to imagine what he could say or do that would change religious women’s beliefs. I don’t know how he plans to change that. That is of concern. That could be scary — what will he do to change our beliefs. You know, that scares me.

MP: Can you speak a little bit more about that, the difference between changing your belief and silencing you, and where that line gets murky?

SBM: You are right, those are two different issues. If he wants us just to shut up about how we believe and don’t put it out in public,  that is one issue. Or if he is really trying to get us to make statements that are opposite of our beliefs, I don’t know what his motivation is for this. Other than control, I don’t know what his motivation is.

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I think it is pretty impossible for us to all change our beliefs on these issues to coincide with his beliefs. That sounds impossible.

MP: Can you stay silent about a belief that you hold in good faith?

SBM: I personally would never choose to. But I don’t write and speak publicly for the community. I sometimes give talks about the peace movement, because I am in the peace movement quite heavily. Sometimes those things overlap, you know, the social justice issues and the peace and justice issues.

When I am speaking, I am not giving an official stance of The Sisters of St. Joseph. I wouldn’t. Mine always is my personal reaction of what he is doing. Nobody is going to speak for the whole community. It is too hard to speak for hundreds of women. They aren’t all going to talk alike anyhow.

MP: Can you tell me what you are hearing? Are people afraid?

SBM: It is interesting. The nuns that I talk to aren’t really afraid, because they can’t see or they can’t imagine what he would do to change us. I mean, like, excommunication? That is a thing of the past. You can’t excommunicate hundreds of nuns.

Wouldn’t that be kind of funny? Excommunicate the whole order! It is irrational. I don’t know what other consequences there would be.

MP: One thing that I have been told is a bishop will now screen all of the speakers at your meetings. Will that have any practical effect?

SBM: Now that could affect our college, the St. Catherine University. And we do still have some high schools. But they have stepped in before to say we can’t talk about this or that. I am not affiliated with any schools, so I don’t know how their curriculum gets around those issues.

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But I know he has tried to silence people in our schools. That could be a very severe possibility, to silence some of the voices, really the social justice voices, you know. Maybe they get around it some way. I don’t know. 

Why is he picking old nuns? More than half of us are over 75. We are almost an endangered species now. If he is trying to really change the church, he should start at the level with youth and talk to youth groups or something like that.

He should start with getting his priests together and try to help them through some of their problems. He should get after them for molestation.

MP: Somebody suggested to me that nuns in the past had enjoyed some latitude because you were thought to be powerless, and that in a strange way, this might be recognition that your ministry is powerful.

SBM: That is good insight. Because [before] we were just school teachers and we just had nice little kids in front of us, you know, and we just emptied bed pans in the nursing homes and in the hospitals. But now they are right, we are out there in the different movements. We help with the Occupy movement and the right-to-choice movements.

It is giving us more credibility in the public. Lots of times people will call and seek out our opinions about certain issues, where it never was that way when I entered the convent. After we taught school, we went home, and said our prayers and ate supper and did our lesson plans and went to bed. Now we are out there.

MP: The other thing people have said is possibly dangerous about nuns is that you understand church teachings and can talk about the ways in which they might be being subverted or perverted.

SBM: Nuns [traditionally] haven’t been educated in theology. There are more theologians now. We go to workshops and we are at schools and we are taking classes and people are going on for further degrees in theology and stuff like that. So, maybe that is a threat that we are getting educated, especially in theology.

I see the bishops and priests don’t get updated in theology. They are still back, for an expression, with Noah’s ark.

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But, that is a point: People will ask our opinion of theological insight and possibly not ask Father anymore, you know. So, he might be losing his authority in theology particularly.

We should get into cooking or something, I suppose he thinks.

MP: Who do you think will be hurt by this move?

SBM: I have a feeling women theologians who are partners with the nuns and some of our teachers in our schools will be really hurt. It will be a fear hurt and they may not feel free to speak out.

I am suspicious of the motivation. I don’t think it is for the common good. They are trying to get us back, bring us back, as it was in the beginning and now as it will ever be, amen, or something like that. They want us back in the habits and being obedient. You don’t belong out here with social workers.

MP: Do you think that it will work?

SBM: I can’t imagine it working. I think we are too wrapped up in the issues of the time. You can’t just forget the common good and the people who are suffering right now. The more you are with those in pain, the more radical you become to overcome that pain. I don’t think it is possible to go backwards.

I really feel that Jesus would want us to go forward and to be out there where the people are in pain. I believe that about Jesus. I always say, Jesus never said worship me, he said follow me, so that is what I am trying to do.

We haven’t got any more habits left anyhow. We would have to find those all over again.