Photo: Sisters Janet Mock and Pat Farrell following dialog at the Vatican
In early May of this year, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States began receiving reprimands from the Vatican for their “radical feminist views.” This historic development has been widely reported in mainstream news by both secular and religious media. In this article, I want to take a closer look at these “evolutionary nuns” and their impact in current time and on the gifts they offer for shaping of a post-industrial culture. They understand that every institution is crumbling around them, particularly, the hierarchical and patriarchal bastion of which they are part, the Roman Catholic Church. One might be tempted to question why such evolutionary women remain in this institution, and there are a plethora of reasons why they do, but perhaps the most momentous is their commitment to society’s marginalized and through the church, their ability to provide services for those who might never receive them otherwise.
For a detailed history of LCWR and its relationship with the Vatican, the reader may view an address by Sister Mary Hughes, former president of LCWR, to the National Press Club, August 16, 2012 following its conference in St. Louis.
LCWR not only constitutes an ominous threat to the Vatican, but it provides a model, in my opinion, for all who are exploring ways in which humanity can reconstitute itself and forge a post-industrial culture that radically departs from the paradigm of industrial civilization. I consider these women evolutionary because they refuse to perpetuate the old paradigm and are doggedly committed to equality, humanitarianism, democracy, and earth-based spirituality. They offer the world a treasure-trove of knowledge and experience about living in community, sharing, service, earth literacy, eco-spirituality, and let us not forget, unconditional love.
The mission statement of LCWR reads:
The purpose of the conference shall be to promote a developing understanding and living of religious life by:
To understand why this group is so threatening to the Vatican, allow me to indulge in a bit of history. The Second Vatican Council convened under Pope John XXIII from 1962-1965 at which time, stunning changes occurred in the Roman Catholic Church. A number of landmark decisions were made at Vatican II, and among them, a dramatic altering of the liturgy and a desire to be engaged in deep dialog with the contemporary world. This conference also marked the beginning of the end for “in-habited” nuns. For the most part, black and white habits came off as nuns donned polyester pants, pastel colors, and no longer covered their heads. Nuns now looked almost like other women. I say “almost” because they still retained modesty in their dress and rarely wore make-up or jewelry.
It was the 1960s during the era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the beginning of the women’s movement. The emphasis among nuns turned increasingly toward social justice. They still taught in colleges and public high schools, but now they were running soup kitchens; providing food, clothing, and shelter for the poor; working in hospitals, counseling victims of all manner of abuse and injustice, protesting the war, and opening up non-profits everywhere. Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, two of America’s most famous activist priests, committed themselves to a life of protest. Phillip left the priesthood and married, and his daughter, Frida, a former nun, today works with World Policy Institute, protesting war, Pentagon policies, and US imperialism.
As the condition of the ecosystems worsened in the 1990s, one priest in particular, Thomas Berry, student of French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, began writing and speaking passionately about the fate of the earth and humanity’s responsibility to know and live the earth’s story. Many students of Berry and de Chardin began devoting their lives to deep ecology and eco-spirituality. Among them, Miriam MacGillis, who founded Genesis Farm in New Jersey where ongoing education in the earth’s story endures and flourishes today. As the farm’s website reads, “Genesis Farm is rooted in a belief that the Universe, Earth, and all reality are permeated by the presence and power of that ultimate Holy Mystery that has been so deeply and richly expressed in the world’s spiritual traditions. We try to ground our ecological and agricultural work in this deep belief. This Sacred Mystery, known by so many religious names, is the common thread in our efforts.”
Before his death in 2009, Berry had been working closely with Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist on the faculty of California Institute of Integral Studies, and together they wrote The Universe Story: From The Primordial Flaring Forth To The Ecozoic Era: A Celebration Of The Unfolding Of The Cosmos (1994).
Many nuns and some priests, such as Matthew Fox, have been deeply influenced by the work of MacGillis, Berry, and Swimme and are applying “Universe Story” principles in their lives and communities. Many have taken permaculture courses, are creating flourishing organic gardens, and living lives radically committed to sustainability and simplicity. To say that they are appalled with climate change and humanity’s unwillingness to tackle it head-on does not come close to the pain these women and men feel as they witness the extinction of species, deadly extreme weather, paralyzing droughts, and the decimation of oceans, forests, soil, lakes, rivers, streams.
As mentioned above, representing 57,000 US nuns, LCWR held its national conference in St. Louis this month to discuss its response to the Vatican’s demands. Its keynote speaker was visionary and author on topics of evolutionary consciousness, Barbara Marx Hubbard, who opined that the current reprimand by the Vatican is actually an act of grace which calls the Sisters to become more of who they are, continuing to serve the world in myriad functions and places, and to speak truth to power in both government and the church. “I see you,” she said, “as the ones who have the greatest capacity for facilitating what is emergent as evolutionary leaders. You are the pioneers and prophets of the future whose flame of expectancy is sparking the passion and hope needed in a world looking for fire.”
Many different kinds of religious communities have sustained themselves throughout history in the midst of wars, persecution, economic depressions, and societal collapse. We can learn enormous lessons from all of them, but in our time, perhaps the most vibrant and functional model would be the evolutionary Sisters of whom I am writing here. One does not need to be religious or even believe in a higher power in order to align with their mission or benefit from their expertise.
I believe that in an increasingly chaotic world—a world deluged by loss, disaster, violence, hunger, thirst, interpersonal conflict, illness, and injury, evolutionary nuns will be some of our most skilled leaders and organizers. Not only are they excellent strategists, but for the most part, they offer a calm, collaborative presence that joins people together in cooperative tasks in both acute and chronic high-stress situations. Among them one senses a deep well of inner wisdom cultivated by years of personal contemplation and community interaction.
In July, 2012 I had the privilege of being one of three presenters for the Sisters Of The Earth conference at St. Mary of The Woods, Indiana. These sisters describe themselves as “an informal network of women who share a deep concern for the ecological and spiritual crises of our times and who wish to support one another in work toward healing the human spirit and restoring the Earth’s life support systems.” Not all are members of LCWR, and not all women attending the conference were nuns, but they wholeheartedly support LCWR’s mission and certainly are aligned with its struggle with the Vatican.
Members of Sisters Of The Earth are deeply involved not only with social justice issues, but with local organic food efforts, permaculture, the Transition movment, raising awareness on climate change, economic justice, and sustainable living. In fact, one of my co-presenters at the conference was organic farmer, professor, and agrarian feminist, Nettie Wiebe, who spoke to the group on Food Sovereignty. Also presenting by Skype was Helena Norberg-Hodge, film maker and moderator of the documentary “The Economics Of Happiness.”
As I spoke to the Sisters about the collapse of industrial civilization as a rite of passage for humanity—as a spiritual and emotional practice which we must begin now and continue going forward, they were overwhelmingly receptive. In fact, I was inundated with their resonance and gratitude. Of all the audiences to whom I have presented my work on the topic of collapse in the past five years, this one displayed the most unequivocal comprehension of any.
But on a more personal note, I must add that being in the presence of evolutionary nuns is a profoundly heartwarming experience. One feels accepted, appreciated, seen, heard, and held in their palpable warmth and affection.
What will be the outcome of the struggle between evolutionary nuns and a crumbling Vatican? And furthermore, why do I use the word “crumbling” to describe this formidable institution?
Quite frankly, the Vatican is reeling financially under the strain of myriad sexual abuse lawsuits during the past decade and more recently, a growing Vatican bank scandal threatens to bring additional economic stress and very negative publicity. Obviously, these realities make their attack on evolutionary nuns seem all the more ludicrous. While many priests are sympathetic to the cause of their evolutionary sisters, the Roman Catholic Church is nevertheless, a male-dominated institution fraught with hypocrisy and corruption. To put it quite bluntly: Men in dresses, whose status has been stained by rampant child sexual abuse within their ranks and now a Vatican bank scandal, presume to chastise American nuns for not being more vocally opposed to abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. Clearly, this conflict exceeds theology or even gender. It is nothing less than a clash of paradigms as diametrically opposed as one can imagine.
The LCWR is in no way seeking to leave the church at the same time that it is aware of the challenges it brings to the church by way of its service to the marginalized. For example, members do not support abortion or contraception per se, yet they may find themselves providing services for and supporting emotionally and spiritually, women who are struggling with these issues. Likewise, an evolutionary Sister, being well aware of the church’s position on homosexuality and gay marriage, may find herself serving members of the LGBT community without judgment or condemnation. These social issues were specifically mentioned in the Vatican’s reprimand in which it explicitly chastised American nuns for not speaking out more passionately against abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. Rather than leave the church, however, the Sisters of LCWR wish to continue dialog with the Vatican and see what unfolds in the short term. Indeed, they are pondering what might happen if dialog fails, and we can be certain that whatever their Plan B or Plan C might be, they will remain committed to unity and employ methods that do not judge or attack the hierarchy.
What I find fascinating is that evolutionary nuns are not obsessing about their future or the outcome of this conflict. They are protecting themselves financially, legally, and logistically in every way possible, but as Barbara Marx Hubbard suggested, this controversy is not a tragedy, but an act of grace for them. Support for their cause in mainstream media and in the laity of the Catholic Church is overwhelming. I wish to join that chorus of support because from my perspective, evolutionary nuns bring to an unraveling civilization an incisive awareness of the demise and its myriad causes, as well as extraordinary insights for creating a more just, sustainable, whole, and humane post-industrial culture.