Catholic Nuns: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone?


I expect more from Rush Limbaugh.

The Maha-Rushie’s grasp of American culture and history is powerful. Yet, commenting on news of a “Vatican crackdown” on a group of “dissident” U.S. Catholic sisters, Limbaugh remarked earlier this month:

Do you know what the nuns are doing? The nuns have gone feminazi on everybody. This small group of nuns in the Catholic Church is going feminist, and the Vatican is obviously — well, a figure of speech, slapping them down. And the Vatican is trying to tamp it down and say, “No, no, no, that doesn’t happen. There’s no such thing as a feminist nun.”

Where has Limbaugh been living? In a convent?!

American nuns went “feminazi on everybody” more than 40 years ago. Catholic religious orders are as riven left vs right as anywhere else in the country.

As in the media and the academy, the “left” cadre of sisters outnumbers the “right” one. The liberal nuns battling the Vatican today are (literally) the same ones who’ve been doing so for decades.

The latest skirmish comes after the Vatican’s four-year investigation into what American “women religious” actually believe (and more importantly, tell other Catholics, through teaching, counseling, and writing):

The Vatican looked at three particular “areas of concern,” citing “problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal, errors” (…), policies of dissent, and a prevalence of “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic Faith.”

If the notion of pro-abortion, New Age nuns sounds like heavy handed satire, then obviously you’re not a Catholic.

(Neither, some would argue, are these nuns.)

As layman Mark Shea explains with characteristic brio:

The Church is reining in nuns who are no longer Catholic from oppressing nuns who are and from poisoning the faith of people subjected to their loony quackery, goddess worship, Marxist theory masquerading as orthodoxy, bizarre sexual experimentation, substitution of Rogerian psychobabble for the Tradition, and naked hostility to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Amusingly, you’d think the Vatican itself — never mind (Protestant) Rush Limbaugh — had just found out about outrageous nun-related goings-on that millions of current and former Catholics have complained about for years.

Take me, for instance…

I was “raised by nuns” from “nursery school” — that’s what we used to call daycare — to Grade 13 (a now defunct Canadian thing).

Because I was born in 1964, I watched Catholic sisters transform outwardly after the “reforms” of Vatican II.

The nuns who stirred giant pots of boiling noodles for our nursery school lunches wore wimples, veils, and heavy floor-length habits.

By the time I got to high school, they wore over-the-knee black skirts, white blouses, and black cardigans adorned with tiny gold cross pins.

When I got caught up in the Reagan-era no-nukes movement, I eagerly applied for a job at a progressive, “social justice” Catholic newspaper. My only real qualifications were that I’d read a lot of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and could tell the Berrigan brothers apart. I got the job.

The staff was a mix of lay people and “women religious,” as I quickly learned they preferred being called. These nuns wore running shoes and unglamorous, casual (usually polyester) clothes. Only their severely cropped hair and lack of jewelery, perfume, nail polish or makeup distinguished them ever so slightly from the average woman.

Except for their ages. With one exception, they were all well into their 60s.

Otherwise, I soon realized that “nuns were just like everyone else.”

And although I was ashamed to admit it, I didn’t approve.

I didn’t see the point of becoming a nun if you were going to gossip, lose your temper, live in apartments instead of convents, go to baseball games, read cheesy mystery novels, and even eat just like people in and of the world.

(Yes, I said “eat” because — I’m sorry — most of them were quite overweight, and never met a donut– or three — they didn’t like. Asceticism was definitely not part of their vows.)

Don’t misunderstand me: these women could also be supernaturally compassionate, funny — and they were astonishingly patient with me, a twenty-something brat, full of what I thought were ingenious original ideas.

And yet…

How did they reconcile their “solidarity” with “the poor” with their undisguised snobbery regarding said poor people’s devotion to the rosary and other “unsophisticated” pre-Vatican II practices?

And unlike poor people, these nuns were forever going off on lengthy “sabbaticals.” (From what? We were putting out a newspaper, not feeding the homeless.)

Speaking of which, our office was in a rough neighborhood; shouldn’t we be “doing” “social justice” on the streets, instead of wasting a year re-writing (again) the newspaper’s 30-word “mission statement”? (And eating more donuts?)

Like every other younger person who’d ever been on the paper’s staff, I bailed at around the two-year mark, literally unable to afford to work there any longer.

I’ll always be indebted to the sisters there for introducing me to the Apple computers I’m still fanatically devoted to.

And giving me the deep immersion with “the left” that helped drive me to the right.


When I told people where I worked, they’d often sneer, “How can you work with such uptight, old fashioned people?”

But the truth is: It was these nuns’ trendy, New Age “progressivism” — and their embarrassing lack of basic self-awareness — that I was eventually unable to bear.

The nuns currently being chastised by the Vatican are the ones who are constantly going on “discernment” retreats and comparing Enneagrams, but who remain almost comically (willfully?) blind to the awful irony of their true identities as, to quote Mark Shea again:

“Relics of Woodstock who are clinging to power like aging Soviets.”

As Lenny Bruce observed: “There’s nothing sadder than an aging hipster.”

The word “aging” sounds cruel, but it’s essential if you want to get past the rhetoric on both sides and really understand what’s happening here.

Many of these “nuns” no longer believe in the Real Presence or even the divinity of Christ.

They certainly don’t recognize the authority of the Vatican.

So why don’t they leave?

Because they’re old. The average age of an American woman religious is 70.

These women have no savings or other assets. Obviously they don’t have children who could care for them.

They have Ph.Ds in rarefied subjects with no real-world applications, even assuming any company would hire them at their age.

If they stop being nuns, they give up everything.

Funny, though:

I always thought that’s what you were supposed to be doing when you took your vows…

Liberal Catholic nuns think of themselves as brave, selfless women doing thankless jobs who, most importantly, have the courage of their convictions.

But if that last part was really true, they’d stop complaining and start resigning.

And you’ll notice they rarely do.

At the risk of sounding like a liberal myself, the gravest sin these women are committing is hypocrisy.

See some of Kathy Shaidle’s previous articles and lists:

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