The Vatican: Oppressing U.S. Nuns or Preserving Them?


On Friday in the Daily Beast, former nun Mary Johnson criticized the Vatican’s recent assessment of the U.S sisters. She is referring to an investigation by the Church which resulted in a mixed response. The Vatican commended the nuns for all their work and the sacrifices they have made for the poor. Still, the Church said it was alarmed and made a decision to “crack down” on the nun’s views and actions that contradict Church teaching. This “crackdown” consists of an archbishop appointed to oversee the nuns’ organization, “providing guidance and reviewing plans and programs.” Johnson called the Church’s actions disrespectful and insulting.

As a Catholic, I am relieved and proud that the Church is calling those who most represent the Church to honor the teachings of the faith. As for the “oppression” and “disrespect” that Johnson speaks of I am — especially as a woman — saddened at how far she missed the mark on the entire purpose of the sisterhood. It is no wonder Mary Johnson decided to leave the convent, and her own admissions speak to her misunderstanding of the Church, the vocation to which she belonged, and her obvious pain that has accompanied one living a lifestyle not suited to her passions. Becoming a nun is a calling, it is an extreme sacrifice that can only be endured by those so impassioned by what it offers, a closeness, and devotion of your life to God, that  joining for any other reason would leave one disillusioned and most certainly unsatisfied. Which is the sentiment Mary Johnson conveys as reasons she left the sisterhood and the feelings she has looking back on her time as a nun.

The first paragraph of the Daily Beast piece explains that Johnson joined the convent at 19 years-old, after reading a Time Magazine article about Mother Teresa. This is the most fundamental problem. You do not devote your life to God because you are inspired by a magazine article. Johnson made vows, which require making an extreme lifestyle choice, accompanied by full disclosure of what this lifestyle entails. No one should join the sisterhood if they are not willing to give up many liberties and freedoms in exchange for the close spiritual relationship with God, and obedience to the Church and its teachings. This can be compared to a soldier being shocked and bitter that he must actually follow orders, have his life micro-managed by his superiors and ultimately be asked to lay down his life. Both professions have incredible rewards that match the incredible sacrifices, but they can only be realized by individuals happy to make those sacrifices.

Johnson spoke of her desire to help the poor. I wish that Johnson had joined the peace core or one of the hundreds of missions dedicated to helping the poor, even Church missions that don’t requiring joining a convent. The article alludes to Johnson knowing Mother Teresa well. In a famous quote by Mother Teresa she says, “Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”

Caring for the poor is only a secondary function of that particular convent; there are hundreds of different convents dedicated to different missions, with varying rules, many not nearly as strict as the convent Johnson chose. This is exactly what Johnson missed and clearly had no intention of doing; thus her woeful misunderstanding of the Church and its decision to hold the U.S. nuns to their vocations. She is upset the Church would hold the nuns to its teachings on abortion when Mother Teresa is famous for saying, “The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.” I wonder if she believes Mother Teresa would agree with her assertions.

We all have physical desires as well as emotional and intellectual desires, these are natural and good as the Church teaches and any nun or priest would tell you. But a nun’s vocation to give these up is an astounding testament of faith and they are living examples that we as human beings are more than our desires. That we are spiritual, and that we can have happiness and fulfillment that rises above our day to day physical, sexual and emotional wants.

I think the life of a nun is so beautiful and so inspiring. It is refreshing to be reminded in the midst of our materialistic and self-centric culture that there really is more to life and more to us. I am proud of the Catholic Church for rising up to protect this precious vocation. Those who feel oppressed, constrained, and insulted by this life would be happier to leave it and find their true calling. It would be a tragedy to change an entire institution around those who desire not what the institution offers, but something else entirely. Let them be reminded of its purpose and decide if it aligns with their own, if so, better to be renewed in it, if not, better to be freed from it.