When I became a Catholic two years ago, it was, I thought, a permanent transition, made with my eyes open to the limits and follies of the Church. But the Vatican’s recent crackdown on American nuns has disgusted me so much that I am on the verge of jumping ship. Consider this my parting shot over the bow.
It is time to change the framework of the entire discussion. It is time to ask what it really means to be “pro-life.” The Vatican’s accusation against the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the organization to which most American nuns belong, is largely true: they are, in fact, not speaking loudly against birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Even if they did, the Church has told them that their voices hardly matter: they cannot be heard from the pulpit, cannot play a role in theological wrestlings or doctrinal decisions. So they live their faiths differently. We live our faiths differently.
The majority of American women religious are living the gospel prescription to take action on behalf of “the least of these,” as Jesus in the gospel of Matthew refers to those who are the poor, sick, hungry, the stranger, the prisoner. They know that one cannot affirm the fullness of life in Christ by proscription and negation. Pro-life means being for something: for life, in all its abundance and complexity, for life by loving a better world into existence. It means working for the basic needs of all human beings. It means going about the tasks of the kingdom of God on earth: feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and providing them with adequate medical care, visiting prisoners, and always and forever making justice for the marginalized, the oppressed, those who have been forgotten. It is precisely because this is their work that the American nuns have seen the havoc a lack of adequate health coverage–including lack of access to affordable birth control–can wreak upon underprivileged or otherwise vulnerable women. It is in the process of enacting Jesus’ mandate to love one’s neighbor as oneself that they risked making their voices heard in the Supreme Court brief advocating President Obama’s birth control coverage compromise that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops categorically rejected.
Jesuit priest James Martin, author and well-known spiritual director of Stephen Colbert, wrote in his recent “Prayer for Frustrated Catholics,” In your time, not mine. His tepid plea for patience with the glacial pace of change in the Catholic Church feels suspiciously like a veiled call to resignation. It is easy for Father Martin, and for the other “frustrated” priests in the Catholic Church, to counsel patience when they are the ones whose voices are privileged at the expense of others. I don’t actually care to be reminded right now, as Father Martin does, that “even bishops and popes can feel frustrated.” Their frustration and that of the American nuns has little in common. Bishops and popes operate within a system of privilege in which they are able to react to that frustration by humiliating, threatening, or silencing the objects of their frustration. In this context, Father Martin’s prayers for patience, wisdom, hope, faith, courage, and peace feel like another way of asking us to stand by while the life-giving, life-sustaining work of the American sisters is placed in jeopardy by a Church that claims to be “pro-life” but is succumbing to evermore ludicrous forms of death-dealing censorship.
My own prayer for frustrated Catholics is this: Urge me to keep asking, with the psalmist, How long, O Lord? Grant me impatience when the work of love is disrupted. Give me the holy foolishness to love you wildly, to stand up for those who suffer in the face of institutional opposition, to speak out with joy against those who would silence even that dissent that arises from a deep love of you. Show me ways to be hopeful even as I stand in solidarity with the hopeless. Trouble my heart, that I may draw nearer to you in my uncertainty. Help me to come before you in fear and trembling, remembering always that I will have to account for both the love I give and the love that I withhold. And grant me the restlessness and turbulence of Spirit to be ever seeking places where love is not, so that I might always stand for life. Amen.
Lisa Levy has a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Syracuse University and a Master of Divinity from Yale. In the fall 2012, she begins work as a chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Ultimately, she plans to start a companionship house for people living with severe mental illness. She lives in New Haven with her dog, Bobo.