Naughty nuns are in the news quite a bit these days. We’re somehow attracted to women in habits found in slightly improper or undignified situations. Hollywood has long taken advantage of this. There was the Flying Nun television show with Sally Field in the 1960s; the ruler-whacking nun in the Blues Brothers movie; the dancing nuns led by Whoopie Goldberg in the 1992 film, Sister Act; and the screenshot of the nun holding up that missing car part at the end of The Sound of Music. All those images are etched in our collective memories. Even Asheville, NC has its own version of an unladylike nun. A man, with hairy legs, dressed in a habit, cruises downtown riding an oversized bicycle. Tourists love it.
Last week, however, the news media zeroed in on some real-life “naughty” nuns. Right now, a nun is knocking it out of the park on the Italian version of The Voice. For those who don’t watch television, The Voice is a reality singing show. It began as the Voice of Holland and has been adapted in over 50 countries. Several countries now have a kids’ version, too. During the show, recording artists sit in chairs facing away from the auditioning singers. If an artist likes a performance, he/she presses a button that swivels the chair around. Eventually, the recording artists choose teams, giving them an opportunity to coach and train the budding singers. Singing challenges are then staged between performers from the different teams, and ultimately, a single winner is named.
The media firestorm over Cristina Scuccia, the young Catholic nun wowing audiences on Italy’s version of the show, began in mid-March. The initial video footage I saw showed her singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cindy Lauper. Yes, Sister Cristina wears her habit, as do the nuns in the audience who are dancing and cheering her on. Sister Cristina resurfaced in the American media several days ago when Good Morning America reported that she’s still going strong, this time with her rendition of “What a Feeling,” a song from the 1983 film, Flashdance. You really have to see it to believe it, so if you have the time, take a moment to watch one of her You Tube videos. A couple of links are provided below.
Interestingly, the first nuns I ever encountered were also singers, although I don’t think they were particularly unconventional. At my Lutheran grade school, our choir sang a song called “The Wedding Banquet.” Despite the title, the song is really based on the Parable of the Great Dinner found in Luke 14:15-24. I loved the song, and somehow, my mom tracked it down (without internet assistance, of course) and bought the music book containing the song. The album was called Joy is Like the Rain. I spent years singing the songs while accompanying myself on the piano. The songs were written by Sister Miriam Therese Winter and sung by the Medical Mission Sisters in the mid-1960s. As far as I know, Sister Miriam Therese is still alive, and in a nod to life in the 21st century, CDs and MP3 downloads of the songs are also still available.
The guitar-playing sisters singing “The Wedding Banquet” meshed perfectly with my Julie Andrews-based image of the hip, cheerful, and slightly unconventional nun. Attending a co-ed Catholic high school offered a somewhat more complicated view. I distinctly remember three nuns who impacted my secondary school education, and my teenaged brain harbored mixed feelings toward all of them. One was my advanced math teacher (Algebra II/Trig./Calculus). One semester, she gave me an “A” in the class, but a “U” for my unsatisfactory attitude. Apparently, I was spending too much time during class talking to my friends. Following a conference with my parents, she moved me from the front row to the back row – away from my two friends. I found that I liked it back there, and there I stayed – in the back row of various classrooms – all the way through an undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. The second nun was my freshman English teacher. She began every class with the Hail Mary. I was raised Lutheran by a father who had actively rejected the Catholic Church. I had been explicitly taught not to pray to Mary, so I sat there in stony, teenaged silence. Within a week, she changed the prayer. At the time, I was pretty sure it was an elaborate ruse to force me to pray, but in retrospect, I think she was being kind. The third nun was never my teacher; however, she used to roam the halls, asking the girls to kneel down, so she could measure how far above the knees their uniform skirts were. Well, truth told, I never actually saw her do this, and I don’t know anyone that it happened to, but I heard about it – a lot.
In December of 1980, while still in high school, a horrible tragedy forced me to look at nuns in a new light. Three nuns and a Catholic lay missionary were kidnapped, raped, and executed in El Salvador. They were teaching the peasants, caring for the children, feeding the hungry, and helping the poor. I didn’t understand any of the political issues at the time, but even as a teenager, I was stunned by the horrific nature of the crimes. All of sudden, nuns were not just teachers or singers or actresses who soared through the air following a gust of wind. They were caring people who risked their lives to help others in distant, battle-torn countries that I had barely heard of. They were dedicated professionals who shared their gifts with others. They were educated women fighting for social justice. Ironically, the Blues Brothers movie, with its comic portrayal of a self-righteous, physically abusive nun had been released only a few months earlier.
Nuns touched my life in other, less eventful, ways during the ensuing years. In 1993, while on a city bus ride to the Vatican in Rome, I watched a nun force a young boy off the bus because he was pick-pocketing the tourists. We all watched, mildly amused, as she whacked him over the head repeatedly with a rolled-up newspaper, chastising him in Italian. Soon thereafter, I was surprised to learn that a former nun had written the book I was reading, The History of God. Karen Armstrong was part of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus from 1962-1969 but left the order while a student at Oxford. By and large, however, nuns had receded from my daily life. At that time, I was a graduate student in neuroscience, and I don’t recall seeing a single nun during all my years at the university.
But now, I’m in the religion business. I recently spent an entire morning with a Buddhist nun, who was raised Catholic and initially considered becoming a nun in that faith tradition. And now, we’re all talking about nuns because they’re back in the news. This time around, however, it is the Vatican that seems preoccupied with naughty nuns. While some news outlets were reporting on Italy’s Sister Cristina, others were reporting on the Catholic church’s continued displeasure with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The LCWR is an organizational group for American nuns with about 1500 members. For the past several years, they’ve been in hot water with the Holy See for promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Their current troubles began in 2008 when the LCWR received an official “apostolic visit” by Vatican representatives. The visit turned into a “Doctrinal Assessment” in 2009, which then resulted in an official recommendation to Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 that the LCWR be reformed. In April, 2012, the LCWR was officially reprimanded for spending too much time alleviating poverty, fighting for social justice, and publicly disagreeing with American bishops. It was strongly suggested that they spend more time explicitly condemning abortion and gay marriage, topics on which the group largely has remained silent. One archbishop and two bishops were also chosen to oversee the organization’s reform, a process that was expected to take up to 5 years.
But it’s the dawn of a new age, right? The Catholic Church is now led by Pope Francis, cassocked-crusader for the poor and downtrodden. Not exactly. Upon becoming Pope in the spring of 2013, Pope Francis reaffirmed both the reprimand of the LCWR and the reform process. Then, last week, the LCWR was slapped on the wrist again by the Cardinal who currently oversees doctrinal compliance. This time, it was in reference to their plans to honor theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, at their upcoming gathering in August. Sister Johnson received her Ph.D. in 1981, one of the first female theologians allowed to do so. Her 2007 book, Quest for Living God, was officially criticized by a doctrinal committee of U.S. bishops for failing to uphold traditional Catholic teachings. The Vatican views the honoring of Johnson as a direct affront to the church, and the LCWR has been sternly reminded that their organization exists only because the Vatican allows it to exist.
I have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. I’m sure many comments are made in private that the public will never hear about. But it’s hard for me to find fault with the LCWR for their humanitarian efforts. They list several justice-related issues on their web site, including their concerns about climate change and the situation in Haiti. They are opposed to government use of torture, and they recognize the importance of clean water accessibility for everyone around the world. They also support both immigration reform and health care reform here in the U.S. In fact, the group was also reprimanded for expressing public support for Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which is interesting given that the Sisters of Mercy organization actually runs walk-in healthcare facilities both in western North Carolina and around the world.
I’m not one to take life too seriously. I understand that it’s somewhat funny to depict naughty nuns in somewhat compromising situations. But it’s also important to remember that they have a long history of fighting for the under-represented and disenfranchised. They have served as relief workers around the world for hundreds of years. They hold degrees in a variety of academic disciplines, and one of their own, Mother Teresa, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Even though we know all that, it would be a lot easier for us – and for our kids – to respect them and their work if their own religious community could do the same. In the meantime, three cheers for all the nuns who sometimes choose to bend the rules!