Christian history, says the bestselling religion writer Karen Armstrong, has mostly confined women to the roles of virgin, martyr, witch, wife, and mother. Quoting Armstrong in her new book If Nuns Ruled the World, author Jo Piazza adds, “They don’t often get to play the role of hero. I want to change that.” Or more accurately, Piazza wants to call attention to nuns who are changing it.
To that end, she has composed portraits of ten tenacious Catholic women, of varied ages and personalities, living in religious orders throughout North America. Some, like the “Abortion Nun” in Illinois, are defending minorities whom other Catholics have marginalized, provoking rebukes from their bishops. Others, like the woman in Queens who faithfully visits prisoners in upstate New York, are ministering to the downtrodden in more conventional ways. Binding them together is their courage, their ardent religious devotion, and for most, their commitment to social justice.
The author says she wants to portray the nuns “as people as opposed to stereotypes”, and to whatever extent the popular imagination is still dominated by ’50s-era stereotypes of drab, Victorian nuns, perhaps Piazza’s book will succeed in changing this where Hollywood has failed (e.g., Sister Act and Dead Man Walking). If so, it will be less on account of Piazza’s mediocre writing than on the stories and personalities of the nuns themselves, some of whom could teach black bloc anarchists lessons about activism.
But as a goal for the book, presenting such extraordinary women “as people” is unambitious. It’s unfortunate that Piazza doesn’t attempt a thoughtful exploration of the more controversial nuns’ relationship to Catholic tradition, nor probe into what Catholicism means to them, as distinct from any other religion that encourages philanthropy. Instead, her method, as she explains in the prologue, is to tell the nuns’ stories the way certain media outlets—such as the TV stations and magazines where Piazza has spent her career—cover celebrities’ lives. “Have you ever noticed that everything a celebrity does is inherently fascinating to us?” she asks. “They walk down the street, they get a coffee, have a wardrobe malfunction, take their kids to the playground, fight with their spouse, or adopt a puppy, and it could be the most-read news of the day.”
In terms of their central focuses, the nuns depicted here divide roughly into three groups (leaving aside Sister Madonna Buder, whose claim to fame is having run dozens of ultramarathons). There are those focused on direct ministry to the poor and persecuted, such as Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, whose nonprofit helps mothers connect with their kids while they serve time in prison, and Sister Joan Dawber, who established a safe house for victims of human trafficking. There are those focused on political or corporate reforms, such as Sister Nora Nash and her community in Philadelphia, who often by stock as a way of pushing corporations to change their practices. (They’ve worked with Philip Morris on agricultural policies to protect tobacco farmers in developing countries from pesticides, and Nash once confronted Goldman Sachs’ board members about the stratospheric salaries of their top executives.) Then there are those pushing for reforms in Catholic practices or doctrines, such as Sister Maureen Fiedler, who has protested the Church’s practice of not ordaining woman priests.
Among the most memorable portraits is that of Sister Megan Rice, who plotted a break-in at a nuclear weapons storage facility in East Tennessee. This occurred two years ago when Rice was 82-years-old. She and two war-veteran cohorts cut through a fence and hung up banners, including one that read “WOE TO AN EMPIRE OF BLOOD”. They also performed a religious ceremony with white roses, candles, bread, and bottles of human blood (donated by supporters). They were ready to be shot by guards or even ripped apart by police dogs, but instead, they were arrested peacefully; Rice sang “This Little Light of Mine” as officers clipped on the handcuffs. Later she was convicted by a federal jury and sentenced to 35 months in prison. Her only regret, she said, was not protesting against nuclear weapons earlier in life. According to her lawyer, she considers it a blessing to be in prison now.
But the more provocative chapters are those on Fiedler, the advocate for women in the priesthood; Sister Jeannine Gramick, who ministers to homosexuals; and Sister Donna Quinn, who used to escort women to abortion clinics. These are the women who find certain age-old Catholic traditions oppressive and wrongheaded, but who remain fiercely committed to the institution. These are the chapters that beg for nuanced reporting. Instead, Piazza labors to present each one as a stark conflict between a charitable, liberal nun and the reactionary, oppressive Catholic Church.
The Church doesn’t consider homosexual acts necessarily more sinful than lying or premarital sex. But it expects all of its members to try to follow its moral teachings, which means gay Catholics have to strive for celibacy. The rub is that this doctrine if followed deprives homosexual Catholics of the comfort found in relationships that heterosexual Catholics enjoy. As for gay marriage, many devout Catholics support it as a civil institution, given the separation of Church and state.
Consider the case of Gramick, whose organization, New Ways Ministry, has drawn the Vatican’s ire and nearly gotten Gramick dismissed from her order. Her ministry has included organizing Masses for gay Catholics, educating other Catholics on homosexual matters, and pushing for gay marriage referenda in various states. Piazza basically conflates these all as a single act of rebellion; she makes the bishops out to be bigots who expect Catholics to avoid gay people like lepers. Not to deny that homophobia still permeates much of the institution, or to belittle what the Pope himself has called the church’s “obsession” with gay marriage, but the Catholic teaching is more complicated than Piazza lets on, and in fact, most of Gramick’s work is basically uncontroversial according to its standard.
In light of this, it would be helpful for Piazza to articulate the actual source of Gramick’s conflict with Church authorities, and to elucidate Gramick’s position, rather than essentially summing it up as “gay people aren’t freaks” and “Jesus loved everybody”. Piazza’s own armchair theologizing doesn’t help. “The story of gay rights in the Catholic Church represents a kind of xenophobia at the core of the institution,” she writes, “a fear and castigation of the unknown.” This remark, and others like it, are irresponsible on both intellectual and journalistic levels. It’s one thing to accuse Church leaders of getting their theology wrong, quite another to dismiss their beliefs via an ad hominem attack on the institution at large.
The same applies to Quinn, who garnered attention from the Chicago Tribune for her practice of escorting women in and out of abortion clinics, shielding them from the zealous protesters. (She ceased the ministry after the protesters became more vehement, as she feared her presence jeopardized the women’s safety.) Piazza describes Quinn’s first squabble with a bishop some 30 years ago, when she signed a New York Times ad that called for a “dialogue” on the Catholic position on abortion. As Quinn’s group saw it, “there could be more than one stance on the morality of abortion, and those other stances were worth exploring,” Piazza explains. But what were those positions? Does Quinn believe abortion is an unmixed blessing, no less preferable than adoption? Does she think it’s a tragic necessity for some women and the wrong choice for others? Piazza skips over these details.
Moreover, for these women who find certain Church practices oppressive, it would be interesting to learn why they’ve chosen to remain Catholic. Clearly, it’s not only because they love Jesus; there are millions of people who love Jesus but think Catholic tradition is bunk. Nor is it only because they prefer bells and incense. If the Church has been wrong for so long about homosexuality and abortion, and if misogyny has plagued its leadership structure for so long, what does this say about other Catholic teachings? We know about some of the aspects these nuns want to change, but what in particular do they want to preserve, besides prayer rituals and a commitment to charity?
Instead of grappling with these questions, the author takes a reductive view of religion itself, beyond its personal and social utility. Most chapters contain some variation on the sentence, “Sister X prays every day”, and Piazza emphasizes that these nuns really do love Jesus. But she uses this same surface-level description to describe nearly every nun’s spiritual life; she scarcely goes any deeper. In the epilogue, she describes prayer as a “form of meditation that they practice every day without fail,” and she explains their belief in God as a simple matter of neurobiology: They have the “God gene”; Piazza herself does not.
“I may not believe in God,” she says, “but I believe in nuns.” It’s a good thing for us all that these nuns believe in something more—but too bad the details of their stories remain so hazy.