Recently, opponents of deportations held a rally to commemorate the five-year anniversary of what they call an unjust immigration sweep of 389 people in a kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa.
Last July, three people breached security and entered a nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., housing highly enriched uranium, where they spilled blood at the site before being arrested.
Last June, 14 women traveled by bus to selected states to denounce a House Republican budget they said hurt poor people.
These actions were not staged by members of the now-defunct Occupy movement, or single-issue activists but by Catholic nuns who are, increasingly, the new face of resistance. Whether against war or poverty, for the environment, immigration reforms or in opposition to the death penalty, a “Band of Sisters” is often in the vanguard. That activism is now spotlighted in a documentary of the same name.
At one level, it’s a natural fit. Because nuns minister to people who are struggling, they see first-hand the effects of poverty, hunger, homelessness and degradation of the environment. They learn the back stories and institutional causes, and have responded to both with political protests and by opening schools, health centers and organic farms and providing 40,000 affordable housing units for women.
One group of nuns goes weekly to an immigrant detention center in Illinois, where they rally, pray, talk to families, accompany deportees to the airport and, after lobbying the state legislature, won permission to minister to them inside the facility.
“We do this peacefully and respectfully,” says one sister. “But we never take no for an answer.”
One group demonstrates — and sometimes gets arrested — outside the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., where the U.S. military trains Latin American military leaders, often to attack their own people. The nuns hold the school indirectly responsible for the killing of three U.S. nuns in El Salvador in 1980, on orders from the military command in that nation.
Deliberately defying orders, breaking laws and challenging the government doesn’t fit the old stereotype of habit-wearing religious women deferential to authority that producer/director Mary Fishman set out to defy. Things began to change in the 1960s with Vatican II calls for the church to modernize. Along with the shedding of habits, says Margaret Galiardi, a Dominican nun from Amityville, N.Y., came the call “to return to the roots.”
Nuns began to see, as one put it, “that charity wasn’t enough,” and systems had to change. That led to the founding of Network, the social justice lobby that orchestrated last year’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour.
But nuns’ continued liberalization has been “much to the dismay of powerful and conservative figures in the church,” say the film notes. Since 2009, U.S. nuns were investigated twice by the Vatican, accused of embracing “radical feminism” and of being out of touch with church teachings. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of American nuns, was sanctioned for spreading “the wrong ideas” about the all-male priesthood, marriage and homosexuality.
The conflict has caused many American Catholic nuns to leave: In 1966, there were 180,000. Today, there are under 70,000.
After the film was screened at a Des Moines church recently, I asked the nuns present if they find themselves in direct conflict with bishops and priests. One observed that bishops “have been given the authority to straighten us out.” But she concluded to applause, “We have to be faithful to who we are.”
Churches that want to maintain their tax-exempt status have to avoid being overtly political by, for example, telling people whom to vote for. The most visible kind of political activism arising from churches these days tends to be against gay rights or abortion. At the film screening, two men in the audience just wanted the sisters to denounce abortion — while another attendee rued that “right-wing Catholics” get all the media attention.
The conflict between American nuns and the Catholic hierarchy is unlikely to be settled soon. So Catholic church-goers may need to decide for themselves whether or not to support the sisters in carrying out their understanding of God’s work by making systems uphold the dignity and rights of all people, even through unorthodox means.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service