As a member of the Mercy Volunteer Corps., 22-year-old Colleen O’Toole has witnessed firsthand the profound impact nuns have on American society.
Participating in a volunteer year, the Smith College alumna works in conjunction with the Sisters of Mercy at the Mercy Education Project in Detroit, a GED program for women and a tutoring center for young girls struggling economically.
“It’s a great program, and I’ve grown a lot professionally and spiritually,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole attributes her experience to the respect the Sisters of Mercy command in Detroit for their work.
So, when the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), representing 80% of America’s nuns, for failing to strictly uphold Church doctrine and for promoting “radical feminist themes”, O’Toole, like many Catholics across the country, was outraged.
“A sister may have spent her whole life teaching children or helping the homeless, but if she’s not condemning abortion or homosexuality loudly enough, that doesn’t count for anything?” said O’Toole.
The papal crackdown on nuns has ignited much debate among Catholics. Some believe the Vatican is right in demanding consistency and others see its actions as subordinating religious women.
Diana Martinez, a 20-year-old rising senior at Northwestern University, falls in line with former.
“I’m glad the Vatican has taken notice of this issue within the Conference and is taking action to correct views that are inconsistent with official Church teaching,” Martinez said.
“After all, it’s supposed to be a Catholic organization operating under the Catholic Church, which means they’ve comprehended and subsequently embraced Church doctrine in its entirety.”
Such rigidity does not sit well with O’Toole.
“To me, what is more off-putting than the Church’s stances on social issues is the idea that questioning and exploring one’s faith and discerning Church teachings is equal to unfaithfulness,” she said. “It seems like the Church is asking for blind adherence from its parishioners and that will certainly drive away the young people that remain.”
A 2010 report, “Religion Among the Millennials,” conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life validates O’Toole’s assertion regarding young people and Catholicism.
The report found young people are less religiously affiliated generally, and when it comes to Catholics, only 34% of those surveyed between the ages of 18-29 say they attend religious service weekly compared to 55% among their Evangelical counterparts.
These numbers are most likely the result of the Church’s social conservatism that causes a rift between a generation of young people who are more accepting of issues such as gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights.
Lauren Fernandez, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at California State University, Fresno explains that while she is proud to be a Roman Catholic, “I disagree with the Church’s stances on several social issues and feel like there is not appropriate forum to discuss differing ideas.”
Martinez, however, finds the characterization of the Catholic Church as socially conservative or backwards to be unreasonable.
“Staying true to core values instead of succumbing to popular opinion is the most ‘forward’ thing I can think of, in any context,” she said. “Call it conservatism, call it whatever you want. In my eyes the most ‘backward’ thing the Church can do is to let itself become lost in a relativist reality.”
Still, the “radical feminist” nuns are receiving an outpouring of support amongst Americans, which is not helpful to the Church in terms of popularity.
In response to the charges of radicalism, Executive Director of NETWORK Sister Simone Campbell told Stephen Colbert, “We’re certainly oriented towards the needs of women and responding to their needs — if that’s radical, I guess we are.”
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