In early May of this year, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States began receiving reprimandsfrom theVatican for their “radical feminist views.” This historical development has been widely reported in mainstream news by both secular and religious media. In this article, I want to take a closer look at some of these sisters and share a bit about my experiences with them this past weekend. In order to do so, we must first ask: Who are these sisters, and what do they actually do?
The mission statement of LCWR reads:
The purpose of the conference shall be to promote a developing understanding and living of religious life by:
assisting its members personally and communally to carry out more collaboratively their service of leadership in order to accomplish further the mission of Christ in today’s world.
fostering dialogue and collaboration among religious congregations within the church and in the larger society.
developing models for initiating and strengthening relationships with groups concerned with the needs of society, thereby maximizing the potential of the conference for effecting change.
To understand why this group is so threatening to the Vatican, allow me to indulge in a bit of history. The Second Vatican Council convened under Pope John XXIII from 1962-1965 at which time, stunning changes occurred in the Roman Catholic Church. A number of landmark decisions were made at Vatican II, and among them, a dramatic altering of the liturgy and a desire to be engaged in deep dialog with the contemporary world. This conference also marked the beginning of the end for “in-habited” nuns. For the most part, black and white habits came off as nuns donned polyester pants, pastel colors, and no longer covered their heads. Nuns now looked almost like other women. I say “almost” because they still retained modesty in their dress and rarely wore make-up or jewelry.
It was the 1960s during the era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the beginning of the women’s movement. The emphasis among nuns turned increasingly toward social justice. They still taught in colleges and public high schools, but now they were running soup kitchens; providing food, clothing, and shelter for the poor; working in hospitals, counseling victims of all manner of abuse and injustice, protesting the war, and opening up non-profits everywhere. Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, two of America’s most famous activist priests, committed themselves to a life of protest. Phillip left the priesthood and married, and his daughter, Frida, a former nun, today works with World Policy Institute, protesting war, Pentagon policies, andUS imperialism.
As the condition of the ecosystems worsened in the 1990s, one priest in particular, Thomas Berry, student of French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, began writing and speaking passionately about the fate of the earth and humanity’s responsibility to know and live the earth’s story. Many students of Berry and de Chardin began devoting their lives to deep ecology and eco-spirituality. Among them, Miriam MacGillis, who founded Genesis Farm inNew Jersey where ongoing education in the earth’s story endures and flourishes today. As the farm’s website reads, “Genesis Farm is rooted in a belief that the Universe, Earth, and all reality are permeated by the presence and power of that ultimate Holy Mystery that has been so deeply and richly expressed in the world’s spiritual traditions. We try to ground our ecological and agricultural work in this deep belief. This Sacred Mystery, known by so many religious names, is the common thread in our efforts.”
Before his death in 2009, Berry had been working closely with Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist on the faculty of California Institute of Integral Studies, and together they wroteThe Universe Story: From The Primordial Flaring Forth To The Ecozoic Era: A Celebration Of The Unfolding Of The Cosmos (1994).
Many nuns and some priests, such as Matthew Fox, have been deeply influenced by the work ofMacGillis,Berry, and Swimme and are applying “Universe Story” principles in their lives and communities. Many have taken permaculture courses, are creating flourishing organic gardens, and living lives radically committed to sustainability and simplicity. To say that they are appalled with climate change and humanity’s unwillingness to tackle it head-on does not come close to the pain these women and men feel as they witness the extinction of species, deadly extreme weather, paralyzing droughts, and the decimation of oceans, forests, soil, lakes, rivers, streams.
Outrage at “crimes against the earth” was palpable at this past weekend’s conference of Sisters of The Earth (SOE) in St. Mary In The Woods, Indiana, the first Catholic women’s college in theUnited States. SOE is an informal network of women religious and lay women who “share a deep concern for the ecological and spiritual crises of our times” and who meet every two years to recommit to justice for the earth and renew their earth-based spirituality.
Gracing our presence at St. Mary In The Woods were the phenomenal musicians, Joyce Rouse, aka “Earth Mama” and Jan Novotka, musician and liturgist. The musical genius of these women, together and separately, slaked our soul thirst in the drought-stricken, ecologically-stressed woods where what used to be daily downpours have become insignificant trickles since the month of May. We offered many rituals to the parched land and danced when less than an inch fell intermittently for the duration of one day.
In this conference devoted to inner and outer transition, we heard from Nettie Wiebe of Rural Women Making Change and author of Farm Women: Cultivating Hope And Sowing Change. An organic farmer and feminist, Nettie comes from the Canadian Prairie.
From Australia, film maker Helena Norberg-Hodge, who gave us “The Economics of Happiness” documentary, spoke to us warmly but poignantly about the state of the world economy and connected the dots for us between energy, environment, and economics.
I was honored to be one of the presenters for the conference, and I witnessed not only outrage, but deep grief. I also was surrounded by incredible love and tireless humor. Bright, well-educated, passionate, and funny, these women could not get enough of my drumming and storytelling. I presented two different segments on my book, Navigating The Coming Chaos, and offered a question and answer session. Immediately preceding the Q & A, they wanted more drumming, more African chants, and when I provided them, they erupted in dancing around the room and in the aisles for several minutes. In fact, I was beginning to feel guilty (not an emotion encouraged by any of these nuns) for cutting into the question session, of which they had many.
By the end of the conference, I was convinced that something enormously profound in the history of our planet and hierarchical, male-dominated institutions like the Vaticanis fomentingat the deepest level. Next month, tens of thousands of nuns from around the nation, including some Sisters of The Earth, will convene at the LCRW Assembly inSt. Louis where they will construct a formal response to theVatican’s reprimand. About this event, I have many more questions than answers as my mind reels with curiosity about legal and financial issues and where these silent women warriors might next work their magic in this world.
Natural mystics in the tradition of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century mystic and Julian of Norwich, 15th century mystic, some Sisters of The Earth will courageously carry their tradition toSt. Louis but all of them, far beyond. Might they be massively excommunicated because they are demanding the ordination of women, a radical ecclesiastical policy on contraception, and justice for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender communities, including the right of humans to love and join physically with whoever they choose to love?
I cannot answer those questions, but I will leave you with perhaps the most famous words of Julian of Norwich, exquisitely set to music by Earth Mama:
All shall be well,
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.