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Voices of Trinity: Alumnae President Elizabeth Palmer ’92 on Religious Women


I am so pleased to share this space with my colleague and “sister president” Elizabeth Palmer, Class of 1992, president of the Alumnae Association of Trinity.  Here’s her comments on the meaning of the religious women in our lives:

By Elizabeth Palmer ’92:

According to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, American Catholic nuns are spending all of their time on “radical feminist” ideas like combating poverty and promoting social justice rather than picketing abortion clinics or denouncing gay marriage. So what is new about that? Nothing, except maybe that combating poverty and promoting social justice are now radical and/or feminist pursuits instead of tenets of the Catholic faith.

Nuns are fairly well known for their commitment to social justice. In fact, it defines the charism of most of their orders. This should not then come as any real surprise to the Vatican or the Bishop’s Conference, since that is largely the entire history of orders of women religious.

Is it really that much of a stretch then, to imagine that these orders might actually seek to fulfill their missions, or that they might coordinate their efforts among the various orders through something as innovative as a cooperative council, such as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious? It seems less shocking than just plain reasoned. But the CDF apparently fears some sort of unionization of nuns. Or something.

Take, for example, NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, whose leader, Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, was named in the Vatican report.

Sr. Simone is a member of the Sisters of Social Service. The name kind of says it all, really. The order was founded in 1923 by a Hungarian social worker and the first woman  elected to the Hungarian Parliament, who was inspired to establish the order following the issue of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which addressed and affirmed the rights and dignity of the poor and working classes. The order’s entire history of work in the communities in which they are involved is an affirmation of the commitment of their founding to advocate and care for the poor and underserved.

NETWORK, in turn, was founded in December 1971 at a meeting held at Trinity College in Washington DC, a women’s college founded by another order of nuns with a mission of social justice, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. The gathering of women religious were from orders all heavily involved in health care, education and community advocacy. Their experience in direct service in their communities led them to understand the potential for a more organized approach to advocating for federal policies that promote economic and social justice, and they organized themselves toward that end.

Forty years later, NETWORK can lay claim to a impressive track record of accomplishment in education and advocacy for justice issues. One of the most highly visible and outspoken proponents of the Church’s social justice mission, NETWORK has not hesitated to speak out on behalf of the poor and underserved it lobbies for. One of the policy areas in which it did so was the recent and ongoing debate over the passage of the Affordable Care Act. NETWORK spearheaded the effort to consolidate a statement of women religious in support of the bill and garnered a list of signatories that included the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The Vatican’s assessment from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith slamming the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and announcing the intent of the male hierarchy in those quarters to take those troublesome religious women firmly in hand asserts without enumerating them, “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” It is difficult not to walk away from such a transparently condescending statement without considering it code for “thinking for themselves.”

It seems rather absurd at best to conclude that an order or network or conference founded in the social justice mission of the Church is putting too much emphasis on social justice. Yet that is exactly what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is doing, claiming, “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.”

But not really.

What the CDF is doing, is punishing women religious who did a better job of speaking out on behalf of impoverished families than the Bishop’s Conference did. Moreover, punishing them for, as it turns out, being effective enough to be on the winning side of the eventual vote. One wonders which of these truths is more painful for the “assessors” to admit.

The CDF may wring it’s collective hands that there aren’t enough orders and associations focusing solely on the “right to life from conception to natural death.” But there are a great many Catholics and non-Catholics alike who are profoundly grateful for the tireless advocacy of women religious focused on what happens between conception and natural death.


Share your thoughts on this important topic by clicking on the “comment” link below.

For more on this topic, see my blog “The True Radicalism of Catholic Sisters” in the Huffington Post.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: