Nuns: A belated appreciation


Since I don’t think I’ve ever written about nuns before, it’s time to change that today.

I was raised a Catholic, and attended Catholic schools until I was 18 years old. This included interactions with several nuns, and they generally weren’t good experiences. One particular story from first grade, back in the spring of 1975, stands out in my memory. I get to tell the story on occasion, and it’s a backdrop for the rest of my comments here, so it goes like this:

It was a rainy day, and my buddy and I were playing tic-tac-toe on the fogged-up classroom windows. I don’t think I had ever played it before, and it was a new thing which I was enjoying very much. For reference’s sake, I’m the kid in the top row in the green shirt, second from the left, and my tic-tac-toe buddy is in the top row, far right, in the striped sweater. This was a class picture, and our teacher has been deliberately cropped out. But she ruled our classroom with an iron fist.

In the middle of one game, the teacher grabbed me hard on my right ear and dragged me across the classroom, where she proceeded to scream at me about my lack of respect for classroom decorum. From that day forward, I never gave any nuns a fair shake. When I described the incident to my mother one day, 30 years after it happened, she was visibly upset and asked why I never said anything about it. I remember telling her “Would anybody have believed me if I did? I just kept quiet, because bringing it up would only mean more trouble for me.”

This week, long after I left Catholic school and the church altogether, the Pope is in Rome, trying to come to grips with a crisis of a much bigger magnitude. For many decades–basically the whole time I was growing up–the culture that prevented me from speaking out was known and exploited by a staggering number of pedophile priests. The men who had the authority to step in and prevent these abuses looked the other way, and allowed priests to move from one parish to another, leaving priests free to continue their evil behavior unabated and unchecked. What happened to me once in a first grade classroom is literally nothing by comparison.

The power structure of the church–then and now–is such that women are routinely victimized and are powerless to do anything to prevent it. My heart breaks at the revelations that women have been raped by priests, which runs contrary to everything that Jesus taught. It’s an abomination that women have been treated so poorly by a church that they only wanted to serve.

I never in a million years thought I would ever have a nun in my family, but it turns out that I do, and she’s now in hospice care. I appreciate the sacrifices that she, and countless other women, have made in the service of a church that has–quite frankly–abused their good intentions.

How can Pope Francis make things right, going forward? He can’t undo any past misdeeds, either at the individual parish level or at the larger, diocesan level. Thousands of victims and their families will continue to suffer, just as they have been for decades. But maybe this wreckage also offers a singular opportunity for the church.

Since men have transgressed against women and children on a scale which nobody will ever completely understand, it’s now time to admit women into the priesthood and all higher levels of the Catholic hierarchy. Most Catholics won’t want to hear this, and would rather fall back on the old ways, instead. But that is EXACTLY what has led everyone to such a terrible state of affairs. The moral authority of the church has been sacrificed at the altar–literally–of a throng of wicked and predatory men. It makes sense that men must never again be allowed to have a similar monopoly on church power.

The truth is that I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m now a recovering Catholic, and have no desire to be anything else for the rest of my days on this earth. But I’m willing to speak up for the women who have been mistreated and marginalized for far too long. Suggestions to end celibacy requirements and allow gays to serve as priests do not go far enough. The only way to make such terrible actions a thing of the past is to turn the page and start over. But I’m not going to hold my breath on this, either.

UPDATE: Sister Mary Lucy Bottosto, O.S.M. passed away on February 25, 2019, less than  48 hours after I wrote this. I never met her, but I hope she’s now at peace, wherever she is.

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