Last April, when I sat down to compose my piece for the Forum, only days after the world shut down, I decided to write about prisoners and the devastating toll the virus would most certainly have on them. They were, after all, a captive group, held in close quarters, many of whom had pre-existing conditions and little access to good health care. They already bore the brunt of so many social injustices. It was easy to predict that the pandemic would magnify those in deadly ways.
As the pandemic progressed, we saw that prisoners were not be the only ones to feel the burden of COVID-19 disproportionately. In many cases, this was because of existing inequities and injustices such as race, and in other cases, simply a matter of circumstance. For example, several times over the past year, headlines about concentrated pockets of COVID deaths among religious sisters in the US appeared on my newsfeeds: “It’s Numbing: Nine Retired Nuns in Michigan Die of COVID-19,” in The New York Times (January 29, 2021); “8 Nuns Die of COVID-19 in One Week at Wisconsin Convent: “We didn’t Expect Them to Go so, so Quickly,” on CBSnews.com (December 18, 2020). Even more alarming were reports from outside the US, such as, for example in Tanzania, where possibly hundreds of religious sisters have died from the virus as a result of the government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the dangers of the pandemic.
It is worth taking a moment to pause and reflect on the loss of the lives of women who lived lives of service to the Church and community. They embodied the virtues that moral theologians write about: They provided care, education, and social support to many communities. They were missionaries, educators, peace and justice activists. Yet, the “everyday” nature of their activities of care are rarely highlighted or even noticed by most Catholic moral theologians whose focus is to take on what are deemed to be more pressing issues.
We are fortunate that the CTEWC network has many active religious sisters from all regions of the world. Many of these sisters are scholar-activists fighting for justice in public ways. We can also turn to the recent history of Catholic moral theology to see the profound influence of the insights of religious sisters who were pioneers in feminist theology and who held prestigious academic positions at universities and seminaries. Anne E. Carr (Sisters of Charity, BVM), for example, was the first woman to be given a permanent appointment at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Anne Patrick (Sisters of the Holy Name of Mary and Jesus) was the first woman to receive tenure at Carleton College where she also chaired the department of Religion. Margaret Farley (Sisters of Mercy) was on the faculty of the Yale Divinity School for over thirty years.
In spite of the leadership of these religious sisters in the academic arena, women’s roles in the Catholic Church have been extremely circumscribed for much of its history. In fact, the recent announcement that Pope Francis appointed Sister Nathalie Becquart as an undersecretary in the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops office, was historic insofar as it marked the first time in the history of the Church that a woman would hold a voting position in the Vatican. While certainly a victory for advancing women’s participation in decision-making, it also served to highlight how deep the inequalities run.
In spite of the lack of power that women hold in the highest levels of the Church, the everyday work of care undertaken by religious sisters – care for children, the sick, the elderly – embodies an aspect of moral theology that we often undervalue. The labor of moral theology – how to implement the Gospel message – occurs in the everyday practices of care. In communal settings, religious sisters are engaged in embodied, experiential, relational activities. These are all hallmarks of feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies which emphasize the narrative and contextual nature of moral theology. The focus of “official” moral theology is on universal ideals, principles, and moral categories, and as a consequence the lived experiences, especially of women, are either overlooked or downplayed. Religious sisters do hold positions of authority and leadership and in the past decades have been quick to speak out against injustices in society and to stand up to the authoritarianism of the Church.
The idea of ethics as a social encounter, where we feel and experience the suffering of one’s brother or sister in immediate ways is especially relevant today as we mark over 2.7 million deaths worldwide from COVID and countless numbers of others who have suffered either directly or indirectly from the pandemic. The example of religious sisters such as Sister Mary Francele Sherburne, 99, who died at a convent in Milwaukee in April 2020 gives us a glimpse of the richness of these lives. “Before retirement, she was a full-time college professor, a music teacher to elementary students and a volunteer instructor for decades to Milwaukeeans learning English as a second language. “Sister Francele had a passion for kite flying,” said a biography provided by her ministry.”
In an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio, sisters described the lives of the deceased nuns as follows: “None of (the sisters) wrote a book or built a company or anything that a lot of people count as an important legacy,” Sister Kathleen said. “But, you know, every single one of them changed lives.” “I think they were people who were not pushing their agenda or their ego as they lived out their life,” added Sister Sue. “They were quietly and powerfully sharing the gifts that God gave them.”
By noting these sisters in their particularity, we can see them as embodiments of the virtue of solidarity. They were women whose labor built the foundations of a lived Catholic ethic of solidarity. They labored in spite of the many ways their contributions were marginalized and ignored; and, in some cases, in spite of the direct sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of male clergy. In a dialogue with superior generals of women’s religious orders in 2019, Pope Francis addressed the issue of their sexual abuse. He said, “It’s a serious problem, a grave problem. I’m aware of it also here in Rome…. It’s not just sexual abuse; it is also the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience.” That the Pope was confident in making the connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of power reminds us that the stakes of women’s powerlessness in the Church are high. The state of precarity that many religious sisters live in has only been magnified by the pandemic. Yet that shouldn’t lead us to forget their power as moral agents who sought to do good in the world.
Let us reflect on the deaths of dozens of aging religious sisters over the past year, and use this moment of reflection and grieving to renew our commitment to fighting for gender justice in the Catholic Church and in the society-at-large.
Ajiambo, Doreen. “Surge in Deaths Has Sisters, Church Leaders Urging Tanzania Government to Take COVID-19 Seriously.” Global Sisters Report, March 4, 2021. https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/coronavirus/surge-deaths-has-sisters-church-leaders-urging-tanzania-government.
Hauser, Christine, and Concepción de León. “‘It’s Numbing’: Nine Retired Nuns in Michigan Die of Covid-19.” The New York Times, January 29, 2021, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/us/nuns-covid-deaths.html.
O’Connell, Gerard. “Pope Francis Tells Women Religious Church Cannot Alter Revelation on Women’s Diaconate.” America Magazine, May 10, 2019. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/05/10/pope-francis-tells-women-religious-church-cannot-alter-revelation-womens-diaconate.
The Associated Press. “8 Nuns Die of COVID-19 in One Week at Wisconsin Convent: ‘We Didn’t Expect Them to Go so, so Quickly,’” December 18, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/8-nuns-die-coronavirus-one-week-wisconsin-convent/.
Winfield, Nicole. “Nun Appointed to High-Level Vatican Post by Pope Francis Says the ‘Patriarchal Mindset Is Changing.’” America Magazine, February 11, 2021. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/02/11/pope-francis-woman-catholic-church-nun-240002.