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Why I’m pro-nun in this conflict

Why I’m pro-nun in this conflict

Sister Louise Kearns joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1959. In 1969, she and her fellow sisters ditched the convent and moved into the D Street Housing Project in South Boston to live with the people whom they served. Sister Louise taught junior high school students and began a summer youth program. While working in the projects, she became increasingly aware of the immense challenges facing poor families headed by single mothers.

Her experiences led her to finally establish, in 1979, an adult learning program in the community. The program provided the mothers with educational service and other kinds of support, while their young children received high-quality day care that prepared them for kindergarten. The following year, Sister Louise joined with Sister Jean Sullivan to create Julie’s Family Learning Program. Today, Julie’s is still going strong as a program for undereducated, low-income (mostly single) moms and their children.

Ten years ago, I had the privilege of working as a chaplain intern at Julie’s. Sister Louise and the women there taught me some of my most valuable lessons in ministry to date. Sister Louise has a plaque on her wall that was given to her by the bishop to honor her service, and on it, she is described as a “doer of the Word of the Lord.” I can’t think of better words to describe her, and I hope that one day, I will live the kind of life that will cause people to describe me in such a way.

After my experience with the Sisters of Notre Dame, I am stunned and dismayed that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (an organization most American nuns belong to) is under fire by their own denomination. The powers that be have decided that the nuns have not been doing enough to promote the Catholic church’s bans on contraception and abortion and its stance on human sexuality, and instead have been spending too much time on doing good for those less fortunate. Really? Is it possible for a Christian to spend too much time helping the least of these? What is more pro-life than serving people who need it most? And why is the church using the term “radical feminist” like it’s a bad thing?

I realize the whole issue is far more complicated than what I’m describing here, but it just feels a little too much like the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for healing on the Sabbath Day. The Pharisees thought that toeing the party line was far more important than caring for people. Do the pope and the cardinals really want to take on this role? Will being a doer of the Word of the Lord have to be in conflict with being a doer of the rules of the church?

I will acknowledge that none of the nuns I have encountered in my studies or in my ministry have told me not to use birth control or that homosexuality is wrong or that I should be barred from ordination. Nor have they shown me what it is to be radically feminist. What they have shown me is what radically following Jesus Christ truly looks like. With all due respect to the pope and his cardinals, I’m with the sisters on this one.

The Rev. Anne Russ is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of North Little Rock. E-mail her at

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