Former Nun Mary Johnson Criticizes Vatican Crackdown on U.S. Sisters

Why one former sister says the Vatican’s crackdown is “disrespectful” and an “insult.”

Eric Thayer / Getty Images

American nuns have remained mostly mum in the wake of the recent Vatican assessment that they are being disobedient, showing signs of “radical feminism,” as the Vatican says, for views that contradict church teachings on issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and the ordination of women. But one former nun has a few things to say. She says the crackdown is “an insult.”

Mary Johnson served for 20 years in the Missionaries of Charity, a group founded by Mother Teresa. Johnson worked in Rome for 15 years and in North America for the other five; she came to know Mother Teresa personally. Johnson had joined the convent as a 19-year-old college student in Texas. Her inspiration: an article she read in Time magazine about Mother Teresa’s work in Calcutta, India.

As a Missionary of Charity, Johnson vowed to follow strict orders. She and her fellow sisters wore white saris, as Mother Teresa wore; they refrained from becoming close friends with other nuns or anyone else; they distanced themselves from their families, spending just two weeks of every 10 years with relatives, per the rules. They spent their time helping the poor, working in soup kitchens and shelters, and teaching catechism.

Johnson’s days as a nun came to an end when, she says, “I decided I needed more intimacy than the rules allowed.” While in the convent, she had grown close to a fellow nun and even canoodled with a priest. “We just had a few kisses,” she says. She left the convent in 1997, went back to school, and later wrote a memoir about her experience, An Unquenchable Thirst.

She says she’s not surprised by the Vatican’s probe of American nuns, which began three years ago amid concerns that the sisters weren’t backing the views of the church, particularly at general assemblies held throughout the year.

The Vatican launched two studies to look into nuns’ activities. One, called a Doctrinal Assessment, conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, looked into the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or the LCWR. The group, established by the Vatican, represents around 80 percent of American sisters, allowing them to train leaders and hold general assemblies to discuss relevant issues.

In the results of that study, released last week, the Vatican acknowledges the “great contribution” of nuns in “schools, hospitals, and institutions for the poor,” but says that nuns have “stayed silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion.” Further, the study says, "issues of crucial importance to the life of the church and society, such as the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.” The study also cites a reluctance among some sisters to embrace the “reservation of priestly ordination to men.”

The Vatican study points out that all nuns agree to take a vow of obedience, noting, “the teaching of the church calls for the religious submission of intellect and will.”

To remedy the situation, the Vatican said it will appoint an archbishop to oversee the nuns’ organization for as long as the next five years, providing guidance and reviewing plans and programs, including general assemblies and publications.

“The sisters have been grounded,” Johnson says.

The other study, called an Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious, looked into the lifestyle of all American nuns—both at the LCWR and a second, more conservative group, called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. In that study, a superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mother Mary Clare Millea, observed and questioned sisters in 400 institutions across the country, asking questions such as how a nun is disciplined if she doesn’t follow church teachings, according to Johnson. The study has been completed, according to the Vatican; the results have not been released.

Johnson acknowledges that sisters take a vow to obey, but she believes it’s time for the church to modernize.

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“The main complaint is that sisters are thinking for themselves,” she says. “No one says it in those words, but that’s the bottom line: you’re thinking for yourself, and we don’t like that.” She adds, “It’s an election year and bishops are becoming more political. When sisters don’t agree, they sometimes raise their voices. The Catholic Church has long recognized that an individual’s first duty is to obey his or her conscience, but the bishops say that any conscience that conflicts with their teaching is a conscience in error. Any questioning is seen as disloyal, even heretical—bishops aren’t used to being questioned. It’s easy for bishops to get an overblown sense of their own importance.”

She says she finds it ironic that bishops have been calling for religious liberty amid various political debates about contraception and abortion. “But they’re denying their sisters religious liberty,” she says. “They’re saying, ‘You must respect our religious liberty, but we won’t respect yours.’”

Johnson says there are “two different ideas” of what the church is. “First, there’s a hierarchical church that starts with the pope and the bishops, and in this model all truth flows from the top down. Then there’s church as the people of God, where the spirit blows where it will.” She says nuns had “a chance to explore new ideas” at their general assemblies, but now, with a Vatican-appointed overseer, their freedom to explore will be seriously curtailed.

Johnson says she has been in touch with many nuns in the wake of the Vatican crackdown. Their response at first, she says, was shock. “But there is such a sense of centeredness. I get the sense that the sisters are women with vision,” she says. “They aren’t going to be bullied. They’ve stayed with the church out of real conviction, lifelong commitment. They’ve worked through things. They know who they are.”

The sisters of the LCWR released a statement Thursday saying they will meet from May 29 to June 1 to discuss the Vatican study. “The board will conduct its meeting in an atmosphere of prayer, contemplation, and dialogue,” the statement says. “The conference plans to move slowly, not rushing to judgment. We will engage in dialogue where possible and be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We ask your prayer for us and for the Church in this critical time.”

Says Johnson, “They told me that they’ll find some way to be true to themselves.” She adds, “I’m not sure exactly how they’ll do that, with an archbishop over their shoulders, approving or disapproving everything they do, rewriting the rules of their assembly.” Because of church law, she says, the nuns’ options seem limited.

She says she finds the appointment of the archbishop “disrespectful.” Sisters “deserve to be treated as adults,” she says. “The average age of an American sister is 65. They are influential throughout the world. Women look to them, how courageous they are, how they stand with the poor, how they are faithful to the Gospel and to the church. Telling these women what to say and think is insulting.”

Johnson points out that there are more nuns in the U.S. than priests, with 55,944 sisters and 39,466 priests. “But all the institutional power is in the hands of ordained men,” she says. “The Vatican works like a dictatorship. They want blind obedience, as opposed to thoughtful ideas. The bishops insist that a faithful Catholic must submit to them. But people need to be able to think for themselves, and the church needs insight from all quarters if it’s going to grow.”

Of course, women don’t have to sign up.

Johnson says she did it because she “wanted to belong to a group that was significant.” She recalls, “I was convinced that my life could best be spent in loving service of the poor who needed it most, but I never expected I wouldn’t be allowed to bring my intelligence and creativity to my work. When I joined the Missionaries of Charity, my sister cried all night, telling me I was wasting my life.”

She adds, “I might still be a sister if I had joined a more progressive group. I didn’t see the point in remaining in a group that didn’t want anything of me but my obedience. Rebuilding my life after 20 years in the convent wasn’t easy. But knowing that I can now make any contribution I want to make, that I am free to think my own thoughts, establish my own relationships, get to know my family again—there’s a new love and truth and fidelity there that I didn’t have when obedience was the primary virtue.”

She notes that the church could modernize if it wanted. “It’s not like the teaching of the church has never changed,” she says. “At one point the church was behind slavery.”