Sisterhood Is Powerful

The World Would Go to Hell Without Nuns

They battle in boardrooms, break into nuclear facilities, and contend in Ironman competitions. And while their numbers are shrinking, these sisters rock their worlds.

Martin San/Getty

How dark a world would we live in without nuns?

It’s not a question bandied about the dinner table too often these days, when nuns have become more of a curiosity.

Yet that question, and its sad answer, hangs over If Nuns Ruled the World, by Jo Piazza.

The book shares the stories of 10 courageous nuns, all fighting fights at an advanced age that few others would dare.

There is the story of Sister Megan Rice, who has fought for decades against nuclear proliferation, and at 82 is serving a prison sentence for breaking into a nuclear facility. Piazza talks to Sister Madonna Buder, the “Iron Nun,” who is the oldest person to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon. Sister Norah Nash, who scraps with corporate America over income inequality, dishes on meeting with Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. The book also chronicles the work of Sister Maureen Fiedler, who champions the ERA amendment, and Sister Donna Quinn, who operates as an abortion clinic escort for young women besieged by angry protesters.

The book is not without tearjerkers. Readers may find it hard to get through the stories of Sister Dianna Mae Ortiz, an anti-torture activist who was raped and tortured in Guatemala, or Sister Joan Dawber, who operates a safe house for trafficking victims. Sister Tesa Fitzgerald’s work with women in prisons and Sister Jeannine Gramick’s efforts on behalf of LGBT rights are equally affecting.

And, of course, Piazza talks to the now well-known Sister Simone Campbell, who was the force behind Nuns on the Bus challenging Paul Ryan in the 2012 election.

“He spent most of his time trying to impress me,” Campbell tells Piazza about a meeting with Ryan. Apparently, Ryan tried bragging about how he sleeps in a cot in his office—to a nun. “He just really lives inside his own head. It is so sad,” she explains.

The book’s conceit is pretty straightforward. These are the celebrities of the nun world, and here is their story.

Piazza is an unlikely standard bearer for these Catholic women. She is agnostic and a firm supporter for gay rights and birth control.

“I was doing a master’s in religion studies at NYU, which I was doing while I was a celebrity gossip columnist,” says Piazza in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I had nuns in high school, I was interested in them. I came across a lot of nuns on Twitter, and I started writing my thesis on how nuns use social media.”

While researching the nuns, Piazza explains, “I kept hearing these remarkable stories about Catholic nuns. These nuns were doing such amazing things, such out-of-the-box things that broke all the stereotypes everyone I know held about nuns, and the stories weren’t being told.”

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As she was researching, the Vatican launched its inquiry into the activities of American nuns, and the priest sex abuse scandal continued to dominate headlines.

“I kept thinking, wow, nobody is telling the real story, which is all the good these women are doing,” says Piazza.

The hypothetical posed by the book’s title is catchy, but unlikely, to say the least. Instead, as Piazza covers these women, what is apparent is that their unique way of life leaves them unencumbered with the attachments of husbands, wives, or children. Sister Megan’s work breaking into nuclear facilities might merit more caution if a young one was at home.

“They would not be able to devote themselves so completely to service if they had a husband or kids,” asserts Piazza. “The fact that they don’t have those things allows them to live this very authentic life dedicated to the people who live at the margins of society and the causes they are fighting for.”

But even as this book celebrates these women and their work, it is also a lamentation for a life on its way out.

“These nuns are a dying breed, they’re an endangered species,” Piazza says. “I find it heartbreaking that they’re diminishing in number.”

The question that Piazza encountered most often while working on this project (and the one I suspect that comes up most frequently when discussing nuns) is why? Why give up sex, a husband, children, and in some cases, material goods?

“They don’t look at it like that at all. Everyone sees it as giving something up, those things as something you’re supposed to do,” Piazza confides. “They’re like, we wrote our own script. We chose exactly what we wanted, instead of following the ‘I need to have a husband, I need to have a baby’ script. We got to choose exactly what we wanted to do in life.”

Anybody looking to argue there is a place for Catholicism in the modern world should just stand on a street corner handing out Piazza’s book. By sharing the chills-inducing tales of the women toiling in ways most of us could never fathom, she has given oxygen to that flickering flame that is the Church’s reputation in the U.S.