Women on a mission: Joining “nuns” in care for the poor

Catholic Voices
When the church gets you down, you can always serve the poor.

I met Sister Maura on my first night working in an overnight shelter on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Already nearly 80, she worked two evenings a week organizing and distributing donated clothing to the men who bedded down in a local Lutheran church basement. Over the years Sister Maura had been been a schoolteacher, principal, and pastoral associate; now she was spending her remaining energies supporting a fellow Sister of Notre Dame de Namur’s work among Chicago’s down-and-out. Still sharp as a tack—and occasionally sharp of tongue—she seemed never to tire of the work she felt called to do.

For all her service, only a handful of U.S. Catholics have heard of Sister Maura; she is but one of thousands of women who have created the charitable, educational, and social service infrastructure of the Catholic Church in this country. Women like her have long been on the leading edge of service to those in need, first to European immigrants, orphans, women, African and Native Americans, and now to victims of human trafficking and domestic violence and those with HIV and AIDS.

That service and witness has won for women religious—as we now call “the nuns”—a place of honor in the hearts of most Catholics, and many reacted with dismay when Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) announced in April the results of a “doctrinal inquiry” into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella organization representing about 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. women religious.

Among the findings, the CDF cited “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” and “the absence of initiatives by the LCWR aimed at promoting” church teaching on women’s ordination and homosexuality. To remedy these perceived deficiencies, the CDF put the LCWR into Vatican receivership and gave three U.S. bishops charge over the workings of the organization.


Protest erupted from many corners; one group led by the lay organization Call to Action delivered 57,000 signatures in support of sisters to the June meeting of the U.S. bishops. The Vatican action drew attention from all corners of the media as well—Catholic and secular alike—with many styling it a “Roman crackdown” against “the nuns.”

The sisters, however, by and large went on with their work among women, children, and the very poor. Network, a Catholic social justice lobby with ties to the LCWR, launched a nine-state “Nuns on the Bus” tour to draw attention to what federal budget cuts to the social safety net are doing to the poor.

Network’s director, Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, took her gospel message about serving those on the margins of society even to Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. For Campbell and many other women religious, the British wartime slogan “Keep calm and carry on” seems to be the order of the day.

While it may be tempting to be drawn into the institutional machinations surrounding the Vatican action against LCWR, the example of Campbell and the sisters is perhaps the better path. There is a place for protest and for public statements of support, but given the relative imperviousness of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops to feedback, those energies could find better use in the trenches and on the edges, with the people among whom so many women religious have spent their vocations.


At the turn of the 20th century, the French Catholic priest and theologian Alfred Loisy famously noted, “Jesus came preaching the kingdom, and what arrived was the church.” That bit of wit (and what came after) eventually got him excommunicated in 1908, but his insight remains: The inner workings of the church can sometimes get in the way of its mission to announce the good news to a world in dire need of it. Rather than get drawn into the drama of church politics, our time would be better spent redoubling our efforts with the Sister Mauras of the world.

This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 8, page 8).

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