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Mark Oppenheimer explores the two worlds of American religious sisters on  Religion & Politics  today. Though he lets the women speak for themselves and is sympathetic to them all—-the nuns were “among the best people [he] had met in a long time,” and “smart, cheerful, and authentic”—-the piece contains a couple false dichotomies.

Oppenheimer visited two religious orders, one a member of the older, more liberal Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the other part of the younger, more conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

I’ve had relatives in both LCWR and CMSWR orders, and I know impressive and generous women in each. Oppenheimer, though, struggles to understand the young nuns who, he tells us, are “more interested in purity” than “messy intellectual complexity.” This description is odd on a couple levels: Is he really saying traditional Catholic theology is  less  intellectually complex than rival theological systems, or that a life of purity is somehow opposed to the life of the mind? An elementary familiarity with Church history should disabuse you of those notions pretty quickly. And anyway, when the complex intellectual exploration of the LCWR ends in Barbara Marx Hubbard, can we really call it intellectual?

Much more significant is this scene in his discussion with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville:

After lunch I sat in a living room and talked with about a dozen young sisters. They resisted my insinuation that they cared only about the church’s “conservative” positions. “If you don’t care about the dignity of the human person, it makes no sense to talk about education or war in Iraq,” said Sister Hannah, an African-American woman who majored in philosophy at Notre Dame. “So pro-life is foundational that way. But we do care about other issues.”

It appears here and throughout the piece that Oppenheimer (unlike the Dominicans he interviews) buys into the politicized version of Catholic social teaching, in which caring about abortion is at best a rival of, and at worst incompatible with, caring about the poor, or social justice, or war and peace. That some Catholics seem to buy into the same version makes it all the more worth refuting.

Perhaps I should say first that I understand pro-life Catholics’ leeriness of “seamless garment” theory, which (as William Doino has written on this site) can easily be misused  to imply that specific political goals are every bit as foundational to Catholic moral theology as opposition to abortion. It can also become an excuse for devoting one’s energy solely to whatever aspects of Catholic teaching are popular or politically expedient at the time.

Yet it’s very much the case that our efforts to protect the unborn and our efforts to help the poor spring from the same teachings about the dignity of every human being and the duties entailed in upholding that dignity. The unborn and the poor do not compete for our attention; they each deserve our attention because they are all human beings whose lives should be as sacred to us as our own.

Moreover, in my experience (contra Oppenheimer’s perception), nowhere is this consistent ethic of life more deeply recognized—-in a way that defies conventional political categories—-than in religious orders. Thus the very nuns who fight abortion do so by helping the poor.

A Franciscan priest whom any journalist would describe as “conservative” says things that sound very un-conservative indeed, like “A culture of selfishness, individualism, looking out for number one is not good for the common good. It’s not good for the (market) economy  and  not good for the economy of love . . . . Greed isolates us. Selfishness becomes loneliness.”

And a Benedictine priest I know—-also one who could be called conservative—-has remarked that it’s a pity the U.S. spends billions of dollars on wars overseas when there’s so much poverty on our shores.

It should be obvious that to understand how religious orders live out Catholic social teaching, one must go beyond America’s political divides. Which is awfully hard for journalists to do.

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