The Catholic Church is having a moment. The information emerging almost daily about the pope's involvement in covering up sexual abuse by priests comes on top of the failed recent stonewalling of health care reform by U.S bishops over abortion. None of this has endeared the church to the American left. Nuns, though, have been an exception. In the run-up to passage of the health care bill, representatives of the nearly 60,000 U.S. nuns signed a letter in support of the health care bill, contra the bishops, because, they wrote, supporting better health care is "the real pro-life stance." From there, the dominoes toppled fast—Bart Stupak, the Catholic pro-life Democrat who'd refused to vote in favor of the bill because of the abortion question, initially dismissed the nuns' letter but then backed down and settled for an executive order on abortion of questionable import and scope. And the bill passed.
Had the nuns helped make this possible? Pro-choice bloggers are giving them "serious props." Maureen Dowd, the id of establishment Washington (not to mention former Catholic schoolgirls of a certain stripe), swooned for their "bravura decision," which she saw as instrumental in "giving Democrats cover" morally. She even dizzily suggested that the church should redeem itself by appointing a "nope"—nun as pope. For liberal Catholics disenchanted with the church, the nuns' letter looks like a welcome feminist upswell from within one of the world's most patriarchal organizations. Nuns are suddenly sort of rad, even if the full picture is also more complicated.
Nuns are quite literally a dying breed. Especially in America, where the median age of sisters has been inching up toward the 70s, and the number of nuns plummeted from about 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 60,000 in 2009. This is a far sharper drop than the number of priests. When I wrote a story a few years ago for my college newspaper about young men who wanted to enter the priesthood, I intended to include aspiring nuns, but couldn't find a single one at a Jesuit school with a student body that was half-Catholic. (My most devout friend once told me she used to pray daily that God wouldn't call her.) The women's movement has played a role in the declining appeal of the habit. Nowadays, a Catholic woman can do the same work as a layperson she would do as a nun (and taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience doesn't grant her the privilege of celebrating mass, of course). In a 2002 article in the Atlantic, author Mary Gordon asked a nun who'd taught her in high school what, exactly nuns could do that other women could not. Her reply: "NOTHING. If anything, there are more strictures on nuns than laywomen."
The nuns' health care letter might suggest that the ones who are left are increasingly left-leaning. That's probably true of the older leadership. The women now heading their orders, as well as Catholic schools and hospitals, were formed in the crucible of Vatican II as the church shifted its emphasis toward engagement with the modern world. Over the past half-century or so, many American nuns have certainly become less cloistered. They have shed their habits in daily life and stuck with their given names rather than calling themselves, say, Sister St. Thaddeus. Some work as academics or social workers. While earlier generations romanticized the life of a sheltered bride of Christ, Mother Teresa has become these nuns' ideal.
But that's not as true of the shrinking pool of women who are becoming nuns now. Like their priestly male counterparts, the women who now take vows tend to be far more conservative than those who entered a generation or two ago, say clergy who shepherd young people through the process of discernment (figuring out whether you are called to a religious vocation). Becoming a nun or a priest means swimming harder and harder against the cultural tides. The church itself is doubling down on traditionalism, too, attracting novices who share those values. Today, contemplative nuns—those who devote themselves to a cloistered life of prayer—are younger on average than the active nuns who work in schools and hospitals and among the poor. This suggests that the women signing up for the religious life nowadays are more interested in connecting with heaven than earth.
This could mean that the older generation of progressive leaders gives way to a quite different group. But for now, the progressives are in power, and they harnessed in favor of the health care bill the mystique, a gravity, and accordance of respect that taking the veil still commands. If 60,000 deeply religious Catholic women had signed that same letter in favor of health care reform, the act of defiance just wouldn't have resonated in the same way.
Who are the nuns who spearheaded the letter on health care and abortion? Sister Simone Campbell, a lawyer who heads the social justice advocacy organization Network, drafted and circulated the letter. It was meant to echo a similar one submitted to Congress days earlier by the Catholic Health Association, a lobbying group for Catholic Hospitals. The CHA is led by Sister Carol Keehan, a member of the Daughters of Charity who, in 2007, was the first woman to top Modern Health's list of powerful people in health care. She represents the incredibly accomplished, highly educated nuns whom we've come to think of as cool. President Obama apparently thinks so, too—he gave her one of the 22 pens he used to sign the bill. Keehan, 65, brokered an early, instrumental deal for the nation's hospitals, Catholic and not, to forgo billions of dollars of future Medicare and Medicaid payments. She is pro-life, but she also said early on that health care shouldn't be about the abortion debate and that the Senate bill, without the Stupak amendment, was adequate. For nuns like Keehan, who run hospitals and schools and homeless shelters and see the devastating impact of the systemic breakdown every day, arguments like this one about how improving health care can reduce abortion rates also probably have an appealing logic.