It seems a big-time scholar of Jewish law asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus said, Hey, you're the lawyer; what does the law say? Love God, love your neighbor, answers the scholar. Fine, Jesus says with a shrug. Do that and you're in. The lawyer staves off embarrassment by retorting, Well, OK, who is my neighbor?
Jesus responds by telling the Good Samaritan parable: A traveler is robbed, beaten, and left to die. While people like the scholar cross the street to avoid the victim, a wretched Samaritan stops and helps him. Jesus finishes the story by asking, in effect, Who "neighbored" that man in need?
The sisters say they are "missioned" to "neighbor" people who fall on hard times. They go on to say that our government should also do some of that neighboring, or at least not cut the amount of neighboring it does now. If you spend all your time with really poor people, I guess your mind gets a little warped like that.
The Catholic bishops have recently made news by suggesting that the sisters are guilty of radical feminism, insufficient opposition to abortion, and excessive questioning of the bishops' teaching authority. The Vatican concurrently attacked two scholarly American sisters for their books on theology and morality: Sister Margaret A. Farley, one of the first Catholics to teach at Yale Divinity School, and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose vivacious writings on the "living God" have enticed Catholics to discuss the nature of God without falling asleep.
These scholars are part of a distinguished tradition of Christian thinkers whose works have threatened the traditional moorings of church authority at different times throughout history. Paul of Tarsus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner — all these geniuses were suspect in their day, and all ultimately became part of those traditional moorings. Ours could well be the age when St. Paul's prophecy comes true: "In the kingdom, there is neither male nor female."
My friend Marisa Guerin joined the "Nuns on the Bus" tour on Saturday morning, when it stopped at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, at the corner of 20th and Venango Streets in Philadelphia. She described the rally as an upbeat meeting of a few smiling nuns and about a hundred smiling locals. The locals listened to Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the social-justice lobby Network, who recently got comedian Stephen Colbert to exclaim in frustration, "I'm not going to debate the Gospel with a nun. It's not fair."
It sure isn't. During the bus tour, congressmen hid under desks in state after state to avoid that debate. But I don't think it's a debate we can or should avoid.
What they learned
When Sister Simone Campbell noticed that Catholic nuns suddenly had a high profile in the mainstream media, she could have used her unexpected celebrity in a number of ways. If she had gone on tour to defend women religious in the United States, many would have applauded her.
Instead, she carried on with a tour for the poor, the vulnerable, and others at the margins of our society. When she had a particularly potent voice, she chose to speak for the voiceless among us. That is reflexive for her and her fellow women religious. It is what they have always done, so why should this moment move them to act differently?
More than a century ago, bishops called nuns to cities teeming with Catholic immigrants and asked them to teach and uplift. They did. They asked them to staff and run clinics and hospitals, many in the harshest parts of our expanding country. They did. They asked them to enter cloisters and spend their entire lives in prayer and fasting for our sinful world. They did that as well.
In the process of educating, the nuns became educated, and they struck out to tell the world that we can expect much more of women than many thought. In the process of tending to immigrants and the sick, they came to identify with the suffering and the marginalized, and they struck out to tell the world that we can feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted. And in the process of ceaseless, silent prayer for us, they heard a whisper of hope for humankind, if only we would break our bread and share our cup. And then they got on a bus to tell us what they had learned.
I think they have earned a moment of our attention.
Orlando R. Barone is a freelance writer who lives in Doylestown. He can be reached at email@example.com.