Catholic nuns reconcile their faith and identities

By CHAEBIN JEON | November 1, 2018

I attended a reading at the Ivy Bookshop Saturday, Oct. 27 led by current and former Catholic nuns. They and their editors were promoting a new book called Unruly Catholic Nuns, a collection of poetry, autobiography and short fiction.

The book discusses the role of women in the Catholic Church. According to the book’s introduction,“unruliness presents itself in two ways: first, in terms of how Sisters and former Sisters challenge cultural hegemonies and governmental policies or regimes; and, second, in regard to how they challenge the church itself.”

Walking in to the Ivy Bookshop, the room was packed all around the writers and their editors. The editors — Jeana DelRosso, Leigh Eicke and Ana Kothe — introduced their four writers — Jeannine Gramick, Pat Montley, Patricia M. Dwyer and Jane Morrissey. 

There was an undeniable sense of reverence in the room — perhaps this was because of the presence of nuns and former nuns, or perhaps because of the stories that were being told, all of which were about personal doubt, reflection and active work in and against the Catholic Church.

Sister Jeannine Gramick read from “God Shoes,” a section of the book which describes her engagement with LGBTQ Catholics and her difficulties with activism in a church that found her work against doctrine. In Unruly Catholic Nuns, she criticized what she saw as an unbending, outdated church hierarchy and dogma, which did not allow dissent. She calls for people to stand in solidarity for LGBTQ Catholics and for Catholics to employ dissent and nonviolent resistance to what she considers unjust doctrine.

In 1960, Pat Montley got her B.A. in English at Notre Dame of Maryland University and entered its convent. She met Jeannine Gramick there, who has been a close friend since. She entered a masters program for theology at Notre Dame, and it was there that she became aware of authoritarianism in the Church, political dynamics that shaped doctrine, canonical selection, the misogyny of Church fathers and how common the experience of religious transcendence was across world religions. After returning to Notre Dame, she began to focus on writing plays and became disillusioned with her Catholic faith. Because of theological and sociological doubts, as both a feminist and a lesbian, Montley decided to leave the Catholic Church. She is now a member of a Unitarian Universalist church in downtown Baltimore. According to her piece in the book, her new church and the theater provide her with the same things that Catholicism provided — mythological narratives, ritual and community. 

Former nun Patricia M. Dwyer read from “Timing,” a personal essay from her memoir. “Timing” highlights important points in Dwyer’s life: Part One describes her joining her convent and Part Two details the turbulence of her inner life. After realizing that she was a lesbian, Dwyer felt guilty for continuing to lead the public life of a nun while at the same time struggling with an inwardly tortured romantic life. After she came out to her family and was readily embraced, Dwyer earned a Ph.D and taught religion at a college level. She eventually decided that she could not remain a Catholic when the institution excluded and marginalized her. 

In her poem “& The Truth Shall Set U Free,” Sister Jane Morrissey writes about her work as a nun, getting her Ph.D and then her SSJ and working with other Sisters in different organizations. Morrissey spent five years going back and forth between Baltimore and Guatemala in the 80s, studying Spanish and Kaqchikel — an indigenous language — before publishing a trilingual book containing stories featuring Latin-American and Mayan narrators called Gracias, Matiox, Thanks, Hermano Pedro: A Trilingual Anthology of Guatemalan Oral Tradition. She served as president of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Springfield, Mass. and, during her term, protested against the call for war in Iraq. She was later arrested.

There is one quote from Pat Montley’s section of the book that still sticks with me: “The unruly life is not a comfortable one, but for me it is the only honest one.”

Unruly Catholic Nuns is available for sale at the Ivy Bookshop and on the SUNY Press webstore.

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