Essay — From the August 2014 issue

Francis and the Nuns

Is the new Vatican all talk?

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A year ago this month, Pope Francis gave a long interview to Antonio Spadaro, the editor in chief of an Italian Jesuit journal called La Civiltà Cattolica. Francis was just a few months into his papacy at the time, and the interview — published simultaneously by more than a dozen Jesuit outlets — was for many people around the world their introduction to the first Latin-American pontiff. The interview is long and complex, but a few words were quoted everywhere. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Francis told Spadaro. “When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church . . . is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

Two nuns watch Pope Francis celebrate mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on his first day as the new pontiff © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Two nuns watch Pope Francis celebrate mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on his first day as the new pontiff © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

This may not sound like much — it was, after all, a shift in emphasis, not in doctrine — but coupled with subsequent statements about the evil of inequality, the pope’s words suggested the possibility of a new era for the Church, one in which economic justice would take precedence over divisive social issues. Perhaps the most important change was tonal: the punitive, absolutist cadences of John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been replaced by gentle, openhearted language. Progressives both in the Church and outside it celebrated the development. Suddenly, the world had a new apostolic heartthrob: Francis was Time magazine’s Person of the Year and the cover boy for Rolling Stone.

One group in particular may have taken special note of the pope’s remarks. At least since the priesthood was first shaken by the sexual-abuse scandal two decades ago, and perhaps even before then, America’s nuns have been the de facto leaders of the country’s liberal Catholics, especially those more interested in social justice than in holding the Vatican’s line on sexual politics. Like Francis himself, these women have been reprimanded for failing to give sufficient attention to abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. Their choice to focus instead on the needs of the poor has been met with heavy-handed behavior both from Rome and from U.S. bishops. In recent years, two separate Vatican bureaucracies have launched investigations of American nuns. If the new pope were serious about shifting the Church’s attention, one sign might be his treatment of these women. They are a mainstay in inner-city schools and hospitals; they are an important presence in shelters for the homeless and for victims of domestic violence; they minister in prisons and in various venues that serve the mentally ill. They carry the heaviest loads. But a year and a half into his papacy, Pope Francis is looking an awful lot like his predecessors.

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is the author of seventeen books, including a study of the Gospels and a biography of Joan of Arc. Her new collection of novellas, The Liar’s Wife, is being published this month by Pantheon. She teaches at Barnard College.

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