Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, speaks during a stop of a 9-state Nuns on the Bus tour, June 18, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo)

These days I find myself in the awkward position of defending nuns. It’s awkward because after 12 years of parochial school, I left the church and have rarely looked back with any affection for the experience or the sisters who taught me.

In first grade I developed a rapid-blink facial tic and had horrific dreams about boiling in oil and having my eyes plucked out, like the Christian martyrs the nuns extolled as role models. For minor infractions like talking out of turn, kids were forced to don baby bonnets and were paraded through classrooms to the jeering laughter of their peers, like Chinese political prisoners made to wear dunce caps during the revolution.

When I saw “The Magdalene Sisters,” the 2002 film about the psychological abuse of female inmates at the hands of Irish nuns, it felt like a documentary to me. Especially when one of the nuns got nose to nose with an inmate and asked in a high, witchy voice: “are ye an eejit, then?”

I wasn’t called an “eejit,” (an idiot) but I was continually told I was “bold” for asking questions or speaking before I was spoken to. “You are bold, Miss Leone”, was the daily invective hurled at me in those days. “Bold” wasn’t a virtue then, it was the hallmark of an insurgent who questioned authority. And along with reading forbidden books, seeing films condemned by the Legion of Decency or not memorizing the catechism, it was a punishable offense.

The author at her first communion. Despite her complicated feelings about the church, ironically, she has been cast four times in her acting career as a nun, most recently as Sister Ricarda in “The Three Stooges.” (Photo courtesy of Marianne Leone)

I learned about the outside world and about social activism not from the nuns, but from Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan and Simone de Beauvoir. I became a committed and effective activist after I had a severely disabled son and had to fight for his right to be regarded as fully human.

In June of this year, a band of Catholic nuns mounted a 14-day bus tour to protest Republican federal budget proposals that included steep reductions in programs that assist the poor, the elderly and the disabled. These courageous sisters were attacked by the church hierarchy for living according to the vows they took to relieve human suffering. This most recent rebuke comes after the Vatican issued an April report criticizing the Leadership Council of Women Religious for focusing too much on social justice and not enough on abortion and same-sex marriage. The priests in charge, who presumably took the same vows as the nuns, chose to focus their wrath on these sisters who work on the front lines of poverty, in the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters and other places that rarely hear the swish of a soutane.

Earlier this month in Charlotte, in a speech before the Democratic National Convention, the nuns’ spokeswoman, Sister Simone Campbell, received thunderous audience applause when she said, “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are correct when they say that each individual should be responsible. But their budget goes astray in not acknowledging that we are responsible not only for ourselves and our immediate families. Rather, our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another… I am my sister’s keeper. I am my brother’s keeper.”

Let me join the enthusiastic applause of that audience. I may not have learned about social activism from my parochial school teachers, but I recognize it when I see it. To each Catholic nun who is challenging the status quo, I say, you are bold, Sister. Keep challenging the false authority of those who diminish the lives of the marginalized. My now-unblinking, ex-Catholic eyes are wide with admiration for you and your cause.

Tags: Election 2012, Religion

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  • Karen Agostini

    AMEN! These Sisters are practicing Catholicism as it SHOULD be.

  • Tom DeSimone

    The true message of Jesus has been co-opted and manipulated so many times by so many demagogues that his words have actually become weapons. It’s nice to see that they are finally being understood and put into practice.

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  • Mary G.

    A wonderful piece…thoughtful and succinct!

  • Mary Somoza

    So well written and memory provoking for this Irish Catholic. I agree that the nuns are the front line warriors in the fight against poverty, and supporting our most vulnerable members of society. Paul Ryan, as an Irish American Catholic, seems to have forgotten both his upbringing and what Catholics are supposed to represent.

  • Paul O’Brien

    Ah, you must have missed this message from the a “false authority who diminishes the lives of the marginalized,”:

  • Fontaine

    Excellent article. I also can’t believe the Vatican criticizes these truly Christian nuns after all the years it simply relocated abusive priests who did, (and still do), unthinkable damage to children everywhere.

  • betty

    I worked at Rosie’s Place a shelter for homeless women in Boston in the 1980s. While there I worked along side many wonderful women and several of those women where Catholic nuns. They too where “bold women” who had worked the world over to provide for and speak for the disenfranchised. I’m an ex Catholic but these women became role models for me. Three cheers for the nuns on the bus.

  • AbusedByNun

    And nuns have sexually abused kids, teens, and vulnerable adults. And the nuns have refused to reach out to their victims or work collectively to prevent sexual abuse.


  • Elizabeth Segran Schneer

    “The Magdalene Sisters” wasn’t about inmates – it was about women who had had children out of wedlock, thereby becoming pariahs.

    • Jim Boyson

      Not so, ESS. As an Irishman of the vintage of the Magdalene Asylums, let me assure you that they were most certainly inmates. They were not free to come and go as they pleased – far from it! The language of the time was abundantly clear: they were inmates, plain and simple. (And although the psychiatric care facilities had already dumped “Lunatic Asylum” in favour of “Mental Hospital”, the popular mind had no difficulty in making the connection between the two asylums.

      Some girls found themselves in the hands of the nuns as a result of a judicial determination, either youth court or “social services” tribunal. Others were sent there by their disgraced families and had no means to escape. Still others ended up in the asylum because of petty crime or prostitution. A common tactic to escape a criminal conviction was to tell the district court judge that you were prepared to have yourself placed “under the care of the Sisters”. The District Court would apply the discretionary Probation Act on condition that you presented yourself at the gates of the Asylum. But don’t lose the run of yourself, Elizabeth: “An inmate once, an inmate forever!”, as one of my aunts once hissed, on seeing a released “Strap”, walking, bold as brass, through the streets of my home town.

  • Pointpanic

    It just shows how complex the Catholic church is. These wonderful nuns are a far cry from the authoritarian Vatican loyalists