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Sister Hell

Of all the articles I have written, this is the saddest. It is a story of deception and intolerance within the Church, of silencing dissent by star-chamber tactics, of the refusal of those in power to engage in dialogue, and of an apparently deliberate attempt to discredit someone who voiced an unpopular viewpoint.

No, I am not speaking of a repressive Church hierarchy that squelches free inquiry. In my sixteen years as a Catholic, I have found priests and bishops to be anything but repressive.

The suppression of dissent (and its subsequent cover-up) happened on the Internet, in a discussion group about “the history and contemporary concerns of women religious” with the innocuous-sounding name “Sister-L.” [The “L” stands for “list,” since such discussions are sent via electronic mail to all who add their names to a particular mailing list. Subscribers post messages, or “posts,” which are read and replied to by all other subscribers; a kind of ongoing written conversation is conducted via computer. In fact, many conversations-called “threads”-take place at once. Participants join in the threads that interest them.] 

I should begin by telling a little about myself to help you understand why I first signed on to the list in 1995. 

A convert to Catholicism in 1980, I was strongly attracted to religious life — but, after much prayer and spiritual direction, I realized my first obligation must be to my son, who was then eight years old. With a view to the future, however, I placed my marriage case before the tribunal, and a decree of nullity was granted in 1983. Meanwhile I looked into secular institutes. Not finding one to which I felt called, I joined the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (third order) as an isolated member.

After my son was grown and had been on his own for a couple of years, I looked in earnest for a religious community. I visited and corresponded with a number of houses, finally entering a Carmelite monastery for a “live-in.” At the end of three months, candidates are sent away; later they may formally ask for admission. In my case, the prioress felt I should complete my doctoral dissertation before applying foradmission. Possibly she did not realize the consequences of that request. Several years later, the dissertation is still under construction, while the debt incurred in working on it now bars me from entering any novitiate. 

High-Heeled Sandals?

It was against this background that I discovered the Sister-L list last fall. I was grieving the loss of monastic life. I was also exploring secular institutes again. I hoped that others on the list might share ideas and experiences that could help me.

The Sister-L sign-on information asks that you post a brief introduction. I did, saying pretty much what I have said here. I mentioned that I would like to find an orthodox community which might consider a woman of my age, asked if others had faced the problem of repaying outstanding student loans, and joked in passing (with the sideways smiley-face 🙂 that indicates humor online) that I’d prefer an order where the nuns don’t wear high heels.

That offhand remark sprang from an actual experience in a “cloistered” monastery: laypeople — men and women — are allowed in the nuns’ choir, the nuns often go out, and on Sunday they — dressed in street clothes — assist at Mass in their public chapel rather than in their own oratory. I was stunned to see one of them on the altar in a floral print dress and high heels.)

The humorous comment, intended to indicate the sort of community I was not looking for, sparked a firestorm. Back came angry messages demanding to know just what was wrong with nuns in high heels and chiding me for being “judgmental.” Instead of hearing diverse opinions expressed respectfully, I found myself the object of a frenzied attack.

Quite unknowingly, I had wandered into a nest of rabidly “progressive” Catholics and incited their self-righteous ire. Too late I learned that their frequent appeals for “tolerance” and “dialogue” applied only to those with similar heterodox views. Instead of Roman Catholicism, their underlying belief system appeared to be secular feminism, theological liberalism, and political correctness. In fact, not all of the list subscribers are sisters, nor even Catholics; the unifying principle is rather a desire to see “FutureChurch” or “WomanChurch” or the “American Church” replace Catholicism in the United States — indeed, the world. 

Out of the Habit

The high-heels remark led to the broader topic of religious habits. None who voiced an opinion favored them — indeed, they advanced reasons against religious wearing any sort of distinctive garb. It always connotes power, they said.

I asked if the orange jumpsuits worn by jail inmates connote “power.” Uniforms, in themselves, are neutral, I said; they are merely a means of identification.

Others complained that traditional habits are expensive, hot, and difficult to maintain. Besides, they were a means by which the patriarchal Church kept women enslaved.

It was then that I committed an unpardonable sin. I quoted the Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis, which states that religious are to wear a distinctive habit suited to their climate and culture. I could understand, I said, why they might want to modify the habit, but was it necessary to abandon it altogether?

In response, I was upbraided for my audacity in questioning the sisters on the list, many of whom, I was told, are experts in their fields and hold advanced degrees. 

I answered that I, too, hold an advanced degree — but that I didn’t think one was required to pose a question on an Internet list.

During the whole of this “discussion,” I was bombarded with public and private messages calling me uncharitable, disruptive, and judgmental. Remember, all this started simply because I asked for help in finding an orthodox religious community.

Fortunately, I also received private messages apologizing for the aggressive posts and offering support and encouragement.

A few messages criticized the length and number of my posts — although as far as I could tell, they were neither longer nor more numerous than those of others. I did limit mine, however; I had no wish to annoy anyone. 

Attila the Nun

Nevertheless, without warning I received notice from one of the listowners, [A listowner, responsible for overseeing an Internet discussion group, is usually the group’s founder. He handles maintenance of the mail list, software, and other technical matters. He may or may not also be the list’s moderator, who enforces conference rules and keeps the discussion on track.] Sister Ritamary Bradley, professor emerita at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, that I had been put on “review” status — meaning that anything I wrote would have to be approved by the listowners before it could appear on the list. The “tone” of my messages, rather than their content, was offensive, she said. Immediately I offered to resign from the list if she wished it. I wasn’t there to argue or offend.

I did ask for guidance, since I could find nothing in the conference’s rules that I had violated. No clarification was given — indeed, I received no response at all. In short, Sister Bradley’s action seemed arbitrary and autocratic.

One glimmer of reason arrived in the form of a private message from a member of the Sister-L advisory board saying that he felt I had been shabbily treated for no reason he could see. The list co-owner, Margaret Susan (“Peggy”) Thompson, also privately apologized for Sister Bradley’s surprise move.

I posted a few more messages, quite bland in tone and content, always getting back a notice from the listserver [A listserver is an automated computer program that handles distribution of electronic mail to Internet discussion groups.] that my message had been forwarded to the listowner for “review.” When none of my posts appeared on the list, I wrote to the listowners asking why. Again I offered to sign off the list. I got back a one-sentence message from Sister Bradley saying that she didn’t know anything about my posts.

Concluding (rightly, I think) that the problem was not so much the tone of my posts as their orthodox content, I gave up posting messages. Later, I unsubscribed from Sister-L.

After such a nasty experience, why did I sign on again after my move?

Aside from the fact that one of my chief character traits is optimism, I did find some material of interest on the list. Occasionally someone would post historical information about an order, or notice of a new book on monastic life, or other tidbits relevant to my academic research (I have published a pamphlet on the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne, for example). Then, too, it is the only game in town: I haven’t found another Internet discussion group on consecrated life. 

Mindful of my previous “welcome,” I refrained from posting anything on Sister-L for some time. I just scanned through the messages, looking for the odd interesting post. Before long, however, much of the discussion was focused on the special legislation of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. One of the co-chairs of Call to Action Nebraska forwarded that organization’s press releases to the list. Others responded with calls for a fax attack on the Lincoln diocese and general denunciations of “repressive” clergy. 

Through all this, I kept silent. 

Then one day I read a post I knew to be untrue and unfair. To the best of my recollection, it was a personal attack on the bishop of Lincoln, implying that he was too stupid to understand canon law. In fact, the bishop stood near the head of his graduate class, and colleagues considered him an intellectual star. I also knew he had consulted with other bishops before issuing the legislation. I couldn’t let this cheap shot pass without objection.

I have a reputation for being tactful when necessary, and I honestly tried to be as fair and non-combative as possible in responding to the unwarranted attack — and to the barrage of angry reactions my post provoked. Several listmembers wrote to commend my restraint.

When asked, I posted a new self-introduction — including the fact that I was now associate editor of This Rock. I am proud of that; I certainly made no attempt to hide it. In many years online, I’ve seen (and participated in) heated discussions; I welcome open, courteous debate, and I assumed that others (especially those who talk loudly of “plurality”) would, too.

But the extremist “progressive” party line of the list would brook no orthodoxy, however placatingly phrased. Once again, I was accused of being “judgmental,” a “rigid triumphalist” (a term apparently reserved for anyone who believes Catholicism to be the true faith), “harsh,” and out of step with the “spirit of Sister-L.”

One writer went so far as to say he didn’t want any authority over him, that he was offended by being called a sheep (so much for the Good Shepherd), and that, now that Catholics are educated, they can decide doctrinal matters for themselves.

I did not point out that this is an intrinsically un-Catholic position (it weirdly echoes comments by the late Timothy Leary, in fact). I simply made a heartfelt plea that we all pray daily for our priests and bishops and all those in authority, as the Bible tells us to.

While this discussion was going on, I also joined other concurrent threads, including one on feminism. I said that it seemed to me that some Catholic women place the ideals of secular feminism above the teaching of the Church. Is there, I wondered, a genuinely Christian feminism which addresses the very real injustices that women suffer worldwide without demonizing men or violating Catholic teachings? I received some thoughtful responses to this question. Perhaps, I thought, I can survive on Sister-L by choosing my topics (and my words) very carefully. 

Choosing Painfully

Shortly afterward, in a message to a sister who said she wouldn’t be pushed out of the Catholic Church just because she disagrees with some of its teachings, I wrote:

“I am glad you are Catholic. I hope you remain so. No one is trying to ‘push’ you out of the Church. But unless we want to end up like the Anglicans, we’d better start to realize that being a Catholic does mean choosing, at times painfully, the Church over other things, even other apparent goods.”

Now, I grant that I might have been more diplomatic toward the Anglicans. I used them as an example of the generic Protestant approach to church polity that has eroded anything like orthodoxy for most non-Catholic or non-Orthodox Christians. 

Anglicans came to mind because it had just been reported that the U. S. Episcopal Church had determined it could not prosecute retired Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a practicing homosexual, since nothing in his action transgressed the creeds. Even the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer are no longer binding on Anglican clergy, much less laypeople. [Righter, like deposed French Bishop Jacques Gaillot, is a heroic figure on Sister-L. In fact, the more one flouts Church teaching, the greater one’s cachet within that group.]

“Ending up like the Anglicans,” in this context, clearly means (or I intended it to mean) “ending up without a common belief system and a clergy able to articulate it.” Even the interpretation of key phrases in the Creeds, as recited by Protestants, has been so distorted as to mean something different from what the Fathers meant when they composed them. 

Some Anglicans on the list took my remark in that light, and, while they did not agree with it, took no offense. For other listmembers, my passing phrase triggered howls of outrage. I had “insulted” Anglicans. I was “abusive.” 

Never mind that the Holy Father, bishops, priests, traditional religious, and faithful Catholics are regularly insulted and demeaned on this list; never mind that I had been attacked many times solely for stating an orthodox position — or even for questioning a dissenting viewpoint: I was cast as the villain. Several “lurkers” on the list (people who read the discussion, but do not post) wrote to me saying they would love to defend the faith but feared reprisals.

I posted the “Anglican” message over the weekend. When I saw the violent reactions to it, I gathered I had been badly misunderstood. Certainly, I meant no reflection on the sincerity and holiness of individual Anglicans. Monday morning I set about saying so — only to discover that I had been completely barred from posting to Sister-L. 

Shunned and Silenced

Here we pass from Wonderland right through the looking glass. I discovered that, not only was I unable to respond publicly to the storm of indignation my chance phrase had caused, but list co-owner Peggy Thompson, a history professor at Syracuse University, had posted a long, fanciful rationale for silencing me which included unwarranted accusations against both me and Catholic Answers’ director, Karl Keating (see sidebar). In short, I was accused of being a “mole,” an agent provocateur, who was being paid to stir up trouble on Sister-L.

Fantastically, this conspiracy was said to have begun more than year before I had been hired by Catholic Answers, and a full year before my first tenure on Sister-L. The “evidence” for this nefarious plot was that Karl Keating had mentioned the list in This Rock’s “Dragnet” column and had traded e-mail with several listmembers after an article on Sister-L appeared in the National Catholic Reporter in November, 1994. (The truth is, at that time I had never even seen a copy of This Rock — mea maxima culpa.)

It is an ingenious theory, but an outright fabrication. I had no knowledge of Karl’s earlier exchange with the listowners. I was naively unaware of the NCR article (or of a more recent article entitled “Dissenters Gather at Sister-L’s Internet Address”) — I stopped reading that publication (for which I wrote briefly) years ago, when it became clear to me that it did not adhere to basic rules of journalistic fairness and accuracy. As a former newspaper reporter, I am rather keen on those things.

Even if I had known the background, Thompson had absolutely no basis for accusing me of duplicity. My posts had been calm, straightforward expressions of unremarkably orthodox Catholic beliefs (that a bishop has a right to govern his diocese, for example) or simple statements of fact. But “orthodox” is a dirty word among dissenters, and any deviation from feminist, New Age, “NewChurch” dogma is treated as heresy. Worse than heresy, actually, for the Church has been far more patient of heterodox dissent than Sister-L was of plain-vanilla Catholicism. 

The notion that someone else must be “behind” my posts is especially laughable, as thousands who have known me online for the past twelve years, in forums where I moderate or participate, can testify. I have been saying essentially the same things the whole time, since long before I knew Catholic Answers existed. And I’ve never needed any prodding to say them.

What irony! Those who devote whole careers to feminist theory (Thompson teaches in the Women’s Studies program at Syracuse, for example) assume a male mastermind must be back of a woman’s ideas. I hadn’t run into that sort of sexism for twenty years. 

Talkin’ Trash

I was reminded of an article in Ms. magazine in the 1970s on the phenomenon of “trashing,” of women defaming other women (usually by underhanded means) to advance a particular viewpoint while discrediting that of their opponents.

That’s exactly what happened here. Thompson warned the list’s 860-odd members that I would probably use messages posted on Sister-L in This Rock  without permission. They had, they said, felt it necessary to consult several lawyers to “protect” listmembers from me. Unintentional comedy, since messages posted in a public forum are, for legal purposes, published; they are available for fair use exactly as any other published material. In any case, Thompson had no grounds to assume I intended to quote Sister-L posts in the magazine; frankly, I wouldn’t want to repeat many of them.

Still, I believed that the situation might be resolved once the listowners knew the truth — that’s what we all want, right? I sent a private message to Thompson and Bradley; it is reproduced here (see sidebar). Many of the messages on Sister-L extol the virtues of dialogue and openness; surely, in simple justice, the listowners would want to correct the false impression they had given. 

I sent them daily messages for a week, asking that they at least forward to the list my explanation of the “Anglican” comment. I no longer wanted to participate in the discussion — it was obviously a waste of time. But I did want to clear up the false accusations. Some of my messages reflected the deep pain and indignation I felt — for myself, yes, but also because Catholic Answers and This Rock had been unfairly characterized.

I never received a reply.

At the end of the week, I did get a message from another listmember, obviously at Peggy’s instigation, advising me to “let go” of the matter and “get on with [my] life.” My life was going great guns, thank you very much, but that did not remedy the injustice.

Hardest to accept was seeing the untruths repeated and amplified by other listmembers — who, after all, were only allowed to see Peggy’s unsupported detraction — without being able to respond publicly. The “Anglican” remark continued to draw fire, and some people obviously thought I had refused to post an apology. 

There was a flood of messages thanking Peggy and Ritamary for saving the list from the terrible conspiracy. One speculated that I might be mentally unbalanced (because I had mentioned having experienced some abuse as an adult).

Saddest of all was a message from a Carmelite nun I have met and corresponded with implying that I was either being paid to disrupt the list or I must be defrauding my employer by posting on company time. This nun has never replied to several e-mail messages I have sent her. 

Here and there, a lone voice was raised asking whether censorship was the appropriate response to disagreement, but without effect.

After a week, I received identical messages from Thompson and Bradley, asking me not to write to them again. (I haven’t.) And I soon discovered that I was barred even from reading the posts on Sister-L: I had become the first person ever banished from that self-styled oasis of justice, dialogue, compassion, and openness — and all without so much as the courtesy of a single communication from those in power. 

I had never been asked to tell my version of events; indeed, I was actively prevented from doing so.

Can you imagine the collective wailing and teeth-gnashing if any orthodox group had so treated a dissenter? The NCR editorials? The press conferences?

I said that this is the saddest thing I’ve ever written. Sad, because such injustice can take place at the hands of Christians, some of them sisters, who, presumably, at one time had a genuine vocation to holiness. Sad, because many of the listmembers are professors, religious superiors, historians, and others in positions of wide influence, from which they may spread disinformation. (In a recent article on the Church in cyberspace, Sister-L was one of only two Catholic discussion lists mentioned by Los Angeles Cardinal Archbishop Roger Mahony.) Sad, because the whole experience has left me with far less respect for modern religious life as an enterprise of sanctification. 

Without a Trace

I have chosen not to reproduce the hundreds of heretical messages posted on Sister-L or even the many personal attacks. In a sidebar I offer just snippets to give you a sense of its typical conversation. I have no desire for revenge, only for the truth. I have prayed for my detractors by name, and I know God forgives them.

I might invite you to subscribe to Sister-L yourself and download the compilations of messages (known as “log files”) to read for yourself what I said and how it was received, but in reviewing the logs for several months during which I was an active participant on the list, I find that all messages to, from, or about me have been expunged. The most recent unpleasantness does appear in the May, 1996, log file, but one wonders if it, too, will be “edited.” As George Orwell said in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” 

Fortunately, I printed copies of many messages before the purge. Still more fortunately, I have a means to publish the truth. But God help all of us if PastChurch becomes FutureChurch, and the “progressive” types come to power. We may have to retreat to the catacombs. 

I am concerned for the eternal welfare of any who have turned so far from the faith that they cannot tolerate the sight of orthodoxy. P.C. is no substitute for R.C. Please join me in praying for the conversion of all who dissent from the teachings of Christ’s Church, especially those who once vowed obedience as religious and priests.


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