What Activist Nuns Really Think About the Pope

Nun Walking In Street Photo: Pietro Contaldo / EyeEm/Getty Images

Make all the wimple jokes you want, but there are some badass nuns out there. So badass, in fact, that in 2012, the Vatican* reprimanded them for their badassery. That hasn't slowed them down one bit. With Francis visiting the U.S. this week, we spoke to activist nuns across the country about the Church, the pope, and his policies and attitudes toward women.

"I don’t think he quite understands that women and children are the poorest, most marginalized populations in the world."
The reality is that the papal government excludes over half of the members of the Church, because you have to be ordained to be able to do substantive decision-making. Pope Francis is much more open to dialogue than previous popes, so from that point of view, I think there’s hope. It’s also true that he has reiterated the position of his predecessors that the door is closed on discussing women’s ordination, which is very disappointing. Even though I think he’s very compassionate and he cares, I don’t think he quite understands that women and children are the poorest, most marginalized populations in the world. For him to take action on opening ordination to at least female deacons would speak volumes about a church that is working to overcome its own sexism.

I was heartened by his recent statement on abortion because it showed that he understood that there are many factors that play into the very difficult decision that women make. He’s the first pope to ever acknowledge that women who choose abortion are facing very, very difficult situations. —Sr. Christine Schenk, co-founder and executive director of FutureChurch

"It’s ridiculous that the Church is saying you may not speak about women’s ordination. It’s medieval."
The things Pope Francis has said about women are more or less traditional church views — the view of complementarity. He doesn’t really speak about gender equality. He represents a structure, which is very embedded. I mean, it is patriarchy. I just attended the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference and I was absolutely shocked to learn that one of the priests who spoke on a panel there was sanctioned by his bishop in San Francisco because of his participation in the conference. It’s ridiculous that the Church is saying you may not speak about women’s ordination. It’s medieval. Over half the Catholics in this country favor the ordination of women.

While I will never describe myself as pro-abortion, I will describe myself as a woman who supports women’s reproductive rights. I believe that women should be able to determine what is an excruciatingly difficult decision for women. Placing the emphasis on forgiveness for abortion is to assume that women don’t have the right to make that decision. It seems to me like the wrong emphasis. I think it’s a much more complex question that can be answered by the Church saying that this is a mortal sin, and so forgiveness is what we need. —Sr. Anna Koop, Sisters of Loretto

"If you want to resolve anything about poverty, you will have to do something for women."
I don’t think anyone can deny that what the pope is doing is publicly stunning. That said, it is also true that he’s a man of his time, and his culture. He’s a 78-year-old Argentinian man whose life has been male and male-oriented. I wouldn’t say that he has a willful blind spot toward women, but it’s a cultural reality of age, geography, and theology. I have said several times now, if you are really committed to the plight of the poor, then you must understand that women are the poorest of the poor, and if you want to resolve anything about poverty, you will have to do something for women. Starting in our own culture — we won’t pay women a decent wage. We keep women at a lower level of security their entire lives. Our economic system is a male system, designed for male wealth and male progress.

If women look to the Church as a model of feminine dignity, equality, and human liberation, they can’t find it. The pope could put women in positions of authority, and equalize the traditions and committees of the Church. He could at least open the question of the ordination of women in the Church, because that’s a question that’s not going to go away. Suppressing those questions in the Church means that women’s hope for the future will lie in secular institutions. It’s a scandal that secular institutions are doing more for woman than our own church.  —Sr. Joan Chittister, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious

"He’s making significant moves for the Roman Catholic Church."
I was really touched by what he said at St. Patrick’s. To call us “women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage that puts you on the front lines” — that’s an affirmation of us. That he’s not afraid of American nuns, but rather, grateful, is a huge difference from his predecessors. Is it enough for women’s leadership in the Church? No. But, I think he has made some specific changes. He appointed a woman to head some of the theological schools in Rome, and appointed women to commissions where women hadn’t been before. It’s not ordination, but I don’t except the leap to ordination until later down the road. He’s making significant moves for the Roman Catholic Church, which took 350 years to figure out Galileo might be right. We’re not known for rapid change. He’s 78. He’s a man of Argentina. He comes from a macho culture, so yeah, he’s got a cultural limitation. But while he has a blind spot, he’s trying to see through the fog, which I think is really different from prior popes, who didn’t even try. —Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK

"There are still no women in important decision-making positions."
I greatly admire and respect him, and I think he’s a breath of fresh air. He’s open to admitting that he has made mistakes in the past, and he’s open to learning. So I’m hopeful that feminist women in the Church can advance him on the learning curve. I think he is appreciative of the work that women do in the Church. He had appointed more women to positions in the Vatican than his predecessors, but there are still no women in important decision-making positions. My hope is that, just as he has created a cabinet of Cardinals to advise him, he would create a similar advisory cabinet of women who would help him learn about women’s issues in the Church. —Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry

"He hasn’t done one darn thing for women."
He has good marketing skills. He looks friendly, he touches on topics that won’t undo the Church doctrine. He hasn’t done one darn thing for women. I find the lack of respect for women in the Church deeply concerning and frustrating. Women need to be able to fully participate in the Church, and they must have autonomy. And that means reproductive autonomy. Men must recognize we have moral authority over the decisions we make regarding our bodies. That means that men do no forgive our sin of abortion. No. That is not sinful. It is a choice, and it is a choice that women have the right to make. —Donna Quinn, spokesperson for the National Coalition of American Nun

"He's trying to communicate a message of inclusion and reconciliation."
I wouldn’t say any changes are coming soon. I think we make our way slowly. But I think he’s trying to communicate a message of inclusion and reconciliation. He’s definitely attempting to communicate a positive attitude toward American nuns. He’s picking his way through some very thorny issues, and coming at things very indirectly, but I think he’s opening a lot of doors. I was one of the leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious who visited with him in April, and he is a careful, astute listener. He’s very receptive, and doesn’t miss a thing. That’s why I have confidence in him around these issues. —Sr. Marcia Allen, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious

"I don’t see any signs that he’s willing to make any substantive change."
I don’t see much difference between him and his predecessors when it comes to the role of women in the Church. I think he has a very traditional view of women, and I don’t see any signs that he’s willing to make any substantive change, or move toward equality for women in the Church. In terms of his announcement on abortion and forgiveness, I think it’s in line with a lot of what he’s doing. There’s a change in tone. There’s a more human touch to the way these issues are talked about, a willingness to extend mercy and forgiveness. But there’s no substantive change on the teaching on abortion, and no recognition at all that a woman might have a legitimate reason for seeking an abortion. —Sr. Maureen Fiedler, host of "Interfaith Voices"

*A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Pope Francis reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It was the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, a Vatican committee, who issued the reprimand under the leadership of Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.