Saturday, April 18, 2015

If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission

Jo Piazza’s If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission is a profile of ten American Nuns, (though as Piazza states in her introduction, they are technically Sisters), who are changing the world through charity, activism and political protest.  At the same time these women are challenging the restrictive and generally negative stereotype of what it means to be a Catholic Sister.  The Sisters that Piazza profiles in this book are not disapproving schoolmarms or uptight nurses, they are working to abolish slavery, have gays and lesbians recognised in the Church, to eliminate nuclear weapons and many other causes.  Despite the good these Sisters are doing they are, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, radical feminists who are challenging key doctrines. According to the Sisters they are working in the spirit of the bible in order to make the world a better place for people on the margins of society, these viewpoints lead to clashes between the established male church hierarchy and the Sisters about what it means to be a good Catholic. What started out as a Master’s thesis on how nuns use social media by Piazza, transformed into a book profiling the lives of ten inspiring and forward thinking women who use their religion to make the world a better place.

The book itself is divided into ten chapters, each profiling and interviewing a different Sister.  These interviews detail the Sister’s specific cause or concern, their history and how they came to join the ministry. Many of the chapters also contain information on how Piazza came to meet them and on their interactions over the course of the interviews. Some are conventional interviews over tea; others are less expected, like a six hour road trip with a Sister who may be incarcerated for political protest, or a movie screening of Eden with a Sister who runs a home from women escaping slavery in New York. Piazza’s history as an entertainment reporter can be seen in her interview style, Piazza says in her introduction that “I want to tell the stories of these nuns as if they were rock stars or Hollywood royalty.”  To a large extent she succeeds, the profiles feel very natural and flow well and like stories of rock stars of Hollywood royalty I longed to know more about each of the Sisters. Every section seemed too brief, even if the book had been twice as long I probably would have wanted to know more about them.  One interesting criticism I read about the book in another review is that Piazza usually describes what each of the Sister’s looks like and what she is wearing. The reviewer found this to be distracting and negative; I however enjoyed this as it further removes Sisters and Nuns from their habits which have not been required uniform since the 1960’s.

Potential readers may be turned off of the book by the religious subject matter, afraid the book is full of Catholic doctrine or written in such a way as to convert people to Catholicism. As a (very) lapsed Roman Catholic I had many of the same reservations. While the book does talk about the spiritual lives of these women and their faith and relationship to the Christian God it does not make any pitches to convert readers or to tout Christianity as any kind of ‘true religion.’ When Piazza, also a non-religious though raised Catholic, does mention faith she is mainly interested in what drew these women into life in a religious order, a life she notes is devoid of “many of the things Americans think of as the trappings of a good and “normal” life: marriage, kids, a sex life.” She is interested in how they use faith to drive their actions. With so many negative portrayals of faith in the world, especially of the Roman Catholic Church it is relieving to a positive example of religion inspiring people to help others.

While the profiles on the Sisters are all fascinating, the reactions from other Catholics as well as the Church Hierarchy are also interesting, though not in the same uplifting and positive sense. Sister Simone Campbell who toured America in 2012 to protest the Republican “Path to Prosperity” budget with the ‘Nun’s on a Bus’ was called a feminazi by Rush Limbaugh and was protested by people calling her a ‘fake nun.’ Others like Sister Jeannie Gramick, who is fighting for a more LGBT friendly church has been threatened with excommunication from the Church itself.  Piazza notes that it is interesting and troublesome that a Church that has been so plagued with scandal in recent years has had a fixation with correcting the behaviour of Nuns, even going so far as to launch a formal investigation into the behaviour of American Nuns in 2008 without any prior allegations of wrongdoing. The male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church does not come across as particularly accepting in this book and stands in stark contrast to the more progressive nuns. This is not particularly surprising, though it is upsetting to hear a Sister who tried to speak with a Bishop about allowing women to be ordained was literally laughed at. This section hit me particularly hard since my much more devout eight year old self wanted to be a Catholic Priest and received a similar condescending reaction from a Deacon.

I hadn't intended to read or even review this book, but the title jumped out to me while going through new books and I am glad I picked it up. Positive stories about faith are not front and center in the modern world, neither are stories about people doing good deeds. This book covers both of these as well as profiling ten amazing women that are helping to change what the Catholic Church means in a modern context and helping people who need it the most. To paraphrase Piazza in her introduction she says that she may not believe in God, but she does believe in nuns. After reading about these incredible women, I feel much the same way.

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