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Troublesome nun's faith and feminism

Peter Kirkwood |  22 October 2010

Sandra Schneiders is one of the most prominent and accomplished nuns in the American Catholic Church. She is a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California.

Schneiders' message and concerns resonate strongly with those of Mary MacKillop, so it's fitting that we hear from her this week when Australians celebrate the canonisation of the new saint. (Continues below)

Mary MacKillop founded the Josephite Sisters to address the pressing needs of the real world around her. In a similar vein, Schneiders warns of the dangers for the Church in seeing itself above and separate from the world. She argues that scripture and the documents of Vatican II position the Church firmly in the world, with something vital to contribute to the struggles and development of the world.

Schneiders spoke to Eureka Street TV at a conference marking the centenary of the Melbourne College of Divinity where she was one of the keynote speakers. Her talk was entitled 'The Word in the World'. The meeting was held at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne in July 2010, and its overall theme was the future of religion in Australian society.

Like MacKillop, Schneiders is a 'troublesome nun' who is fearless in calling the male Church hierarchy to account. This occurred most recently and publicly in a series of articles she wrote for America's National Catholic Reporter in response to the Vatican's three-year study of institutes of religious women announced in January 2009.

Her opening salvo came in an email she wrote to a few close colleagues that was widely circulated and, with her permission and with some additions, was later published in the NCR. Its opening paragraph gives an indication of its overall tenor and her feisty words:

'I am not inclined to get into too much of a panic about this investigation — which is what it is. We just went through a similar investigation of seminaries, equally aggressive and dishonest. I do not put any credence at all in the claim that this is friendly, transparent, aimed to be helpful, etc. It is a hostile move and the conclusions are already in. It is meant to be intimidating.'

During 2009 she penned a series of articles against the Vatican investigation, espousing her vision for the future of religious life and ministry, culminating in a five-part essay published in the NCR in January 2010.

All her writing reflects deep learning, spirituality and love of the Church. She has written a number of acclaimed books, including With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism and the Future; Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy and Community in Catholic Religious Life; Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture; and Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church. 

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.