Troublesome nun's faith and feminism


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. 

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

Topic tags: peter kirkwood, eureka street tv, Sandra Schneiders, Mary MacKillop



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Existing comments

Yeeeeeeees. I can only say "Thankyou for giving us this wonderful woman's wisdom."
Gwynith Young | 23 October 2010

Thank you very much for this video. I read everything that Sandra published in N.C.R. and, like last week on hearing comments on St Mary of the Cross, was struck by their forgiveness. Sandra's most recent article, despite her previous antipathy towards the "visitation" was to ask "How can we learn from this?"

Today's interview reminded me of the late Edward Schillebeeckx where he said in "I am a Happy Theologian: that "there is no salvation outside the world". Indeed.

Joan Winter OP | 23 October 2010

"espousing her vision for the future of religious life and ministry".... I guess the question has to be asked, as a Catholic does she recognise or respect or obey the central leadership in Rome? Unity is costly. Unity requires humility. Is 'her vision' more accurate, more saintly, more 'spot on' than any other? I am always nervous of religious leaders - lay, nuns, brothers, priests - who resist the Vatican or the Pope or the leaders of the Church because they know better. She is obviously a very well education woman and probably has some clever ideas, but is she humble, does she care about unity, does she respect leadership? WHO challenges her?

I think women in the Catholic Church need to be clear and articulate and energetically engage with the leaders of this Church, but in doing so, not become the type of person that they struggle with - ie. proud, dogmatic, belligerent, hard-hearted... even bitter.
Micah | 26 October 2010

Oooo Micah
If the members of the church hierarchy are so wise that their pronouncements are absolutely equivalent to the will of God, then it is certainly important that nobody disturb their authority. But what if this is not the case? What then?
Anna Summerfield | 27 October 2010

For women to make a difference in the Church, they must remain in relationship with the very leadership team they are hoping to change. When women become too bitter, too defensive, too disconnected from 'the hierachy' they become ineffective in their quest to be reformers. St Mary McKillop whilst being a strong Catholic woman, also never disengaged from the hierachy...despite some in leadership sinning so profoundly against her. She headed to Rome when things went wrong in Australia showing a hope that somehow God works through the Church's leaders. Catholic feminists can find themselves living, speaking, acting as 'protestants within the Catholic Church'... but with benefits.

I think our Church needs to do better in releasing women into the fullness of their giftedness, I just think that women like Sandra Schneiders can drift so far away from the leadership in Rome, that the very thing they are striving for will never come about.
Micah | 27 October 2010

Perhaps, Micah, Sandra Schneiders is more concerned with being Church, a follower of the One who released all women and men too, into the fullness of their giftedness, than she is in changing the limiting hierarchy. I think that Schneiders is making a difference; she is certainly making a difference to me.
Anna Summerfield | 28 October 2010


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