After a night on the street, dozens of homeless men and women file into a shelter in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring. A walk down the hall takes them to the cafeteria, where they get a hot breakfast, and attention from a secularly-clothed nun, Sister Mary Mulholland.
“Lilly, how are you?” she asks one of them. “You don’t look like you’re too good today.”
They are the down and out of this city. But their lives are a little better because after 20 years as a Catholic school religion teacher, Sister Mary left the job to help people who have nowhere else to go.
“This is how I get grounded in my life, this is what the Gospel means for me, to live out the gospel,” says the 66-year-old sister.
There are many nuns in America living out their faith like Sister Mary Mulholland. But the Vatican says they are not doing enough to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.
Last month, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the panel that enforces Catholic orthodoxy, issued a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization that represents the majority of the 55,000 nuns in the United States.
The assessment said that while there has been a great deal of work on the part of Leadership Conference promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.
The panel, headed by American Cardinal William Levada, appointed Seattle Bishop Peter Sartain to overhaul governance of the Leadership Conference.
Sister Mary Mulholland belongs to the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a Leadership congregation headed by Sister Pat McDermott.
“We are stunned, we are shocked,” Sister Pat said. “I think the sense of being shocked has turned to a real deep sadness, and an anger, of the judgments that seemingly are being made about our lives.”
One of the judgments in the doctrinal assessment was that nuns are flirting with radical feminism.
McDermott says they are just living out the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which allowed nuns to shed the habit and called on them to live among the poor.
“And now we find ourselves being judged seemingly from another standard,” she said.
Donna Bethel of Christendom College, a conservative Catholic liberal arts school in Front Royal, Virginia, says the problem is that sisters are pursuing social justice the wrong way.
“You can’t say you’re devoted to social justice and ignore the problem of abortion,” she said. “If you cannot respect life, what is the point of all the other rights?”
Sister Pat sees it differently. “The Catholic tradition has always been a ‘both-and’ tradition, so faith without good works, that is not our story. Faith with good works is our story,” she said.
For Sister Mary, that means trying to find someone a job and a place to live, and not trying to impose her beliefs on others.
“We all carry a piece of the truth. That is the way I see it,” she said. “And when we put it all together, we get closer to the revelation that God wants to come to.”
Critics say that while the Catholic Church’s male hierarchy has avoided accountability for sex scandals, it is disciplining a dwindling group of American women who have consecrated their lives to their faith.