Nuns, bishops, and ‘King Lear’ | Inquirer Opinion

Nuns, bishops, and ‘King Lear’

Just as the pain of pedophile priests and sex scandals was easing in the Catholic Church, along came another possibly more unsettling problem: the Vatican’s harsh criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States. The LCWR coordinates the work of 80 percent of that country’s nuns.

The Vatican, after acknowledging the nuns’ fine work in helping poor people, criticized them for not condemning, as the bishops had, same-sex marriages and President Barack Obama’s National Health Act, which threatens to require Church institutions to pay for birth control and abortion services. The leaders of the LCWR will meet at month’s end to frame their response. The Vatican appointed an archbishop to oversee the actions of the LCWR until the matter is resolved.

There is no question who the general public supports in this debate. There have been six or seven articles in the New York Times alone, defending the nuns. Nicolas Kristof, an NYT columnist, wrote: “If people were asked who has more closely emulated Jesus’ life, the average sister or the pope, the nuns would win hands down.”  It’s not exactly the point at issue—the Pope might agree with the statement—but it indicates how much people admire the nuns for their lives of service and how poorly they regard the bishops and their claims of authority.

There are articles in newspapers telling of the nuns’ work in New York City with the poorest and most endangered women—those who have been trafficked, drug addicts trying to recover, recently released from prison, beaten by their husbands, pregnant without family support, homeless, or prostitutes trying to start a new life.


The nuns I talked with said that they were not surprised by the Vatican’s tough words and that for a long time, the bishops and nuns had been drifting apart. They feel they have changed with the times while the bishops have not. The LCWR prays and reflects for long periods before it makes decisions, the nuns also told me. It takes into account the charism of the nuns (the purpose for which they are instituted), the pros and cons of the issues, and the nuns’ individual convictions. It is painful, the nuns said, to do all this only to be told they have done something wrong and should follow instead the opinion of bishops who have no deeper understanding—maybe far less understanding—of the problem than the nuns do.

A nun suggested I read Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” saying it might help me understand the viewpoint of the nuns. In the play, King Lear decides to retire to some degree and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He tells them he will give the biggest share of land and wealth to the daughter who loves him most.

The two elder sisters tell the old man they love him, “more than eyesight, space, liberty, life, race, beauty and honor.” The old king gives them huge tracts of his kingdom. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, says she loves him as a daughter should, but since she will soon marry, she cannot love with all her heart. The king comments, “so young and so untender,” and swears he will never care for her again.

The cranky, arrogant and foolish old man soon finds he has made a huge mistake. The two elder sisters and their husbands try to oust the king completely. Cordelia helps him, but in the process is killed. In the last scene of the play the old king kneels beside Cordelia’s body and cries: “Why should a horse, a dog, a rat have life/and thou no breath at all? Thou’ll come no more. Never, never, never, never, never.”


There are lessons for everyone in the Vatican-LCWR dispute, but especially for those given great authority in the Church and government. Tradition has shaped two descriptions of how men and women in their high positions should act: Public officials are regularly called public servants, and the Pope, as the highest authority in the Church, is called servus servorum Dei, or servant of the servants of God.  The word “servant” best describes what people in authority should be.

In a democracy the people give authority to mayors and presidents, expecting these officials to act as servants (katulong) for the citizens. Officials are not the people’s bosses, though you might not realize that listening to them talk or watching them act. They are charged with helping citizens build a safer, more equitable and prosperous country by listening to how the citizens want to do this, and by arranging the appropriate activities.


In a democracy, and in the Church, authority is expected to guarantee that the poor are given priority. “As they have less in life, they should have more in law,” President Ramon Magsaysay once said. Officials are required to help the poor. If the poor request housing and the government can provide it, the government official in charge must provide it in the way the people want, unless there is something seriously wrong with the type of housing planned by the poor.

Authority is given to men and women for service. Christians can look to Jesus’ action at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his apostles, as described in the Gospel of John, to understand this truth.

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Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates with e-mail address [email protected].

TAGS: Catholic Church, clergy, Commentary, Denis Murphy, opinion, Religion, Religious

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