The Sisters Crusade

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She eventually got through her moment of doubt and came out the other side feeling bathed in an "amazing light and understanding." She says now that making her vows was the best choice she's ever made. When I ask if she has ever felt out of step with her peers – she chose a life of celibacy just as the sexual revolution was exploding – Campbell doesn't hesitate. "It seemed like all the drugs and hedonism was more about being lost than being found," she explains. "And this felt like being found."

But when I bring up the Vatican's war with the reformist elements within the church, Campbell sounds every bit the Sixties radical. "You've got to realize that any crowd that took 350 years to figure out Galileo might be right is not noted for rapid change," she says. "The sadness is that the bishops are coming at it from the perspective of rules, and spiritual leadership is soooo much deeper than that. We work too much with the poor? We don't pick up their particular pet political issues? Give me a break! This is about a cultural clash between monarchy, in which the monarch is always right, and democracy, where everybody has equal dignity, responsibility and opportunity – women and men. The whole idea that we live in a pluralistic society is news to these guys."

For Campbell, there's not much difference between the bishops, most of whom have had extremely limited pastoral experience, and politicians like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney. "Their lives are very simplified," she says of the bishops. "They've been in academics, they've been in Rome, but they've never had to walk with people with horrible struggles." Romney, she says, is "a lost human being. He has never had experience with people outside of the one percent. He can't be expected to know what it's like for other people. But if he wants to lead this nation, he ought to know."

The "smaller" part of Pope Benedict's "smaller, purer" church is already coming to pass. According to a study by Georgetown University, both the liberal Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the more orthodox Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious – which toes the Vatican line on issues like abortion and contraception and whose members tend to wear habits – are having trouble attracting young nuns. In 2009, each group reported only 500 new entrants.

It's hard to picture any modern young American, male or female, thoroughly rejecting everything our culture aggressively promotes – money, sex, material possessions. For nuns, it's an even thornier proposition, as they're doing so in the service of an institution with an age-old emphasis on putting women in their place. Then, in Chicago, I meet Sister Sarah Martz, a 32-year-old nun from Iowa who works at a Catholic charity that provides free meals, medical care and after-school programs to the poor. The charity is located in a rough neighborhood called Back of the Yards, referring to the meatpacking stockyards made infamous by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. There's a church parking lot surrounded by barbed wire in the neighborhood, not far from the headquarters of the Rebel Knights Motorcycle Club. After waving sweetly to one of the teenagers in her after-school program, Martz tells me, "He's a fourth-generation gang member."

With her jeans and Converse sneakers, Sister Martz could easily pass for a civilian. Like Sister Campbell, she didn't come from an inordinately devout family. She started secretly thinking about becoming a nun when she was 10, after a priest and a nun came to a career day at her school. By her senior year of high school she was named "Most Likely to Become a Nun," even though she hadn't told anyone of her considerations. She had a serious boyfriend in college, but ultimately decided to take her vows. She used to live in her own apartment; now she shares a home with one other nun. The generational gap, Martz concedes, can pose a challenge: Her roommate, who is 78, often politely asks Martz to turn down her CD player if she's playing Adele too loudly.

But that night, when I meet up with Martz and several of her fellow sisters at a casual falafel place where you order at the counter, they all look like regular women their age. They get hit on. They go to bars for drinks. They say things like "nundar" and "sister bling." There's Sister Jessi Beck, a 31-year-old nun who teaches second grade in a poor Hispanic school, and who participated in the Nuns on the Bus movement. (Beck, too, bemoans the generation gap: "In my community, the next-youngest person is 40. And she lives in Bolivia.") There's Sister Xiomara Méndez-Hernández, a 36-year-old Adrian Dominican nun who once dreamed of being the next Oscar de la Renta. ("Many of the sisters, they dress very awful," she says with a sigh. "The combination of a straight skirt with flowers and tennis shoes? Ahh!") And there's Sister Sarah Kohles, 32, who grew up in Texas and knew at age 11 she wanted to be a nun; when she confessed to her parents and friends, she says, it felt like coming out. (Kohles is the one who brings up nundar. "There's definitely a vibe," she says. "Simple haircut, little to no makeup, no jewelry.")

Young Catholics like these sisters represent one possible future for the church – a future that would embrace the realities of today's women and encourage them to celebrate their devotion, as the nuns in Chicago do, through daily action on behalf of the neediest. But these young nuns are all members of the LCWR, which does not seem to be part of the Vatican's plans, unless the group falls back into unquestioning obedience. "I see people who have been very faithful their whole lives starting to feel pushed out of the church," Sister Kohles says. "I see them asking questions like, 'Is there any room here for me?' That's alarming. In my mind, we're kind of an oasis. Like, how can we be there with people, as we are with the Nuns on the Bus?"

The Vatican, for its part, remains intent on getting the nuns off the bus. To "reform" the LCWR, it has appointed a group of bishops led by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. Sartain, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, is seen as a conciliatory figure within the church – but if the LCWR refuses to bend to Rome's will, the Vatican has the power to strip it of its status and refuse to sanction it as the official representative of American nuns. Yet many nuns seem to welcome the coming showdown and the change it portends. "To tell you the truth – rather than scare us, I think this has emboldened and energized us," says Sister Desautels. "We feel like: We must be doing something right."

Sister Campbell agrees. The group she leads, Network, is looking for ways to capitalize on its newfound notoriety. Before the Vatican issued its denunciation, the organization was nearly broke. But by the time the Nuns on the Bus trip was announced, about six weeks later, they were able to raise $150,000 in 10 days. "Network will never be the same," Campbell says. "We've blown up our organization."

As for the doctrinal assessment, Campbell is blunt. "I'm afraid our bishops don't have a clue about spiritual leadership," she says. There's a difference, she stresses, between military obedience and religious obedience. Her vows were of the latter variety, and she believes that they involve obedience not to an institution like the Vatican but rather "a deep listening to where the Spirit is moving."

In the end, she suggests, the war over Catholicism comes down to the same fight being waged all over the world – a battle of diversity and equality versus authoritarian rule. "In a democratic culture like the U.S., that European model of monarchy" – the Vatican's model – "just doesn't fit," she says. "But unfortunately, our leadership is holding on tight."

This story is from the November 22nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

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