Theresa Kane, Nun Who Confronted the Pope
Sister Theresa Kane on questioning the exclusion of women from the priesthood and challenging the Pope.
Nun Who Confronted the Pope
Sister Theresa Kane on questioning the exclusion of women from Catholic ministries and publicly challenging the Pope.
THERESA KANE: When I was growing up, my brother and I were devout and going to Mass on a regular basis. He was an altar boy. And I remember thinking, I wish I had been a male, so I could be an altar boy and I could be a priest. But I never went to the next question to say, well, why can't I still be a priest even though I'm not a boy?
I had this desire to want to be of service to other people, so I actually found myself thinking that I would like to be a Sister. And then out of my experiences of about 10 years in administration, it just became so natural to say, well, of course we can be priests. [MUSIC PLAYING]
And there were thousands of people coming into the cathedral. One of the Sisters asked me was I going to include the issue of women. And I said, yes. And then I said to her, would you? I don't know if I'd have the courage, she said to me.
- Sister Theresa Kane, leader of a group representing most of the nation's 140,000 nuns delivered a strong dissent from the Pope's conservative view.
THERESA KANE: The Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church.
THERESA KANE: I urge you, you Holiness, to respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the church as fully participating members. When I addressed the Pope in 1979, it was a shift in mentality for Catholic women. It probably was the only moment that someone would have had to speak up publicly about it. It has done a service-- something probably beyond myself. I think I was an instrument there. I think I facilitated it. But then it took on a life of its own.
THERESA KANE: When I grew up, the church was an institution, and we had structures, and we had rules. So when I entered the [? convent ?] in the early 60s, we began to relook at the church and just say the church was primarily a community. And, therefore, the institution was to facilitate and empower a sense of community. I mean, many of us ran with that. We suggest that's what we want to be about, so I think that if we truly believe in community, the fullness of community is going to be gender equality. There's no doubt about it. And I really do think that it is of God for women to be able to be priests, as well as men.
THERESA KANE: I had this desire to want to be of service to other people. And out of that, I said, now, what can I do, and how do I go about that? So I actually found myself thinking that I would like to be a sister, to be in a religious congregation. And there weren't many fields open to women, so now I think back and say, why didn't I want to be an astronaut? Why didn't I want to do that?
But none of that was actually even thought about, so I chose the teaching profession. But I think in addition to being of service to people, I felt a religious call to devote myself to God, to, in a sense, focus on spirituality as well as on service.
THERESA KANE: After I addressed the Pope, I asked the women around the country to have a discussion on the greeting and on what I had said. Because I did say something that addressed initial, that was controversial, which is women's ministries and the church, generally the feedback was strongly endorsed by the women I was representing. And that was really my focus and my concern, and I've been asked about it since and asked if I would make any change. And I have said my change would be I would be much more urgent and much more passionate and my plea.
THERESA KANE: I think my greatest accomplishment is being able to break through many of the, oh, sexist images of God that we've had. That's very important to me. Like I would say God is Creator, God is Parent, God is both Mother and Father. So my images, my understanding, my relationship to God has been very affected by the women's movement. And I think that I can-- certainly I and others are influential in the women's movement, but to me, it's a mutual experience.
THERESA KANE: I think it was controversial because it wasn't expected of a Catholic sister to speak publicly to the pope on any issue that wasn't just welcome and thank you for coming. I was only the second woman in the entire visit to the United States in the eight days that any woman had addressed him, and the first one was Rosalynn Carter, who represented President Carter.
There were so few women who had any opportunity to speak publicly at that time. It just wasn't done. Even today, we're 30 years later, and we still find few women and children, in comparison to the number of men, who really have strong public roles.
THERESA KANE: When I'm asked where I would have gotten the nerve to speak publicly to the pope, I think that for myself personally, I had really grown in a conviction that it was a very important social and religious issue of women being in all ministries of the church. I had a very deep conviction about it. I think I realized that other people maybe would not have done it.
In fact, one of the sisters asked me, was I going to include the issue of women? And I said yes. And then I said to her, would you? I don't know if I'd have the courage, she said to me. But she said, I'm glad you're going to do it.
So for myself, it was almost something that I thought back and said, I could not not do it. It was part of me. It was part of my life, and it was very important. So I think the nerve came from the conviction.
THERESA KANE: Even though there wasn't any change in the structure of the church, I think what has happened-- and it's not only because of my statement, but the mindset of Catholic people have changed about the ordination issue. I think when I addressed the pope in 1979, it might have been about a 25% approval rating for women to be ordained. I believe now the last statistic is something into the 80%. Now, it only took us 30 years to get there.
But the approval rate has changed in terms of that issue, and in fact, if anything, you hear more and more people saying, why not? And what's holding us back, and why can't it happen? And we're doing it in all the Protestant churches, and we are Christian, and therefore it should certainly be appropriate in the Catholic church.
THERESA KANE: When I addressed the pope in 1979, about three months later, I had to go to Rome for another conference we were having. And I was asked by his staff to speak to the issue of why I addressed women in ministries. So I did, and I did at length. And the critic was, well, you know the document has indicated that women may not be ordained. And my response was, I understand that that's the present teaching, but I do not expect that to be the teaching forevermore. There have been many teachings in our church that have changed, and it's possible that this will change also.
THERESA KANE: Women being ordained as priests is needed, not only because it's right and just, but because there's such a great need for it in many countries where we do not have men who are priests. In terms of my own desire to be a priest, there were times when I was doing ministry in the Catholic Church when it would have been extremely helpful.
When I worked in a hospital, I think that would have been very helpful at times, being able to offer Mass and have sacraments available to people. So there were times when I think it was part of the service that would have enhanced what I could do. And I do think we're continuing to address it, to research it, to be educated about it. And I personally believe that it will be part of the Catholic community in the future.
THERESA KANE: The life of a nun at one time was certainly very cloistered and very restricted. And I probably was in the convent only about five years when a number of changes began to develop. We had Pope John XXIII, who was an elderly man, but basically turned the church around and said, the church is really for the world, and we're not to be apart from the world.
So what happened to us in the convents is we followed that same direction. We said, we're really here to be with people and to be of service. So it changed pretty quickly after I entered the convent.
THERESA KANE: There was a great deal of controversy. It became an instant media event nationally and internationally. And I think there were some people, not only in the Catholic church but in other walks of life, who were shocked that a sister would speak like that.
They didn't expect it. They still have the expectation of the sister who would be cloistered, and quiet, and passive, and prayerful of course but not someone who would be assertive.
THERESA KANE: I think that the women's movement in general certainly had an influence on the many, many sisters, certainly, initially in the United States. In the 1970s, a number of sisters became very aware of issues of race, of issues of economics for poor people and issues of gender. When we were at a conference in the early 1970s in South America, the observation made of the group of women religious was we sounded more like women than we did like sisters or nuns. And we, basically, found ourselves, certainly, defining ourselves as women as well as our sisters. That was an interesting observation.
THERESA KANE: I had grown up in a time in a neighborhood where economically poor young girls had abortions. They were back-alley abortions. I know for a fact two or three of my friends who had them. And they were terribly affected by it, almost mutilated by it, one of them.
So I look at that experience and say, that's not the way I want life to be for a young girl or for a woman. So therefore, I think having it legal, for me, makes it safer. I also think I took issue with the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice." It's almost as if you want abortion legal that you're in favor of abortion. Abortion is not an attraction. And abortion is not a good.
I think it's not often a choice. It's the absence of choice for many young women that brought about a decision to have the abortion. So therefore, I have a whole different perspective. And I remember when it came out. We had the pro-choice. We had the pro-life. We still have it, and it's been highly divisive. And actually, neither one is quite accurate.
THERESA KANE: In terms of, maybe, religion being behind society in terms of the role of women, I do think that my studies, again, of not only women, but the history of religion, is that women haven't really been strong and in forefront in many of the religions traditionally. The Protestant Church and the Jewish religion, both Protestant and Jewish, have really moved faster, in terms of women being leaders. And it's hard to know why we're slower in the Catholic community.
I do think there are some movements towards that, and the one that I use as an example is the role of women as deacons. In the early church, women were deacons, and we can document that. We actually did not have priests as we know them today in the early church. That was a development over the centuries.
So we can go back and trace women as deacons, and I do think there is movement for women to be ordained as deacons. So I think that's progress, and I think that Pope John Paul II, before he died, gave serious thought to having women be ordained as deacons, but he did not follow it out, which I was disappointed in, because I think it would have been a very significant historical change.