When she joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1975, in the years after the liberalizing Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church seemed to her to be right in the thick of activism about every issue Americans cared about: civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate.
“There was this great sense for me of excitement of what it meant to be in the church — the activities, the possibilities,” she said. “The church was so much a part of looking at what was going on in society.”
And nuns were at the forefront.
Vatican II had dramatically opened Catholic life by saying laypeople, not just priests, should assume responsibility and leadership and by calling for prayer in English, not just Latin. Nuns were told to leave the security of their convents and habits and plunge into the wider culture to serve.
This meant an identity overhaul for American nuns, an army of more than 180,000 who had unique, protected status inside Catholic schools, hospitals and shelters. They were told to go back to the historic roots of their groups, or orders, and live the gospel as radically as they could.
Some historians of American Catholicism say the nuns went faster and deeper into a less doctrinaire faith because, while priests were being trained in theology, many sisters were being educated in secular subjects such as sociology and psychology.
“It was where our lives were placed — we were very much hands-on dealing with the joys and suffering of people,” Curtis said. “Our lives became intermingled with the day-in and day-out concerns of all kinds of people. That shaped us in a significant way.”
For Curtis, the council’s call led to work with pregnant young women in her home town and organizing the poor in Chile, and as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill advocating for more spending on housing and against the Iraq war. Since 2005, she has been on the small leadership team that guides the Sisters of Mercy, who work in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, Guam and the Philippines.
Leaders of her order, as well as many others, are under fire for giving platforms to ideas against the church hierarchy. While they have attracted grass-roots support across the country — a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #whatsistersmeantome has had more than 1,000 responses, and a bus tour of nuns is planned for next Monday — the nuns are standing as the most institutional symbols of a very different Catholicism than that posited by leading bishops and Pope Benedict XVI today.
“What are the Church’s pastors to make of the fact that the LCWR constantly provides a one-sided platform — without challenge or any opposing view — to speakers who take a negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office?” Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair, one of the priests involved in investigating the Leadership Conference, asked in a public letter on Friday. “Is it the role of a pontifically recognized leadership group to criticize and undermine faith in church teaching by what is said and unsaid, or rather to work to create greater understanding and acceptance of what the Church believes and teaches?”
To Curtis, the two sides might be too culturally different to find common ground. The women, she said, won’t do anything that’s not collaborative. “We are anything but hierarchical,” she said.
She and other sisters bristle at the idea that they are being unfaithful by exploring ideas not in line with official teaching.
“It’s our desire to learn and be open. That doesn’t mean you take everything or give up what you’re rooted in. If you know who you are, where you’re grounded — it’s the gospel, it’s God — there’s no fear. It’s actually very clarifying to do that,” she said. “The church called its people to be the church, and we’ve done that.
“You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”