Walking Corita Kent’s bumpy road

God was written all over Sister Corita Kent’s work, literally. Her ’60s pop-art melange of ad pitches, Bible verses and poetry said subversive stuff like “Jesus Never Fails” and, on a bright-yellow screenprint of Pope John XXIII, “Let the Sun Shine In.”

Naturally, she wound up in Dutch with Rome.

Walking through the exhibit of her saucy and funny but also deeply devotional work, on display through July 15 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, it’s impossible not to feel both energized by her passion and acutely aware that she walked the same bumpy road many of today’s American nuns are on after Vatican criticism that their work has been infected by “radical feminism.” From Teresa of Avila to Padre Pio, some of the church’s greatest saints were at odds with the hierarchy while they lived and breathed, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as a contributor to “Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Faithful Dissidents From Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero,” being published by HarperOne early next year. (No, Corita hasn’t been canonized yet, but it’s early; she died of cancer in 1986.)

In “The Colors of Corita Kent,’’ a piece included in Julie Ault’s “Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita,” Corita’s friend Daniel Berrigan writes that the “joy in her work, its riotous color, was her gift to a good gray world. It seemed as though in her art the juices of the world were running over, inundating the world, bursting the rotten wineskins of semblance, rote and rot.”

Apparently, her way of looking at creation was contagious: “I never would have become an artist if she hadn’t taught me how to see,” my friend Dale Loy said as we walked through the exhibit, laughing and squinting to see the sometimes very fine print Corita had scribbled on her work. In the early ’60s, while Corita was still running the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, Dale interviewed her for Sunset magazine and ended up becoming her student and friend. “She taught me how to see the wholeness of life — to draw upside down or see 50 things in your room you’ve never really looked at before — an incredible way to jostle our closed circuit of doing things the way we’ve always done them.”

And, yes, she had to be stopped.

The local bishop of Los Angeles then, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, was also a man ahead of his time, an ultra-traditionalist who opposed the reforms of Vatican II outright and tried to bar Corita from displaying a 1964 print in which she, in the words of the writer Samuel Eisenstein, dubbed the Blessed Virgin Mary “the juiciest tomato of them all.”

Sasha Carrera, director of the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles, told me the center has letters from the archdiocese telling Corita she needed to stop making her “weird and sinister” images. Which, if you’ve seen her work, really is weird.

After Vatican II invited religious women to step into the modern world, Corita was among the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who began revising their order’s charter, including plans to chuck their old woolen habits and generally “be more in charge of their lives,’’ Carrera said. In response, McIntyre fired those sisters who worked in local Catholic schools in 1967. The women appealed their case to the Vatican but lost there, too, and were invited to either abide by McIntyre’s decision or seek dispensation from their vows.

Exhausted, Corita left the order in 1968, two years before it split apart entirely, with 90 percent of its members leaving to create a new independent group. Her blood sister, Ruth, stayed on in the order, and Corita moved to Boston, where she continued to do her work.

Whether that retreat was a capitulation or a triumph is not for me to say. And though it both pains and puzzles me to see the consistency with which the higher-ups insist on crushing some of our juiciest tomatoes, I am grateful to today’s American nuns for refusing to be run off.

I can’t think of a time when we’ve needed them more. This Thursday, the U.S. church begins its “Fortnight for Freedom” to protest the contraceptive health-care mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and the Obama administration’s narrow definition of a religious institution. A theologian I know told me today that he fears we’ll look back on the “Fortnight” as the moment the Catholic Church in this country officially became part of the religious right.

And on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a prerecorded message to 75,000 Catholics at an outdoor Mass in Ireland, a country where coverups of the clerical abuse of children have left the church in such a weakened state that the bishop of Dublin has said its survival is on the line.

“How are we to explain the fact that people who regularly received the Lord’s body and confessed their sins in the sacrament of Penance have offended in this way?” Benedict asked, referring to predator priests. “It remains a mystery.”

Please, holy women, don’t leave the church in the hands of those who, despite the best of intentions, still don’t know.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors She the People. Follow her on Twitter: @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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