Altared State

Sister Louise Akers was a decades-long supporter of female ordination. When Archbishop Pilarczyk asked her to renounce her conviction in 2009, her refusal set off a landslide of national interest in the Delhi nun’s beliefs.

Illustration by Matt Dorfman


Illustration by Matt Dorfman

One morning last September, Robert Akers made the daily trip from his Madison Place home to a nearby Speedway to pick up coffee and the newspaper. That’s where he was when he saw the headline “Nun Gets Ban From Teaching” across the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer.

“I wonder if Louise knows her,” thought the 65-year-old professional pet sitter. It made sense that she might; his older sister Louise belonged to the Sisters of Charity, the 200-year-old religious order based in Cincinnati. Scanning the first few lines, Akers realized his sister not only knew the nun in question; she was the nun in question. The story got straight to the heart of the matter: Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk had forbidden her to teach after she had refused to renounce her long-standing support of ordination for women. “I wasn’t real surprised,” he says, noting that his sister is “relentless” about the issues that she believes in—issues that haven’t always squared with official Catholic Church doctrine. “But I thought, now what?”

The ensuing months since the Archbishop banned Sister Louise Akers from teaching in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have served as an answer. For Akers, it has been a surreal storm of media interviews and strangers stopping her on the street; of letters by the hundreds from former students, fellow nuns, critics, even a Kenyan priest; of action, reflection, and emotional exhaustion. While Akers can no longer teach in archdiocesan-sponsored settings, she draws crowds at events organized to support her, and in November she commanded keynote-speaker status in front of thousands at a national conference of progressive Catholics.

Since the disciplinary action last summer, Akers, who is 67, has also become a symbol of what some call the schism that engulfs the Roman Catholic Church today. There wasn’t a great deal of nuance or shading in the letters, blogs, and message boards where observers weighed in on Akers and the action of the archdiocese: Either Akers was a dangerous radical and Pilarczyk was courageously enforcing orthodoxy, or Pilarczyk was a bully and Akers a brave advocate for social justice. It’s a divide that pits traditionalists against reformers and the orthodox against progressives, with little room and less patience left over for centrists.

Akers, it turns out, may be an archetypal symbol of this divide. Her life as a nun unfolded against the backdrop of the Vatican’s Second Ecumenical Council, or Vatican II, which, beginning in 1962, unleashed monumental changes within the church—some of which Catholic life in America has yet to fully reconcile. What’s more, her spiritual and political evolution over the last five decades parallels the transformation of modern American women religious from beloved, apple-cheeked figures to a force that increasingly clashes with its leaders at home and in Rome. And now, just when her supporters feared that the archbishop’s edict would silence her, Akers and her beliefs are commanding greater attention and wider audiences than anything else in her half-century career. Fifty years ago, God may have called her with a “still small voice.” But these days, her response is getting all the press.

Thousands of Catholic activ-ists gathered at Milwaukee’s Midwest Airlines Center in early November for the annual conference of Call to Action, a national movement that seeks to change official Catholic positions on issues such as gay rights and celibacy in the priesthood. They were expecting to hear keynote speaker Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who is under threat of excommunication for supporting the ordination of women. There were groans of disappointment when organizers announced Bourgeois had been forced to cancel because his father was gravely ill, then cheers and applause when Louise Akers was announced as his replacement.

For more than an hour, Akers spoke to the Call to Action crowd—a gathering made up of Catholic laymen and -women, religious, and clergy which formed in the mid-1970s to focus on peace and justice issues. She talked about her decades working in social justice, and described the August meeting at which Pilarczyk explained his decision; she read from a few of the hundreds of letters of support she’s received, and detailed her vision for the future of the Catholic Church. “It’s really not about Archbishop Pilarczyk and Louise Akers—we all know that,” she said. “It’s much bigger. We are no longer saying we want a piece of the pie. The strategy and goal now is to change the recipe and to produce a new product which is inclusive, egalitarian, and cooperative rather than exclusive, hierarchical, and competitive.” Later in the speech, Akers got a big laugh when she showed a slide of a cartoon. In it, a bishop is saying to a priest, “I think the mistake was teaching women to read.”

The tumult came as a surprise to Akers because she’s publicly raised questions about women’s ordination for at least 30 years. Until this summer, she regularly taught continuing-education classes on the Catholic Church and on social justice to directors of religious education and other teachers; she says she always taught official Catholic positions on issues, but raised and encouraged questions during discussions of contemporary issues. The discussions hadn’t gotten her into trouble before. But last summer, after attending a class that she taught at a parish in Blanchester, Ohio, a student wrote a detailed complaint to Pilarczyk about what Akers was teaching. The parishioner was especially incensed about the presence of her name and photograph on the Web site of the Women’s Ordination Conference—an organization that promotes the cause of female priests, deacons, and bishops in the Catholic Church.

In August, Akers met with the archbishop. The two have known each other for at least 25 years. Akers says they’ve always had cordial relations; even now, she refuses to be critical of Pilarczyk’s leadership. But Church observers speculated that Pilarczyk had moved to discipline Akers, perhaps at the behest of higher authorities, because he was essentially a lame duck. He had submitted his resignation on his 75th birthday in August, as required by the Vatican (it had not been accepted at the time of their meeting); taking the action himself would enable his successor, incoming Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, to avoid possibly alienating the women religious and progressives in the archdiocese at the beginning of his tenure in Cincinnati. For their part, archdiocesan officials say the move was in direct response to the complaints about Akers.

Pilarczyk won’t comment on the half-hour meeting, calling it a personnel matter. But Akers says the archbishop told her that if she wanted to continue teaching for credit, she would have to take her name off the Web site of the Women’s Ordination Conference. Akers says she agreed. Then, she says, Pilarczyk told her there was something else she had to do. “And that ‘something else’ was to make a public statement that I changed my mind and I agree with the Church teaching on women’s ordination,” she recalls. “I said, ‘What?’ He repeated it, and I said, ‘I can’t do that. It would be a lie and would go against my conscience.’ And he said, ‘Then you accept the consequences.’

“When I left Archbishop Pilarczyk’s office, I was numb, stunned,” Akers says. “Two quotes came to my mind. One from St. Catherine of Siena: ‘Cry out as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.’ And the other from Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we keep silent about things that matter.’”

She wrote a reflection and sent it out to friends, detailing the action against her and her thoughts on the issue of women’s ordination and the primacy of conscience; she also told a few friends and members of her community about the meeting. A few weeks later a story appeared in the progressive National Catholic Reporter weekly newspaper and shortly afterward in papers and on Web sites around the world, from New Zealand’s NZ Catholic to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. A friend told her at the time that her life would never be the same. As a prophecy, it was entirely accurate.

Akers grew up in a home led by a career woman. She was only 3 when her father died, and her mother—a public health nurse—raised the family on her own, moving from West Virginia to Ohio for employment. Catholic Central High School in Springfield, Ohio, was the first Catholic school Akers ever attended, and the Sisters of Charity who taught there had a profound impact on her. She felt the call to religious life as she neared high school graduation, although she resisted at first, envisioning instead a future that included marriage and children. Yet not long after graduation in 1960, she entered the Sisters of Charity with no firm idea of how long she’d stay. “My spiritual director said, ‘Well, go see how you like it. You’ll probably be home by Thanksgiving,’” she recalls.

Akers remembers Catholic life at the time as separate from the rest of American society to a degree that is difficult to grasp now. Catholics by and large lived in Catholic neighborhoods, sent their kids to Catholic schools, socialized with fellow Catholics, and donated their money to Catholic causes. But there were signs of change all around, enough to convince Akers to stay with the Sisters of Charity long past that first Thanksgiving.

“Vatican II was happening, John XXIII was pope, JFK was president, Martin Luther King was leading the civil rights movement, and all of that came together for me in a powerful way,” she says, sitting in a conference room at EarthConnection, across the street from the Delhi Township campus of the College of Mount St. Joseph. Dressed in black pants and an embroidered, vaguely Asian jacket, Akers has an open face and a head full of wiry silver curls; she is soft-spoken but deliberate, her years of education evident in the care with which she chooses her words. EarthConnection is also the headquarters of the order’s Office of Peace, Justice, and Integrity of Creation, which Akers coordinates. The mission of the office is to educate Sisters of Charity, congregations, and the public about environmental and social justice issues, and collaborate internationally with other groups. It is filled with reminders of the Church’s global presence—a colorful Guatemalan nativity, handmade Kenyan prayer cloths, and flyers advertising eco-spirituality seminars. Probably not the sort of decor that would have graced a nun’s walls when Akers was growing up.

The 1950s and early ’60s were the golden era of Catholic vocations. In addition to fulfilling a calling, religious life offered Catholic kids—even poor ones—an education and an escape from life on the farm or in the factory. For women, the convent could be an indirectly feminist option. Sisters ran schools and hospitals in an era when few other women sat in a head office; they could work overseas or earn advanced degrees unencumbered by marriage and children. Sisters even had substantial leverage in church hierarchy; they answered generally only to their orders, which in turn report to Rome, so in the event of a serious conflict with a priest or bishop a Mother Superior had the option of withdrawing her staff of teachers or nurses.

By the mid-1960s, when Vatican II was beginning to have its impact, Akers was one of 46 sisters teaching at Seton High School and living communally with other Sisters of Charity. Outwardly, the community retained a Bells of St. Mary piety and youthful wholesomeness (half of Akers’s colleagues at Seton were in their 20s). Akers pored over the Vatican II documents as her spiritual reading and found encouragement in them. “Before Vatican II,” she says, “there was almost a monastic position toward the world, [the sentiment] that you went away from the world if you wanted to live as a Catholic, and [these documents] said it was not the Church against the world but the Church in the world, and all the joy and hope that went with that.”

But the changes took a toll as well. Vatican II had encouraged communities to renew themselves; yet, as with many broad religious edicts, the call came with no specific instructions. Thousands of women left their orders in the following decades—the number of American nuns fell precipitously from a high in 1965 of nearly 175,000 to 60,000 or so today—and those who stayed were torn over whether and how to change. “It was a very wrenching time,” she remembers. “The two poles were strong resistance on one hand, and on the other excitement and enthusiasm for this new way of being women religious. Anytime people try to change a system—or, in our case, are asked to change a system; in Vatican II we were asked to go back to the Gospels and our founders to transform the communities to meet the challenges of today’s world—there is a tension.”

Communities of women religious evolved in other ways. Many chose to live alone or in small groups and stopped wearing their habits, adopting instead simple clothing to fit in better with the people they were ministering to. Even more significant, while they had traditionally served mostly Catholics as teachers or in hospitals, increasing numbers of sisters started working with non-Catholics on issues such as poverty, the environment, and racial justice, often as social workers and community organizers—all to fulfill the imperatives of Vatican II as they understood them.

The growing involvement with the poor and marginalized steered Akers herself toward a theology that emphasized social justice. In 1974, she earned a master’s degree in theology from the University of Dayton; her thesis on the prophecy of Martin Luther King Jr. explored the manner in which the civil rights leader used his grounding in the Gospels to transform society. In 1996, she finished her doctorate of ministry at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a project called “Patriarchal Power and the Pauperization of Women.” For five years under then-Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, she coordinated the Social Action & World Peace Office at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, working on issues such as the Nestlé boycott, farmworkers’ rights, racism, and U.S. policy in Central America. She taught theology at Xavier University, attended United Nations conferences on women, and started the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center to educate women religious on justice issues. Her work took her to Malawi, Nicaragua, China, Cuba, France, El Salvador, and other countries, as well as to parishes throughout southwest Ohio to lead educational sessions. She has attended White House meetings on women, and the very week she met with Pilarczyk, Akers learned she’d been accepted into the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s “Leadership Cincinnati,” an invitation-only program on civic leadership for prominent local figures.

“She took social justice very seriously and wanted to make sure we understood what social justice meant, and what it meant to be Catholic and a student at Seton,” says state Representative Denise Driehaus, who was one of Akers’s students nearly 30 years ago. “She made us understand that there were people who were less fortunate than us and it was our responsibility to help them. And she really walked the walk.”

Not surprisingly, in walking that walk, Akers’s social-justice work led her to some conclusions that placed her at odds with official Catholic teaching. “We didn’t always have the words at the time,” she says, “but the more I became involved, the more I realized how many of the marginalized are women, both in society and in the Church.” As Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Reform Jews, and other religions began ordaining women, Akers could find no good reason for the Catholic Church to refuse ordination to women who felt called to it. It’s a position she’s held for decades. But until recently, it didn’t interfere with her day job.

As vocations director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the Rev. Kyle Schnippel often delivers homilies at local parishes asking members to encourage young men to consider the priesthood. And often, standing outside a church after Mass, someone will come up and say, “You wouldn’t have this problem if you didn’t overlook half the population.”

“I’m in sales, I’m not in management,” Schnippel quips as he settles into answering one of the hardest questions he faces in his job. Even ardent supporters of the Vatican’s position acknowledge it’s not an easy case to make; indeed, surveys show that about 60 percent of American Catholics oppose the Vatican ban on women’s ordination. “This is one of the few areas in the world today where women are told, You can’t take part in this. This isn’t open to you,” Schnippel says. “Even faithful women who love the Church, the first time they hear that it’s like, Whoa.

The argument in favor of women’s ordination is fairly simple: supporters believe that historical and cultural sexism has kept women out of positions of power, and that ordination is a path to a specific kind of power, akin to running corporations and winning elected office. “I feel no call to become a priest, but if women feel called to the priesthood they should have that path open to them,” Akers says. “Women’s ordination is a justice issue. Its basis is the value, dignity, and equality of women.”

The arguments against the ordination of women are a bit more complicated and require some knowledge of Catholic tradition and teaching. Those who support the Vatican’s position point out that the Church can hardly be accused of turning its back on women: there are more female Catholic saints than male; women hold leadership positions across the church worldwide; and Catholic sisters were creating and managing health-care systems and school districts long before American women could vote. But they also believe that contemporary Catholic priests and bishops are the direct successors of the 12 apostles Jesus chose to carry out his ministry, who in turn replaced the 12 tribes of Israel; because Jesus intentionally chose only men as apostles, the church is not free to change this requirement.

“There have never been women priests in the Catholic Church. It’s a 2,000-year understanding of the Church that priesthood is a sacrament that continues the apostolic tradition,” says Gail Finke, a female student in the lay pastoral ministry program at the Athenaeum of Ohio in Mt. Washington, which also trains the archdiocese’s seminarians. “There’s cultural confusion in our time that says, If I don’t get to do exactly what other people do, I’m not equal. But most men aren’t going to be ordained either. It’s not like the Church is saying, ‘Ha ha ha! You can’t become a priest!’”

Opponents of female ordination stress that the Catholic Church must look at the issue in terms of what Jesus intended and what the Church’s traditions are, rather than what current cultural imperatives call for; and further, that the call of Vatican II to engage in the world didn’t intend for the Church to take its marching orders from contemporary society.

“It’s difficult, especially in American culture, modernist culture, where everything is up for grabs and church is what we decide it to be, and we’re going out and saying, ‘No, the truth is what is established by Christ,’” Schnippel says. It’s not something the Church invented, he insists. “This is what Christ teaches.”

Reform-minded Catholics first began calling for women to be ordained in the tumult of the 1970s. By that time the implicit feminism in many women’s congregations had become explicit. Some prominent nuns began calling openly for a change in the ordination policy and a group that included many sisters formed the Women’s Ordination Conference in 1975. Four years later Sister Theresa Kane, then head of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, stunned an audience in Washington, D.C., by directly asking Pope John Paul II—then on his first visit to the U.S.—to ordain women. “Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church,” she said. “I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and 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.”

Pope John Paul II issued a definitive statement on the question of women’s ordination in 1994, declaring in the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” But calls for change continued, and both local bishops and the Vatican began to take action against Catholics who defied the teaching.

Some of the cases have been close to home. In 1995, Sister Carmel McEnroy was dismissed from her tenured position at the St. Meinrad School of Theology in southern Indiana for signing a letter in support of women’s ordination. In 1998, Sister Barbara Fiand was barred from teaching seminarians at the Athenaeum of Ohio, reportedly because she did not support the Church’s teachings on vocations. (Fiand later resigned and now teaches at Loyola University in Chicago.) And at least three dozen American women—including former Ohio First Lady Dagmar Celeste—have been ordained since 2002 in ceremonies they say were sanctioned by Catholic bishops; the Vatican has said they, and anyone involved in the ordinations, would be automatically excommunicated.

Last year, in the midst of deteriorating relations between many women’s orders and the Catholic hierarchy, the Vatican announced two inquiries into the lives of women religious in the U.S. One is a broad look at the “quality of life” of sisters, especially in light of their dramatically dwindling numbers and the changes in their missions. The nun in charge of the inquiry, Mother Mary Clare Millea—an American nun based in Rome—is visiting congregations, interviewing members and leaders, and compiling a report for Vatican officials. The other inquiry is a “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most of the women’s orders in the U.S., on three specific issues on which the Vatican and many sisters differ: women’s ordination, homosexuality, and religious pluralism.

Many traditional Catholics welcome the Vatican’s inquiries, believing that some women’s congregations have used Vatican II teachings to go far beyond anything the council intended, in an attempt to advance an agenda of radical feminism and dissent. In addition to questioning Church doctrine on ordination and other issues, they say many nuns have embraced New Age spiritual practices, and that some have launched ministries that support same-sex relationships while others speak on behalf of abortion rights. One nun in Illinois was reprimanded just last year for volunteering as an escort at an abortion clinic, helping women walk past protesters and into the clinic.

“People are becoming more aware of this subculture of Catholic sisters, and it’s bothering people,” Gail Finke says. “It’s not like the Catholic Church is telling people what they can and can’t think, but when you’re supposed to be teaching what the Catholic Church teaches, you can’t run around saying something else. And if you’re going to do something you think is brave and political, you have to be willing to accept the consequences.”

But many of the sisters and their supporters refer to the Vatican’s broader assessment as “The Inquisition.” They are angered at the way it is being conducted—in secrecy and with no input from the orders themselves—and angered as well that dioceses are being asked to foot the $1.1 million bill for the three-year inquiry at a time when many local churches are struggling financially. They say sisters have been the backbone of the Church for centuries and continue to serve as its conscience. A host of groups, from Call to Action to the bishops of California, have issued statements of support for women religious, and many bishops have said publicly that they cannot or will not contribute to pay for the investigation. (As of late December, Archbishop Pilarczyk “has not responded” to the request, according to spokesman Dan Andriacco.)

“I think women religious today, we are a very educated, faithful group in the Church. The ministries we’ve chosen are gospel-based, and we approach them through a variety of professions,” Akers says. “Sometimes through analysis and reflection we come to different conclusions than the traditional ones, and therein lies the concerns of the traditional church. Again, it seems to me that dialogue is called for rather than investigation.”

In fact, the inquiry may be part of a larger effort by the Church to assess and perhaps reverse changes wrought by Vatican II as the 50-year anniversary of the council approaches. Pope Benedict XVI, in his long Vatican career, has earned a reputation as someone who cherishes tradition and orthodoxy. Since he became pope, he has lifted the excommunication order on the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which has long opposed many of the Vatican II reforms. And while perhaps the most visible legacy of Vatican II was the change to the Mass—switching from Latin to indigenous languages, and turning the priest to face the congregation instead of the altar—increasing numbers of parishes are offering the traditional Latin Mass, as well as traditional devotions such as Eucharistic adoration and the Liturgy of the Hours. A recent study of new priests, brothers, and sisters found that they prefer to live together in community, participate in daily Eucharist, wear a religious habit, work together in shared missions—in short, to live in the sort of religious communities that existed 50 years ago.

For Akers, the elimination of her archdiocesan teaching duties has been more than replaced by the opportunities it created. She’s still working at the Sisters of Charity organizing workshops—and official responses to questions of peace and justice, such as climate change and the war in Iraq. Plus, there are the supportive letters, e-mails, and phone calls she continues to receive: the former student who remembers Akers’s attendance at volleyball games; the mother who was struggling to explain to her 7-year-old daughter why she can’t become a priest; the former seminarian who recalled with great satisfaction the zero he received on a paper supporting women’s ordination. “That zero made me realize how Galileo felt when he was trying to instruct the Church on the position of the planet in relation to the rest of the universe,” the man wrote to Akers.

And while the past months have been emotionally draining, Akers realizes the benefits of her new prominence, too. Informally organized groups of supporters have invited her to speak at gatherings, affording her new audiences; hundreds of friends showed up at a December party to honor and buoy her; and the Call to Action conference gave her wide national exposure and support.

Of course, her critics are still out there, too. Many of them wonder why she and others who support the ordination of women don’t just leave the Catholic Church for a denomination that allows it. Why not become an Anglican, or a Lutheran?

Akers recalls being with a justice group in Nicaragua when Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1983. It was deep in the midst of the Contra war, and many poor Nicaraguans were furious when the pope refused to acknowledge the mothers of 17 Sandinistas recently killed by the Contras. In broken Spanish, Akers asked one woman if she thought people would leave the Catholic Church over the incident. “Leave the Church?” the woman responded, apparently confused. Akers found a translator and asked the question again. “Leave the Church?” the woman repeated. “We are the Church!”

“It was a pivotal moment for me,” Akers says. “To leave the Church—how do you leave the Church? It’s like leaving yourself.”

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