“She the People” columnist Melinda Henneberger profiled the life of ex-nun, artist and activist Sister Corita Kent in a June 19 blog post titled: “Before there were nuns on a bus, there was Sister Corita Kent.” Henneberger, who gushed that “God was written all over Sister Corita Kent’s work, literally,” lamented that “Naturally, she wound up in Dutch with Rome.”
Henneberger painted Kent’s story as a familiar tale of a conservative hierarchy persecuting a vibrant feminist activist: “The local bishop at the time, 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 dubbed the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the words of the writer Samuel Eisenstein, “the juiciest tomato of them all.”
Henneberger fails to mention that the print, titled “The Juiciest Tomato of All,” writes words on a Del Monte can. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times wrote of the print: "The Juiciest Tomato of All" (1964) transforms a Del Monte label into a stirring, frankly sexual meditation on the Virgin Mary's power.”
For Henneberger, Kent’s decision to leave her order, and the fact that her order was disciplined by the Vatican, are marks of her superior Catholicism. Indeed, Henneberger strangely and falsely implied that Kent is on her way to being canonized, writing: “No, Corita hasn’t been canonized yet, but it’s early; she died of cancer in 1986.”
Most saints don’t portray the Virgin Mary on canned food, or leave their orders to become artists after clashing with the hierarchy. But Henneberger assumes that dissent from Church teaching is a mark of authentic Catholicism. Indeed, she asserts that “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.”
It is true that Catholic saints have been at odds with various members of the hierarchy. But Catholic saints criticized the hierarchy when the hierarchy failed to defend Church teaching, not because the Church upheld it. Indeed, Padre Pio, whom Henneberger cites, was a religious conservative who asked for (and was granted) permission to say the traditional Latin Mass during the reforms of Vatican II.
The thrust of Henneberger’s parable of Kent was clear: she argued that “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.” Henneberger’s final plea expresses a call for feminists to take back the Church: “Please, holy women, don’t leave the Church in the hands of those who despite the best of intentions still don’t know.”
But bishops, priests, nuns, and laypeople who accept the teachings of the Catholic Church recognize that in Catholicism, “activism” and doctrine are one and inseparable. A fixation on doctrine without a missionary spirit results in spiritual sterility, while a missionary spirit lacking a doctrinal foundation results in chaos.
Any attempt to force the Catholic Church violate its own teachings, as the Obama administration has done, inevitably leads to the destruction of the charitable work the church performs. And the attempts of Henneberger and her allies to equate feminist nuns’ dissent with true Catholicism reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the Catholic Church and its mission.