A few days ago, the latest edition of the Oakland Diocesan newspaper showed up in my mailbox. On the front page, there was an article proudly proclaiming that approximately 500 Catholics from across the Bay Area had gathered in San Francisco for the Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom campaign. As I read the article, I began to get a bit depressed. Having recently organized my own vigil as part of the Nun Justice Project, I was disheartened by how much smaller our event seemed by comparison.
“How can there be that many Catholics in my community who would deny women their right to basic health services?” I thought. “What does that say about our priorities as a church?”
But as I started to read between the lines, I realized how small of a turn-out that actually was. Their event had been organized by bishops in multiple dioceses who had brought people in from San Francisco, Oakland and Modesto. To compare: the Nun Justice vigil that we organized in Oakland had 200 people. If you add our numbers to the people that held vigils in nearby Stockton and Santa Rosa– as well as the people that vigiled for four consecutive weeks in San Francisco– we might have had 500 people as well! But instead of having one large rally that was organized by (paid) organizers, we had multiple smaller rallies each organized by a team of dedicated volunteers who simply wanted to support the nuns.
While the US Council of Catholic Bishops spent what seemed to be an endless amount of money on the Fortnight for Freedom events, our little Oakland vigil cost us $55 in poster board and permanent markers. However, what we lacked in finances or political clout, we more than made up for in passion. In the month leading up to our vigil, I received emails and calls every day from total strangers who wanted to donate time, energy and money to the vigil. Never in my life have I worked on an event that had so much energy around it. I never had to convince anyone to care about the crackdown on the LCWR. Everyone I talked to had such an overwhelming love for nuns that they wanted to do whatever was in their power to support them.
On the day of our vigil Catholics, non-Catholics, ex-Catholics, priests, laity and women religious all gathered to tell the stories of nuns who had made a difference in their lives. We talked about our CCD teachers, our spiritual directors, and our theology professors. Many of us held photos of women religious: Joan Chittester, Dorothy Stang and many less famous but equally heroic women who had touched our lives. Every single person that I met that day knew exactly why they were there, and expressed a deep, genuine love for women religious and all women leaders in our church.
As I watch the Bishops struggle to explain what exactly the Fortnight for Freedom campaign is about, I can’t help but wonder if their cause has been greeted with that same sort of grassroots passion. Judging from the national turn-out of the Fortnight for Freedom campaign, it would seem that the average U.S. Catholic doesn’t really care if a student at Georgetown wants to use birth control. But as proven by the 44 Nun Justice vigils that were held last May, Catholics seem to have an incredible love for women religious, and I’d like to think that love extends to Girl Scouts, women church workers and even young women who attend Catholic universities.
No matter how much money the Bishops want to spend on giant foam fingers, they can’t manufacture the kind of passion that thousands of ordinary U.S. Catholics have for the rights of women in our church.
Christine Haider-Winnett is the Co-President of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board of Directors. She currently lives in Oakland, CA.