At the convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America earlier this month, the Society’s John Courtney Murray award was given to my Carleton teacher, moral theologian Anne Patrick, SNJM. When Anne told me she was to receive the award, I was deeply happy. No one goes to Carleton expecting to become a Catholic moral theologian. I certainly didn’t. But I found my way into her senior seminar on “Conscience and Community,” (as a sophomore, thanks to her judgment that my Jesuit high school education meant I probably knew more about Catholicism than most Carleton religion majors!) and immediately found myself drawn into that world. I ended up taking five classes from her, and she directed my comps on Thomas Merton. I remember her introducing the documents of Vatican II in one class, telling us about how her world and her faith opened up when she first read those documents and formed a sense of her vocation. I remember her Religion and Literature class, where I learned from her extraordinarily sensitive and powerful readings of stories, a power that in evident throughout her theological writing. Anne was a wonderful teacher, but she was even more a real witness, living out a vocation of teaching and learning, serving in a setting where nothing was more surprising than finding a professor who was a Catholic nun!

I could write a tribute to how Anne shaped me to be aware of how fidelity to a tradition and creativity can be combined – how to be a Catholic and a Carl at the same time. This is evidenced in her work, but even more so, I find it on display in her lived witness. But I got sidetracked by the comments on the above-mentioned CTSA article. As readers of our blog are aware, we as a group are committed to raising the level of discourse within the Church, practicing charity in conversation. Unfortunately, many commenters elsewhere exemplify an utter disregard for such charity. Take the following comment: “A day after the CTSA pledges a new dialog with the Vatican, they grant their highest award to a woman whose central theological thesis is, “What would a bunch of repressed, old men know about anything, anyway?” Niiiice.”

Has this person read Anne’s work? The answer is no (but apparently he read a sentence of it from an Amazon review!) Has he been in Anne’s classes and seen her teach the Catholic tradition in a context where many students have little but stereotype and skepticism about anything Catholic? And seen her do all this as a gentle, strong, ever-charitable vowed religious? Here, from Liberating Conscience, is her description of what she means by “feminism”:

a position that involves (1) a solid conviction of the equality of women and men, and (2) a commitment to reform society so that the full equality of women is respected, which requires also reforming the thought systems that legitimate the present unjust social order. I hope it is clear that my analysis does not see males as such as ‘the problem.’ On the contrary, I presume that men and women both suffer under the injustices of patriarchy.

So much for any supposed “radicalism” or rejection of “old men.” Such a statement, careful but firm, is characteristic of her style. As with her text, her teaching balances the acknowledgement that moral theology “has been complicit in systemic injustice, unintentionally clouding the vision of believers,” while “at the same time, it has seemed important to acknowledge that on the whole the tradition has served us well.” Solid, creative, faithful re-visioning permeates her texts and her teaching.

So let me just say: such comments are just blatantly wrong, and make me aware of how vicious and disasterous our Catholic conversation has become. They are wrong in the simple sense that they are inaccurate. And they are wrong because they impugn the faith of someone whose whole life is devoted to Catholic service. When I read such obviously wrong comments about someone I know well, I become acutely aware of how often similar things may be thought or said on the basis of little or no knowledge. How awful for the Church, and for our communion with God and one another.

Another commenter states: “The fruit of her, and other feminist theologians, work is found in the empty pews of our Catholic Churchs [sic]. I indeed do not know Sister Patrick but, each and every day, I see the product of her work.” I do know Anne. Every day I see the product of her work! There are many reasons why the pews of the Church are less filled than they ought to be, but the idea that Anne’s work is one of those reasons is laughable. Uncaring priests, unfriendly parishes, hypocrisy, general cultural change in America, a difficulty believing in God in a materialistic culture, a lack of effective ministry for young adults – these are all major reasons I see and hear all the time for people’s disenchantment with the Church. In her person and her writings, Anne embodies none of these. Indeed, she is the opposite. She herself lives out the message that, in her words, “our consciences are functioning as they should…when those who suffer most from oppression and injustice experience our lives and deeds as expressions of God’s liberating love for us all.” I may not agree with every dichotomy and distinction she mankes in her theological arguments, but I never doubt for a second her commitment to the Catholic moral tradition and the value of her contribution to enlivening that tradition. Her work displays the compassion for the suffering and the hopeful witness that are what bring people back to the Church, not drive them away – as we’ve seen in the popular reception of Pope Francis.

So congratulations, Sister Anne. And thank you for making my vocation.