With Love and Gratitude

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Empathy: Sister Simone, the Election, and Women

Our culture of caring was nurtured by Carter, Clinton, Obama; does Romney care?

The Old North Church, David Ardito
There is an all too true saying: “I have often had to apologize for my words, but never for my silence.”

It was at an Oktoberfest celebration that I was formally introduced to a bishop who had been warned: “She works for the newspaper.  Watch what you say to her.” 

He smiled and asked: “Do you often give us a hard time?”

Silence eluded me.

“As often as I can,” I answered. “I think the Church should stay away from preaching about birth control, politics, and nuns who are being chastised for looking after women. There is an entire generation of women, such as myself, who were threatened with hell and damnation for kissing boys in the school yard.  Nonetheless, we are on the side of the nuns." 

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The Vatican has been trying to rein in the nuns. It seems that some 80 percent of the remaining 57,000 sisters in the U.S. are members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  But they have close ties with "Network," a social-advocacy lobby, headed by Sr. Simone Campbell.  She and members of the group took part in a nine-state “Nuns on the Bus” tour that ended at the U.S. Capitol, where they protested the Republican budget advocated by Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate. The Pope and the Nuns Square Off, The Providence Journal

As the bishop and I spoke, I came to see that he was in the same position that many of us have faced in working for corporate America. We followed the policies set down by the CEO and the board – our employers.

What struck me once again was that within the church, which has disillusioned so many, there are clergy who are much more understanding of women than the Vatican. They have the gift of empathy.

Bishop Mitt Romney and Mormon women

In terms of understanding and compassion Mitt Romney, as Bishop of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, received a failing grade from many women in Arlington, Mass.  Perhaps because I was there again visiting yesterday, in this very town where the Mormon Cathedral towers above the highway, I was reminded of the story of Carrel Hilton Sheldon, a mother who was advised to terminate her sixth pregnancy.

After being informed by her doctor that she had “a life-threatening blood clot lodged in her pelvic region,” she had an abortion. While hospitalized, she received an uninvited -- and unsupportive -- visit from Bishop Romney. On that day Mitt left his smile and his empathy at home.  For women who may not remember this story, it is now documented in Geoffrey Dunn’s book: 

"At a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends," Sheldon wrote, "I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection." Horror Stories: Mitt Romney's Shameful Record with Mormon Women - Huffington Post

The Nuns on the Bus and the President

Perhaps this is the Obama edge –  genuine empathy. Throughout the campaign we kept hearing, “It’s about jobs.”  But it is also about women’s health and the composition of the Supreme Court, which can easily take a turn to the far right.

The church and the nation

People often ask me why I stayed in the church -- given the earthy nature of most of my writing and my sharp criticism of policies that impinge on women's rights.  Perhaps for the same reason that I stayed in America after George Bush was elected. I believe in the basic message of the church – love and forgiveness -- just as I believe in the basic principles for which this country was founded. And, yes, I can recite "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." 

With the church, my argument is not with the Great Divine, but rather with clergymen who misinterpret the message of love and shield those who are in Rome rather than in jail.

In this nation, my argument is not with politics, but with those who buy elections through hidden donations and sound bites.

In the final analysis regardless of who is president, the nation will survive. Life will go on.  However, if we lose our culture of caring -- cultivated by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama -- women will become the big losers. To the Sister Simone’s of the world, thank you.

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Copyright 2012 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved

Rita Watson, MPH, is an Associate Fellow at Yale's Ezra Stiles College and a columnist for The Providence Journal.

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