- July 9, 2012
- 12:01 am
Radical nun research
On April 18, the Vatican released a statement suggesting a full overhaul for the largest umbrella group of nuns in the U.S. (Leadership Conference of Women Religious). The Vatican said they believed the group had taken on “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” in addition to positions on priesthood and homosexuality that undermine Roman Catholic teaching. For senior political science and women’s studies major, and Provost Fellow, Anne Burkhardt this news was, as she says, “serendipitous.”
A few months earlier, Burkhardt had decided she was interested in researching something that combined her interest in theology, activism, women’s stories, and politics (she also has a double minor in social work and history). After discussing this with women’s studies professor Bren Murphy, she settled on the topic of nuns. She designed a full project with her faculty mentor Elizabeth Myers, who is a women’s studies professor and director of the Women & Leadership Archives in Piper Hall, and she was accepted as a Provost Fellow for the summer. The project is tentatively called, “Women of Faith in Revolt: Understanding Catholic Woman Activists in Late 20th-Century Chicago.”
This is Burkhardt’s second provost fellowship, and her second project designed around women leaders. The first was about identity politics and women campaigning for office, but for this project Burkhardt was looking to do something different. In addition to her interests listed above, Burkhardt’s mother recently graduated from college with a degree in pastoral ministry and a minor in theology so Burkhardt says discussions of theology are “normal dinnertime conversation,” which is why researching nuns holds such an interest. However, Burkhardt wanted to keep her women’s studies focus as a fundamental part of her research.
“I also think that it’s really quite important to be more aware of what’s going on with nuns these days, since they are in many ways living the changes that the Church is going through – an institution with massive amounts of power,” Burkhardt says of her research. “A lot of them are incredible women, too, and deserve to have their stories told.”
And her thesis reflects these ideas. “Our preliminary thesis is that Catholic nuns have a long history of resisting male hierarchical control, and this latest flare-up is just the last in a long line of tensions – although this one is more public, of course, in part due to changes wrought by Vatican II,” she explains.
Burkhardt has been conducting secondary source information through the resources in Loyola’s archives, in order to put together a history of nuns who have clashed with the Church in one way or another. However, she will be conducting primary-source research by interviewing three nuns in the Chicago area, each of whom have been activists in different social causes.
“The three that we’ve chosen were active in a variety of social justice movements – from reproductive rights to immigration issues to poverty and on and on,” she says. “Nuns have their fingers in a lot of social justice pies, and recognizing the impact of their life’s work is important.”
Though Burkhardt’s research is ongoing, as is the controversy over the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she says that the work she is doing will benefit her, regardless of her future plans.
“Practicing self-directed research is difficult and rewarding, and both learning how to ask the right questions and approach people with confidence in asking those questions will be similarly useful in both my personal and academic lives,” she says.
This summer we will be profiling several Provost Fellows. The Provost Fellows are undergraduate students who either are interested in doing their own research with the help of a faculty member or wish to assist a faculty member with their research. They apply to the program with an outline for research, including a project description, budget, and faculty letter from the person who will be a part of the project. If they are accepted into the program, they receive a $1,000 stipend to complete their research. Their findings are then presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring. To find out more about the program, visit the website here.