“Taking the High Road,” Take One: Bill Keller

This weekend at the Catholic Media Conference in Indianapolis, Bishop Christopher Coyne, who once served as spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, offered some advice to folks in my line of work. Point one: Take the high road. Point two: Stay on message, meaning, the Good News. Point three: Build up, rather than tear down. It does sound a bit like a recipe for editorial blandness. It definitely sounds like an invitation for us pundits to re-direct all our naturally occurring rage inward, or toward our pets. But, as Coyne demonstrates, all of his points have their roots in Scripture, not to mention common sense. The Church as a body, and each of its individual members, already have all the enemies we need.

It happens that I read the text of Coyne’s address not long after reading a reply made by National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters to New York Times columnist Bill Keller. Keller, in an op-ed column titled “The Rottweiler’s Rottweiler” attacks the Catholic Church by fisking Bill Donahue’s latest book, about as sportsmanlike an act as attacking Italian cinema by reviewing Life is Beautiful. He goes on to agree with Donahue that ambivalent Catholics, in particular the sisters represented by the LCWR, should quit the Church. Each nun, he says, should receive a $20K severance package — or, Keller dutifully points out, an opus caritas — after the manner of Milwaukee priests accused of child abuse when the future Cardinal Dolan served as archbishop.

Winters lowers his head and charges. In that stentorian, contractions-are-the-devil’s-hoofprints style he adopts when he’s really mad, he writes:

This is the view of religion found in the heart of someone who is comfortable understanding himself primarily as a consumer. Choosing a religion is like choosing a vacuum cleaner: If you don’t like the one you have, get a different one. And, Keller’s understanding of conscience and its relationship to the church is decidedly non-Catholic…Keller’s conscience is the conscience of the self-satisfied and the intellectually lazy. It is no conscience at all. It is whim. It is unworthy of a religion and only Keller and his colleagues at the New York Times, the epitome of self-satisfaction, can fail to see this.

I admire Winters a great deal. And God knows Keller wasn’t asking for a pat on the head. But really, spitting so much venom at the Times makes a man sound like he’s about to order the firing of Archibald Cox. Tying Keller’s journalistic errors — apparently based on what he’s heard from biased sources, he misrepresents Rome’s attitude toward Vatican II — to some character defect is just uneccessary. A simple “Next time, call John Allen, Jr.” would have worked fine.

Pope Benedict writes that “dialogue comes into being when there is not only speech, but also listening.” This leads to mutual understanding and “transforms the being of the interlocutors.” That’s a mighty tall order for a column, but I’ll take a whack at it. Now that I’ve listened to Bill Keller, I think I have an idea of what’s missing from his understanding of Catholic tradition. Rather than throttle him for it, I’m going to try to fill in the blanks.

Here’s what I would write if I thought Bill Keller would read it:

“You’ll notice that most nuns, including members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are not leaving the Church. On the contrary, they’re moving heaven and earth to remain in it on something like their own terms. In part, they’ve launched their campaign outside official channels — by going on the bus, on the Colbert Report, on CNN. But they’ve also gone to Rome, to meet with the cardinal who oversaw the unflattering doctrinal assessment. Standing at a pistol’s shot from their tormentor, they chose to end the encounter with a handshake.

“You see this as a waste of human potential. To understand why the nuns see it differently, review Sister Laurie Brink’s address to the LCRW, the one that caused such a stir in and out of the Church. Sr. Laurie has been widely, and correctly, quoted as saying that nuns can do exactly what you say, by ‘moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.’ But as your colleague Ross Douthat observes, this formula was ‘descriptive, not prescriptive.’ She lists it alongside three other ways in which sisters might resolve their differences with the hierarchy. Though she endorses none of them, she sounds suspiciously fulsome when describing how women religious might reconcile themselves to the reigning powers for the sake of the mission. Even if they have suffered unfair treatment, Sr. Laurie reminds the sisters, they remain ‘ecclesial women.’

“The key word is ecclesial, meaning, belonging to the Church, which Catholics define primarily by its unity. In the Nicene Creed, we proclaim belief in ‘one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ one claiming pride of place over the other modifiers. The Church thinks of itself as the Body of Christ, its members mystically joined by the sacraments. Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II decree allowing that the Jewish people remain ‘most dear to God,’ and that Jesus’ ‘plan of salvation’ includes Muslims, insists that the Church of mystical communion and the hierarchical structure ‘are not to be considered two separate realities.’ For a Catholic, to imagine breaking free of the second without also breaking off from the first would involve a sharp detour from centuries of ecclesiological thinking. It’s not a detour many people would undertake on Bill Donahue’s say-so, no matter what Cardinal Dolan might do to sweeten the deal.

“But what if the Church teaches things that strike your informed judgment (or common sense) as wrongheaded, inhumane or destructive? There’s no doubt about it — staying on board under those circumstances can be maddening. Fortunately, if Catholic tradition is good for anything, it’s lending method to madness, and here’s no exception. When the LCWR first announced plans to meet and discuss the Vatican reprimand, its spokeswoman promised: ‘We will engage in dialogue where possible and be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.’ This may sound like euphemistic Church-speak for ‘We’ll stall for time until Pope Benedict, the old goat, kicks the bucket,’ but it isn’t.

“During the Last Supper, Jesus told the Twelve — who’d proven rather slow on the uptake to that point — that the Holy Spirit would ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all I have said to you.’ In other words, the nuns are hoping that the same Holy Spirit will give someone, somewhere, an insight that will end the deadlock between themselves and the Vatican in a way Jesus Himself would have approved.

“Probably, more than a few of these nuns are hoping the Holy Spirit will bring the Vatican around to seeing things their way, if not actually to removing the ‘stained-glass ceiling,’ as you put it, then certainly to re-affirming their previous autonomy. The length of the odds against wouldn’t cause a Catholic to despair altogether. Catholics, as well as many other Christians, are taught to think in terms of the ‘fullness of time.’ They might prefer that things work to their advantage immediately, but they’re less likely than other people to feel mortally slighted if they don’t. At worst, they’ll have the sense that one day we’ll all look back on this and laugh.

“My point here isn’t to argue that the Church will ever change the teachings the nuns object to, or even leave them alone to prophesy to their hearts’ content. I’m just trying to explain why, despite their objections, most nuns are sticking around. If none of it makes sense, how’s this: their departure would make Bill Donahue happy. Do you really think he deserves to be?”

  • http://www.thetheologyoflaundry.blogspot.com Marissa Nichols

    I have to admit, I don’t really understand Winter’s retort to Keller. Is he trying to suggest that the nuns are Catholic because the Faith “chose” them? And of course, we’re all ‘consumers’ of Faith! We ‘buy’ into its tenets or we don’t. No one forces them on us, and there are several faiths there that would ‘suit’ anybody’s laundry list of requirements – that seemed to me to be Keller’s point, which, as much as I eye the NYT critically, isn’t all that off the mark. I think your reply to Keller is far more rounded out and comprehensive. No one wants the sisters to leave, and no one is pushes anyone out of the Church either – people tend roll up their mats and walk away themselves. Your theory about why some are sticking around is probably much closer to what’s actually happening – two words come to mind: de-nial. Okay, so its one word, but you get my point. Denial: that they’re the one’s whose methods and theolgoy are off and off-putting to younger generations, denial that they’re NOT being picked on, denial that they are the ones in need of change.

  • joannemcportland

    Terrific stuff. I hope you sent it directly to both Winters and Keller. There are points you’re making here that nobody else has gotten.

  • ace

    I agree that unity is the thing. It’s a sign in the body. When we have conflicts in the church, all sides should be praying to the Father; thanking Him for having given us to each other, asking for the grace that we might not lose any he has given to us, begging for the humility to remove the beam from our eye so we can see clearly to remove the splinter…

    “Set me as a seal upon you heart, as a seal upon your arm;
    For love is strong as Death, longing is fierce as Sheol.
    Its arrows are arrows of fire, flames of the divine.
    Deep waters cannot quench love, nor rivers sweep it away.
    Were one to offer all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly despised.”
    - Song of Songs 8: 6,7

    When we decide to follow Jesus, (2nd verse, new words…)
    “Though nuns go with me,
    Still I will follow,
    No turning back, no turning back”

    There is no easy divorce for Catholics…
    of any of its members…

  • helena

    I get the feeling that these people are not leaving because they came of age in the ’60′s and the 70′s and they’d rather just stay put and change the church. They are that narcissistic generation that wants the faith to reflect just them because in their collective mind, who else is there? We see that this has always been a losing proposition, they are just the last to get wise to it. P.S I love that thoughtful measured tone you take here-it suits you well

  • Barb

    This was beautifully written and made me well up – until you had the nuns thinking the Pope’s an old goat. Then I lol’d.

    [In fairness, I had Bill Keller supposing the nuns thought that. Still, glad it worked.]

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Indeed it does.

  • Thomas R

    “remain in it on something like their own terms.”

    I don’t think this is how most religion or Christianity precisely works. Christianity is in some way transformative. If you want to be in “on something like your own terms” than you might really be better off with Unitarianism.

    Many nuns stay because it’s all they know, they’ve been nuns they’re entire adulthood life. Or they stay because they value the social-work side of being a nun.

    I do understand the fear of a “consumerist” approach, but if religion is more like “a love affair” as Chesterton I believe said this doesn’t precisely change things as much as desired. Because why stay in a relationship you find deeply ambivalent or where it has to be “on something like my own terms” for you to tolerate it? It’s like woman who stays with a guy because she thinks “There’s enough I like, I hope I can change the rest.” Well maybe you can’t.

    Here I’m mostly talking about nuns who reject areas where all Pre-Reformation Christianity, so far as I know, is in agreement. (All-male priesthood, seeing abortion as always wrong, homosexual sex as always wrong, etc) Nuns who vary on things like married priests or even condoms, for disease prevention, I’d see as different. I don’t think everything is inarguably defined, but some things I think kind of are. I can see how it could sound hurtful to say “just leave” but sometimes partings are necessary.

  • TerryC

    They stay because in the words of one sister back in the 1980′s the Church owns the copiers. In other words once they leave they become irrelevant. Would the New York Times care care what a group of women who had left the Church to become Episcopalians or nondenominal Christians, or wiccans or New Agers said. Would they even get an inch of print on page 24? No the LCRW know that it is only their position as the pontifical representative of (some) women religious in the United States which gives them a platform at all. If they Leave the Church, as honesty should command them to do, they would vanish into the masses as far as the media is concerned.