On Fire: St Barbara, MoDowd, Sr Farley and the Grand Inquisitor

The day began with fire.

I smelled smoke at 4 a.m. and walked outside to see billowing grey clouds reflecting two-story flames and full of lightning flashes, just half a block away. Burned power lines cracked like rifleshot. Sparks and pieces of burning roof tar paper sailed toward me on the wind. I swear I saw a bird on fire, furiously beating wings of flame. In the predawn darkness, I prayed a storm novena (9 consecutive seconds of very intense prayer, a devotion I learned from my ex-mother-in-law) to St Barbara, invoked against fire and lightning and patroness of artillerymen.

Apocalypse: It’s what’s for breakfast. The fire—of “suspicious origin,” consuming one of the vacant homes my real-life urban neighborhood has too many of—only added to my sense of unease at starting my first day in this new virtual neighborhood. Patheos is so . . . big, so full of bloggers with things to say. My mind, this morning, was a smoke-damaged blank. I had blogoraphobia. Now that I’m here, would I ever have anything to post about?

Praise God, I had reckoned without Maureen Dowd. I missed her latest rant yesterday in the flurry of blog-moving, but there she was, waiting for me today—hair as red as flame, breathing out self-righteousness like choking smoke, with the Vatican in her artillery crosshairs. Mo, who never met a Church leader she didn’t loathe, felt it necessary to remind her readers yet again that THE CHURCH HATES WOMEN. (I’d say “emphasis mine,” but she really does write at that volume.) Yesterday’s entry focused on the Notification issued this week by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taking issue with Just Love, a 2006 book on sexual ethics by Sr Margaret Farley. Like many in the popular press, Mo sees this as Crackdown on Nuns: The Sequel. Or maybe War on Women, Part 666:

Just the latest chapter in the Vatican’s thuggish crusade to push American nuns — and all Catholic women — back into moldy subservience.

Thuggish crusade! Moldy subservience! I wonder sometimes why she doesn’t simply self-destruct in her Tasmanian Devil hissing and spinning, but Mo is not all wrong about the link between Rome’s criticisms of positions taken by the LCWR’s leadership and this recent critique of Sr Farley’s book. There’s a tipoff to that connection in the CDF’s letter to Sr Farley’s religious superior, to whom the Notification criticizing Just Love was addressed:

In closing, I call attention to the important responsibility of a Major Superior of Religious to oversee the publications of the members of the Institute, so as to ensure that these publications are in conformity with the Magisterium of the Church (cf. Code of Canon Law, Can. 832).

So no, the timing is not coincidental. The US title of this drama may be Crackdown on Nuns: The Sequel, but in Rome it’s known as What in Hell Are These People Thinking? (Again). The plot of this drama might best be summed up with a line stolen from another movie about systems and the people who buck them: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” On one side, you’ve got Catholic feminist academia, claiming the rights of free inquiry. On the other, you’ve got the head office of a multinational wondering why the US franchise can’t keep its direct reports in line. (She: I just think we should give masturbation, gay marriage, remarriage after divorce, and contraception a chance. Is that so wrong? He: Yes. Now shut up.) Both leave lots to be desired, and as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt so convincingly argues about our divided and divisive world, neither is capable of even comprehending the other side any more. When Cardinal Levada, the head of the CDF, speaks, Sr Farley hears the wah-WAH-wah babbling of the adults in the Charlie Brown movies, and vice versa.

Maybe it’s the smoke, but I just can’t buy that either of these positions—wrongheaded, ineffective, even scandalous though they very well may be seen to be—is inherently evil. Both Cardinal Levada and Sr Farley are doing, I am certain, what they believe is in the best interests of the Church and the Gospel she proclaims.

I served with Cardinal Levada, a number of years ago, on the USCCB’s Communications Committee. At that time he was newly returned to the US from a stint as then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s assistant at the CDF. One night during a Committee dinner, someone asked then-Bishop Levada what he had liked most about his time in Rome. With a sincerely rapturous smile, he responded that he had loved reading the writings of theologians with a red pen in hand, circling potentially heretical statements to forward to his boss. There was a somewhat stunned silence—we had expected descriptions of favorite churches and trattorias, I guess—but there was simply no denying that this was a man who knew what color his parachute was. I could sympathize; I tend to approach a lot of life with a red pen in hand, myself. And when Cardinal Levada was appointed to succeed the Holy Father in the Holy Office, I was happy for him in an odd sort of way.

Being the Grand Inquisitor is a really crappy job, but somebody (as long as this broken world offers up stuff to inquizz) has to do it. Cardinal Levada is doing it with relish—tone-deaf relish, for sure, but not, I think, Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling. And while I never knew him to be particularly comfortable in the company of women, I don’t think his red pen is gender-specific (which is another way of saying, Be warned, ye Jesuits).

I don’t know Sr Farley, but her curriculum vitae and the respect she has earned from peers and students leads me to believe she does what she does with equal sincerity and relish—and similar quantities of tone deafness.

If only we—Catholics ourselves, the orthodox and the MoDowdy, and the hysterical media—didn’t feel the need to haul out the artillery first and ask questions later, to throw more fuel on a fire whose origins are not at all suspicious, having been set by the eternal arsonist to scorch the earth he envies. If only we could sit down and reason together, theologian and inquisitor, nun and bishop, woman and man, Catholic and Catholic, Church and world. If only we could see and hear one another through the smoke. “If only,” as Maureen Dowd writes in a wholly other context, “the Church could muster that kind of clarity”—we might find we had so much to say to one another, so much to learn from one another, once the smoke has cleared.

Santa Barbara, ora pro nobis!

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  • Eva Arnott

    Maybe all of this would be simpler if theologians just asked for an imprimatur for their books again. Then their readers would know that its presence or absence would signal whether or not that book represented current official church teaching. If an author, in any academic field, speculates beyond what is currently accepted by authorities in that field, he or she may move the conversation on among scholars but risks confusing undergraduates and casual readers.

  • Spera

    So often you put into words, thoughts and hopes that are in my heart. Thanks ! Let’s pray that the ” if only’s” come to pass.

  • http://www.elenalouiserichmond.com Elena Louise Richmond

    I missed “Mo Dowd” as well. She obviously gets under your skin and that suggests more about your mind than hers. Thank you for alerting me to another of her wonderful columns.

  • lethargic

    “War on Women, Part 666″


    I’m just not gettin’ it … The Church is founded upon the authority of the Apostles and proudly traces its lineage thereof … what’s the big surprise about its exercise, then, of Authority? I think a lot of Church people would benefit from a 5-year stint of working in the real world … not the Church, not academica, and not government … a private enterprise business … would really help with clarity on authority.

  • Mary

    I think you write beautifully and I intend to visit your site often…Thank you, thank you, thank you (and also thanks to Deacon Greg who pointed the way)

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  • Irene

    For more in this line of thinking read Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion: How We Have Become a Nation of Heretics. It’s a great read, taking on both the right and the left for using religion to advance a non-religious agenda. In some cases this religion retains its Christian label, but includes things that are nowhere taught by the Christ of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or expressed in the Nicene Creed. For others politics has replaced religion, but has taken on such a religious fervor that there is no room for listening or compromise. “The other side just can’t possibly have any good ideas because we have the truth!” I highly recommend Mr. Douthat’s book

  • http://backoftheworld.com Ryan M.

    Wonderful post. So very glad to have stumbled upon your blog this afternoon!

  • Jo Ann

    My thoughts exactly, right down the the last sentence. Must be our name . . . lol.

  • Jim

    Joanne – Dowd’s statements, although overblown with her usual vitriol, have a core of truth. The issue is – fundamentally – the role of women in the church – and not just their sacramental role – their place upon the altar if you will – the issue goes beyond that – to one of governance – to one of leadership. If you consider church teaching on both the former and latter points – their are many theologians who maintain that the underpinnings for such argumentation – for supporting the current stream of orthodoxy is weak at best.

    Church teaching evolves. That is the one of the great constants of our faith – it is my hope that upon this point – it will soon do so.

    • joannemcportland

      Jim, the expression of Church teaching does indeed adapt itself, and must do so, to be heard in every age. To say that teachings evolve, however, is to imply that there is a teleology operating—that newer expressions (or even newer teachings) are better, more developed, than past formulations. That’s not my understanding of the deposit of faith. While I have my own obvious struggles with it, the “current stream of orthodoxy” with regard to the role of women in the Church is hardly weak. In fact, women’s role in liturgical ministry and in leadership in the Church has never been stronger than it is right now (weak though that may appear when measured against a secular “rights” position). Or can you show me examples of doctrinal and practical underpinnings—not just wishful theology, which I can practice with the best—that evidence a greater role for women at the altar and in governance anywhere in the foundational theology of Catholicism or Orthodoxy?

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