Yesterday I was listening to a radio interview with the Catholic bishop who had been charged with responding to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Basically, his stance was that the group, which represents 80% of Catholic nuns, was just flat-out wrong when they suggested that the Catholic Church needs to re-examine its stance on birth control, homosexuality and ordaining women. He said that their vow of obedience was not to their conscience and what they felt to be the call of God, but to the hierarchy of the church. He said that he welcomed dialogue with the women religious, but that “dialogue” meant their coming to understand and accept that the traditional stand of the church and its hierarchy was correct. He pointed out that Catholicism is a revealed religion, and not subject to change based on a changing society.
And all I could think as I listened to him was: “Man, you are so screwed.” They have painted themselves in a corner. When you categorically refuse to adapt to the world you live in, you have doomed yourself to extinction. Maybe not soon, but eventually.
Now, there are plenty of people who would say that if we don’t hold to any absolute standards then we are simply awash in a shifting sea of cultural expectations. We have no compass, no guidance through the tempests and changing tides. This claim is not with out merit—after all, the fact that Kim Kardashian or Snookie thinks something is a good idea hardly means that we should all follow suit.
But here’s the thing. The Catholic Church has staked its life on holding fast to things that are failing to stand the test of time. The position of women in society has undergone a shift across the centuries from an assumption that women are property to an assumption (at least by many) that women are fully the equal of men, and deserve the same rights and responsibilities. The Church has created an absolute out of something that turns out to be quite relative. Even the notion of a strict hierarchy—Pope above bishops above priests above laity, men above women, angels above people above animals—all that Great Chain of Being vision of how the universe is arranged is severely retro. In the modern world it has largely been supplanted by an ecological model in which beings live in a complex net of interrelation, with each part inextricably bound to the whole.
I can’t fault the bishop for his statements. He is, after all, only doing the job he was assigned to do by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And sadly, I suppose the job he was doing was a job that many of us assign to ourselves on a daily basis—holding fast to things that “have” to be true, regardless of the evidence, for fear that our worlds will fall apart if we open ourselves to the possibility that the world does not match our assumptions. It’s the commonest thing in the world. But as a foundation on which to build a church—or a life—well, it makes me sad.