Vatican vs. women (in this case, women religious)

Vatican vs. women (in this case, women religious) April 27, 2012

The Vatican’s crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (i.e., on American nuns) is proving to be a public relations disaster and a morale-killer within the Catholic Church because it gives the appearance of a bunch of power-mad misogynists trying to distract from their own horrific scandals by exerting arbitrary manly authority over women who spend most of their time helping people.

It gives that appearance because, actually, the Vatican’s crackdown on the LCWR is a bunch of power-mad misogynists trying to distract from their own horrific scandals by exerting arbitrary manly authority over women who spend most of their time helping people.

If you’re following this story, the National Catholic Reporter’s new “Sisters Under Scrutiny” blog is a useful resource for updates. Here is a roundup of some recent reactions and commentary.

Mary E. Hunt: “We Are All Nuns

If you can spell Catholic, you are probably asking: how dare they go after 57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well over 70 and who work tirelessly for a more just world? How dare the very men who preside over a Church in utter disgrace due to sexual misconduct and cover-ups by bishops try to distract from their own problems by creating new ones for women religious?

While this story is focused on nuns, it doesn’t stop there. Flowery medieval rhetoric by the Vatican about the nuns’ “special place in the Church,” and the fiction that religious women have “full participation in all aspects of the Church’s life” (while ordination is still for men only — come on!) make the dictum especially pernicious.

But it’s really about all of the laity, especially women, who see the world in terms of needs we can fulfill, not power we can hold; of radical equality, not hierarchy; of the many, not the few.

Mark Silk: “Why Go After the Nuns?

For a decade now, the rolling sexual abuse scandal has brought the church hierarchy increasingly under the criticism and legal scrutiny of secular authorities around the world. In “faithful Ireland,” the Vatican itself has been denounced by the pious Catholic prime minister. In America, hierarchs are for the first time being charged with crimes for covering up sexual abuse by priests. Why not compensate by bringing the hammer down on the women religious–that part of the church which retains the greatest moral standing with the laity?

Steve Lopez: “Sisters of mercy, devotion — and dismay

Last year church officials paid $144 million to settle abuse allegations and cover legal bills, and although many of the cases went back decades, church auditors have warned of “growing complacency” about protecting children today.

So who’s in trouble with the Vatican?


You know, the thousands of women who took vows of poverty to work with the poor, the sick and disabled.

(More links after the jump.)

Athenae: “Nuns vs. Bishops

Catholic nuns have been doing the actual work of keeping the church alive while the bishops sat on their asses and complained. They staffed the schools and ran the hospitals, teaching the faith and caring for the sick, day in and day out, when nobody was watching. The bishops get all the pomp and all the press, but you know who wins things like this? You know who wins these fights?

The people who have the patience to outlast the latest loudmouth Your Grace blathering on about obedience and one’s proper place. The people who’ve been there before him and will likely be there after. The people who show up to work and keep showing up long after the fanfare’s over.

Rebel Girl recommends an online petition to Archbishop Sartrain, the man appointed to rule over the women (via Bilgrimage):

“We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). We are shocked by the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s recent crackdown on nuns in the United States. The mandate forced upon LCWR, which threatens their works of justice, is a prime example of how the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church misuses its power to diminish the voice of women. We value the prophetic witness of women religious and appreciate their commitment to social justice.”

Todd Flowerday: “LCWR Crackdown, Hierarchy Cracks” (via Bilgrimage)

I predict some backlash from a wide swath of laity on this. A bishop is going to trial in the Fall, and people will deduce that if a yoga teacher is enough to get you a Vatican investigation, then shielding child abusers from the law should merit at least prison orange and a work detail on the interstate roadside. I realize the CDF is rightly concerned about theology. But most Catholics who care aren’t concerned about the yap about a post-Christian option. We do want to ensure the protection of the innocent. This is where Cardinal Levada and his posse are way, way off the moral track on this. That’s how the laity see it. And given the long list of bishops who have become mired in scandal since the Charter: George, Walsh, Rigali, Finn, Mahony, Lennon, McCormack, Egan, Grahmann, O’Brien, among others. The Catholic hierarchy is on probation where many lay people are concerned. They are the wrong, wrong, wrong people to be tackling the women religious. Even if the cause were just. And especially if the cause were just.

… I think this is going to be formative more than it will be punitive for women religious. I think that the hierarchy are about twenty feet from the brink of the falls, and that this is going to get very grisly and ugly for them.

Vatican Insider: “American nuns contest Vatican’s accusations

“I’ve no idea what they’re talking about,” Sister Campbell told the BBC. Her response was focused on the fact that nuns simply act as witnesses to the Gospel and nothing more: “Our role is to live the gospel with those who live on the margins of society. That’s all we do.”

Joe Ferullo: “When did nuns become the bad guys?

Here’s some comfort I can offer American nuns: It’s not just you. If there is any theme that has formed around the statements and behavior of the Vatican and bishops in recent years, it’s this: Doctrinal purity is valued above all else. It doesn’t matter if lives are at stake or if doctrine flies in the face of tragic realities. It doesn’t matter if dark measures must be taken to sweep disquieting contradictions under the rug, tucked away in places that only courtrooms and lawyers can pull out into the light. Purity — or the appearance of it — is prime.

Christian Piatt: “What to Do About ‘Radical Feminist Nuns’

It won’t likely happen with loud, media-grabbing protests or dramatic splits. Rather, the traffic out the back door will continue to increase while fewer still venture through the front entrance.

Holding fast to ideology more passionately than people is a lonely endeavor. The Catholic Church seems intent to find out just how lonely it can be.

One more link: This isn’t specifically related to the Vatican crackdown on the nuns, but Rachel Held Evans’ “Ask a …” series just included “Ask a nun … (Response).” Sr. Helena Burns offers candid responses and testimony, and a helpful introduction to the work and world of Catholic nuns.

See also:


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  • Tricksterson

    Do not get me wrong, this is an intellingent and well written post and I found it quite informative.”
    That being said there were a couple of lines that demanded to be snarked, albeit affectionately so.  I hope you can forgive me.
    To wit:

    “The issue in recent years with the Episcopalians is conservatives leaving over tolerance of gays.  (Also women priests, though in some circles it is considered impolite to mention this.)”
    Is there any sect more polite than Episcopalians?  You are the Canadians of Christianity.  Ity boggles me mind to think of what Canadan Episcopalians are like.

    “Note that noone is suggesting that a conservative parish need hire and openly gay or openly female priest”

    Openly female?  Does that mean a drag king would be okay?

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Lawyers would not help if a hundred thousand enraged Italian Catholics staged a bloodless coup d’etat in Vatican City.  That might bring the question of who owns Catholic property in the USA down to the question of which Pope was granted diplomatic recognition.  Permit me to dream.

    A bloodless coup against a fortress held by heavily armed and highly trained fanatics?  How?  Even if you somehow win (quickly enough that it happens before the italian army shows), it’ll be a massacre.

  • Freak

    Weren’t nuns also the ones running the Magdalene laundries?

  • Actually, the “heavily armed and highly trained fanatics” part is unnecessary. An enraged mob of a hundred thousand will draw blood.

  • Tricksterson

    Never going to happen.  the only thing Italians would storm the Vatican for wuld be to install an Italian Pope.  Which IIRc is how the Great Schism started.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Actually, the “heavily armed and highly trained fanatics” part is unnecessary. An enraged mob of a hundred thousand will draw blood. 

    By accident, if nothing else…

    Never going to happen.  the only thing Italians would storm the Vatican for wuld be to install an Italian Pope.  Which IIRc is how the Great Schism started.

    Well, they could always install an Italian pope while they’re at it…

  • Ouri Maler

     The idea that faiths, at least christian faiths, are basically interchangable, is, for a lot of catholics, not Catholic. The idea of switching from being a Catholic to being a protestant is closer, for some catholics, to converting to or from Islam, or Judaism. 

    I’ll admit, this is something I struggle to understand. From what I’m hearing (in several places), it sounds like to a lot of Catholics, being “Catholic” is a completely vital part of their cultural self-identity, beyond even religion. And, well…I don’t get it. I really, really don’t.

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    Wow, watching the RCC shoot itself in the foot for the next 2-3 generations is just… stunning.  This kind of crap has happened before in the church (like every few centuries)–getting a doctrine-happy pope who feels the need to shut down those uppity women and lay peons–and it drives people away from the Church until someone in Rome wakes up to that fact and starts emphasizing the teachings of Jesus and Paul rather than the edicts of Pope Whomever.

    It’s just a bit sad after all the steps forward taken by the last 3 popes. Figures it’s an Inquisitor pope that takes the Church off the rails again.  There being no coercion of religion in the USA, at least, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of American Catholics either switch to the Episcopal churches, or just continue ignoring the Vatican as they have for years. Or stop attending and contributing to any church at all–the RCC’s teachings that they are the Only True Church encourages people who find the RCC incompatible with the teachings of Jesus or their own morality to leave Christianity altogether, instead of testing other denominations to see if they are better.

    Intransigence on issues of temporal power vs basic Christian morality has severely cost the RCC in the past: cf “The Reformation” and “The Unification of Italy”.

  • Dragoness Eclectic

     They didn’t do so well at the game when either Martin Luther or Giuseppe Garibaldi came along.  One cost them the faith of half of Europe and the New World, the other cost them their heartlands.

  • EdinburghEye

    In Scotland, nuns ran residential schools and children’s homes and were directly involved in the physical abuse of children. This we know from the personal testimony of survivors of those schools and homes.

    In Ireland, nuns were directly involved in the supervision of the Catholic Church’s slaves in the Magdalene laundries – the last of which was closed in 1996. While no allegations of sexual abuse have been made against the nuns, they were directly complicit in the enslavement and humiliation of thousands of women: and the Catholic Church (unlike the Irish state) has offered neither apology nor compensation to the women enslaved to the Church’s profit.

    So, er, what exactly have the American nuns done that was so awful that they’re being told off, if physical abuse and slavery are not sufficient to merit a reproof?