At National Catholic Reporter, Ken Briggs’ “They Took Leadership, Incurred Wrath” recounts the history of tension between American nuns and the Vatican.
It seems the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church was aggrieved and threatened simply by the fact that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had the audacity to include the word “leadership” in the name of a women’s organization. The misogyny is that deep and that visceral:
The grudge hardened in 1971 when the superiors of women’s religious communities decided to re-name themselves the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The flash point was the word “leadership.” The Vatican protested it’s use, the superiors overrode the objections and Rome’s campaign against “radical feminism” became a fixture in Holy See strategy.
“Leadership” signified a breaking loose from the pre-Vatican II assumption that male clerics had the final say on everything about sisters’ existence. They were insisting on a degree of autonomy based on “Perfectae Caritatis,” the instructions given them by Vatican II.
… The move to insert “Leadership” in the association name became a symbolic boiling point. After sticking with their decision, the LCWR went to Rome to explain their rationale. Requests denied.
In what has become part of LCWR legend, Sister Margaret Brennan, then its president, sought an audience with Pope Paul VI to discuss the matter. Refusal was sent not to her but to the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
That last bit — refusing even to refuse to talk to the women without mediating that message through some penis-having official — is just laughably petty. People with credible moral authority don’t pull stunts like that. People who are confident they’re on the side of justice don’t do things like that either.
This story confirms my suspicion that Brian McLaren is correct in this part of his response to the Vatican crackdown on U.S. nuns:
My suspicion for the last few years is that one kind of authority — moral authority — is going to survive and thrive in the chaos of our ongoing paradigm shifts. … Positional authority — whether gained by degrees, tenure, apostolic succession, or it’s-who-you-know good-old-boy networks (not to mention “success,” however defined) — can’t trump the authority of a life well-lived and a character well-formed. That understanding, of course, derives from a good source … someone whose only authority was moral, and who said it was by fruit that leaders would be known.
More links on the Vatican’s war on women after the jump.
Let me begin by saying that I want to believe in the good will of the institutional church. An essential part of my commitment to Christ is a belief in the holiness of the church; that is what I professed when I took my vows. For me, religious life outside the structure of the institutional church is hardly imaginable. I love the church. I love its vision of God, its Scriptures and sacraments, its heritage, its tradition of faithful change, its saints and thinkers. I believe in its mission and future.
Yet my reaction to the visitation, and especially to the prospect of “doctrinal assessment,” contains more than a little skepticism. While I’m glad for a chance to “let Rome know the truth” about our lives and our devotion to Christ, I can’t help suspecting that those behind these initiatives are not primarily interested in the quality of my spiritual life. To put it bluntly, I feel that American women religious are being bullied. The fact that the visitation is apparently being paid for by anonymous donors, and that the leaders of our communities will not be permitted to see the investigative reports that issue from it, does not engender trust. And indeed, the dynamics of the visitation and investigation so far have been experienced by women religious as secretive, unfriendly, and one-sided.
The implicit accusation underlying the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR is that its leaders are not Catholic enough in the church’s eyes. Having lived, worked, and prayed with these women for decades, I find this suggestion both insulting and absurd.
Michele Somerville: “Gunning for the Nuns”
One of the reasons Ratzinger is targeting nuns is that he knows that some convents are indeed Women’s Ordination Movement think tanks. But there’s more to it. There’s the larger, pervasive misogyny of the hierarchy always seeking to ensure that women don’t gain too much power; and there’s the knowledge that nuns, not priests, drive catechesis in parishes. The Vatican needs women (nuns and lay women) to continue to prepare people for the sacraments, especially as it contends with the growing reluctance of even traditional Catholics to leave their children in the care of (male) priests.
… Although the Vatican struggles to keep nuns subjugated, it may have already forfeited this fight. Nuns are at the forefront of catechesis; they wield great power. Furthermore, their power is relatively untainted by the Vatican’s fiscal improprieties, complicity in widespread child abuse, rape, homophobia and misogyny. They actually have credibility.
The Vatican fears women religious because they possess the moral authority the Vatican lacks.Marian Ronan: “Rome vs. the Sisters”
Throughout the history of the church, bishops and popes have struggled mightily to keep committed celibate Catholic women under control. Already in the early Christian centuries male church leaders forced virgins to describe themselves as “brides of Christ” rather than use the male martial imagery they had come to use during the Roman persecutions. The early equality between male and female desert monastics was likewise undercut when eighth century bishops began taking control of women’s monasteries and ordained monks to the priesthood for the first time (but not nuns, of course.) And as, throughout the following centuries, groups of dedicated Christian women came together—canonesses, Beguines, beatas, recluses—popes, bishops, and male theologians went to great lengths to rein them in.
Norman Birnbaum: “The Vatican’s Latest Target in the War on Women: Nuns”
The Washington Post quotes the Fordham University theologian Jeannine Fletcher on a paradox. “Women can’t be bishops, so there’s a very strange question of whether we can ever voice a response that challenges,” Fletcher says. “If women religious can’t, no women can.” The Post also cites Sister Julie Vieira of the Michigan-based order Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who said that “our vow of obedience applies to God…. it doesn’t reside in a bishop, a body of bishops or even the pope. For us, that sense of obedience has to do with listening deeply to the call of the spirit.” Is this 2012 or 1517?
Amanda Marcotte: “It’s not just contraception and abortion; it’s even the prom”
After the story came out, the girl did in fact get her invite to the prom restored. But not because the archdiocese changed their minds! Nope, it’s because she finally got a date. And a very valuable lesson was taught: That without a man to validate you, you’re nothing. Especially in the eyes of your god.
Steve and Cokie Roberts: “It appears the Catholic Church has things all turned around”
It’s not just the nuns who challenge the bishops – it’s the folks in the pews and in public office. Every same-sex-marriage law passed so far has been signed by a governor who is Catholic. When asked by The Wall Street Journal whether the church has a problem convincing the congregants to follow its moral principles, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan replied, “Do we ever!”
Dolan thinks that’s because church leaders have gotten “gun-shy” about talking about chastity and sexual morality. What? That’s all we hear them talking about – abortion and same-sex marriage, and now contraception.
Yes, bishops back immigration reform and have recently rejected Republican budget proposals, and Catholic Charities runs wonderful social welfare programs. But those programs are not where the bishops put their political muscle.
Maybe if the men who run the church put the same lobbying efforts behind things the nuns talk about – human dignity, including the dignity of women, and care for children, the poor, the sick and the frightened – their flock would pay more attention to them. Instead, the hierarchy is trying to make the women sound more like the men.
- Phillip Clark: “How We Must Respond to the Inquisition of the 21st Century“
- John Gehring: “Catholic Sisters on Trial“
- Steve Sack: “Vatican crackdown“