A history lesson in papal pettiness and misogyny

A history lesson in papal pettiness and misogyny May 2, 2012

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.

Sister X: “Cross Examination: Why Is Rome Investigating U.S. Nuns?

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.

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  • animus

    They’re happier with dead nuns. St Mary McKillop was canonised by exactly the sort of people who excommunicated her when she was alive.

  • LMM22

    On a related note, PNH linked to this (brief) article: What Nuns Do.

    Turns out, a lot.

  • Tonio

    Every same-sex-marriage law passed so far has been signed by a governor who is Catholic.

    Including the one I voted for twice…


  • Every same-sex-marriage law passed so far has been signed by a governor who is Catholic.

    And I have now learned that my former governor is Catholic, which is a fairly useless piece of information.

    Mostly I was wondering if he was being counted because, while the law was passed, it never went into effect and thus marriage equality does not exist in Maine.  Hopefully that changes in the coming election.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    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!”

    I realize the Church believes that if not for their staunch defense of “tradiational” morality, the ever-escalating (as they see it) moral slide in America would be even faster and even worse. But (at least in the areas where the Church and I would agree something is a problem), I can’t help but believe the opposite is actually true.

    I know Cardinal Dolan and the Vatican will never agree, but it seems their rules and methods for achieving their goals are counterproductive, and until this is addressed their credibility will keep shrinking.

    If the Church could accept the normalization of contraception and egalitarianism and the reality of homosexuality, it could encourage and endorse them within the broader values of Catholicism, within the framework of marriage and family. I suspect they’d have greater credibility within and without their community, and they’d have an easier time “convincing the congregants to follow its moral principles” and more success at addressing actual social issues.

  • MaryKaye

    Barbara Tuchman’s _The March of Folly_ has a chapter on the Renaissance Papacy’s provocation of the Reformation.  Recent events sound bizarrely familiar, including sex scandals among the hierarchy and suppression of women religious.  That ended horribly for the Vatican–the book as a whole is about organizations doing massively self-destructive things.  I don’t think this is going to end well either.

    One thing I am grateful for as an outside observer is that the secular power of the Church, while still impressive, is much less than it was back then–they are not in position to use military force or put people to death.  (But I didn’t realize how economically vulnerable elderly nuns are–gods, that’s awful.)

  • Tonio

    Roseanne Cash said something similar about her father’s strained relationship with the Nashville establishment.  Toward the end of his life, they apparently wanted to treat him and his early stardom as a trophy. By proclaiming him as a legend, they could believe that his achievements were safely in the past and that his dissent would be defanged. Wrong.

  • ReverendRef

    Love God.
    Love your neighbor.
    For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. — 1 John 3:11

    What part of this does the hierarchy not understand?

    I know . . . I know . . . they haven’t understood it for 1500 years or so.  I thought we would have learned something by now.

  • Albanaeon

    The Church leadership has to realize that this can’t end well for them, don’t they?   The Middle Ages are over and the great majority of their power comes from being a “moral” agent.  And that only come from having followers.  If you keep giving reasons for your follower to believe you are no longer a “moral” authority, you weaken your power, because they’ll not give you their support.  And that’s pretty much what’s happened.  Catholics overwhelmingly reject teaching on contraception and ignore the leadership.  Same thing is happening on feminism, homosexuality, etc.  Lay Catholics (and a fair amount of ordained) reject the leadership because their experience has shown that the leadership’s position is IMmoral.  And so, the Catholics are leaving the Church, or just ignoring the leadership, and the power of the Bishops is fading.  Very sad for what could be a force for good in this world, but they are bringing it on themselves.

  • One of the things I think is important in practical ethics is that moral values need a certain degree of prioritization.  Most people will, at least once though often several times, in their life run into a moral dilemma in which holding to one moral value will cause a person to violate another moral value, and vice versa.  A woman considering having an abortion would likely be an example of a person in that sort of dilemma.  So prioritizing values is necessary to resolve these kinds of dilemmas, and when those values are in tight balance a lot of soul-searching, thoughtfulness, and possibly council is needed to see it through. 

    What bothers me though, is not necessarily that the church places more emphasis on some moral values than others, but that the way they seem to prioritize those values is… kind of absurd and impractical.  It is one thing to set aside some of their values so that they can persue other, higher priority values, but when the high priority values are so self-destructive to both themselves and the lower priority values, it is evidence that there is something clearly wrong with the structure of their moral system.  A malfunction, a misfire, a short-circuit, that takes in good data and returns bad data. 

  • Matri

    Their brains have overloaded. That’s the only theory I can come up with.

    That a Democrat beat them out of the White House was bad enough. That the said Democrat was also a black man
    caused a feedback loop in their thought process that is progressively
    spreading to other areas of their minds such as logic, common sense and
    sanity. It’s causing a cascading failure in all of their systems and
    damage control is so overwhelmed with system failures that it has
    shorted out, forcefully allocating out-of-bounds parameters and
    overwriting large swathes of perception & memory data.

  •  What’s especially chilling is, if you think about it, a lot of these guys consider pedophilia to be just a subset or another form of homosexuality. But, even if you accept that assertion as true — and you shouldn’t, because it’s an abomination — it still doesn’t make sense since they persecute homosexuals who have consensual sex with other adults and coddle/shelter pedophiles.  It’s almost as if they consider (for example) an adult man having sex with another adult man to be WORSE than an adult man having sex with a child.

    Or, think of it like this — do you think an archbishop who came out of the closet as a gay man would be treated better or worse by the hierarchy than any of the dozens of accused molesters wearing the cloth?

  • Tricksterson

    Oh, worse, absolutely. Hell, look how they treat those priests and nuns who want to marry.  Thrown our and forbidden to practice their office, though some still do.

  • Tapetum

     Actually, I expect they would (and do) treat homosexual priests very similarly to the way they treat pedophiliac ones – as long as they stay closeted and ashamed, and give public lip-service to the horrors of homosexuality, the hierarchy would do their best to protect them from being found out, moving them around as necessary.

    In other words, they don’t particularly care if the priests are following the moral precepts of the church, only that they publicly support them. Whether or not the priests are actually hurting people, and whether or not their “sin” ought to be one doesn’t matter in the least. Only that they be seen supporting the hierarchy.


  • You’re right. I meant to specify one who self-identified as gay in a public way, not just to the other members of the hierarchy. I really do think that they would treat a publicly-gay archbishop worse even than a priest who has been publicly accused of child molestation. I really think that the former would be driven out almost immediately, while the latter would probably be sheltered and protected for as long as possible and given legal and financial support in the event that he is prosecuted and convicted.

  • Mary Kaye

    A man raping a boy does not violate the Great Chain of Kyriarchy.  It’s an expression of the stronger dominating and using the weaker.  But two men tenderly in love with one another, with their sexuality an expression of their love–*that* is an existential threat to the whole system.  Love without Master and Servant?  Unthinkable!

    This is why gay marriage is seen as *worse* than gay promiscuity, even though that makes no sense whatsoever based on other parts of the moral code.  Because kyriarchy has to defend itself from the subversive image of men sleeping together out of mutual desire and affection.

  • Which is, of course, a position that excludes a loving, caring relationship of equals out of mutual desire and affection between *one man and one woman* just as much as it excludes marriage equality.

  • AnonymousSam

    Once upon a time, an eight year old girl being married to a thirty-something year old man was considered commonplace, and we are talking about an organization that considers tradition to be the best argument in favor of doing something abominable…


    Which is, of course, a position that excludes a loving, caring
    relationship of equals out of mutual desire and affection between *one
    man and one woman* just as much as it excludes marriage equality.

    I’ve mentioned it a lot before, but it bears repeating: I think THIS is a major reason for the virulent opposition to same-sex marriage. It’s a marriage where the kyriarch’s cannot point to one partner and say “that is the person who should automatically be In Charge according to the chain of being.”

    And if people see such marriages as normal, they might start wondering what basis there is for claiming that opposite-sex marriages should have one person automatically be In Charge.

    So when opponents of marriage equality accuse it of being a threat to “traditional” heterosexual marriages, I think they’re right. Because it IS a big threat to the BS tradition of women being subordinate to men.

  • everstar

    I feel oddly fond of this story about the Catholic Church cracking down on nuns that are too “independent.”  My parents went to a college in LA run by nuns who had left the church because they’d re-organized how they handled their daily duties as instructed by the Pope, prompting the local archbishop to have a tantrum.  He eventually told them they had to either return to the traditional way of doing things or leave the church, so they left.  I had a shirt for a while that listed a bunch of people who’d been denounced as heretical: the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Los Angeles were on it.

    I think what I like the most about this story is how the sisters kept right on doing what they believed they were supposed to be doing, and when the rules said, no, wait, you can’t keep doing it, they stopped following the rules.  They left the church to keep following God.  It’s funny how that seems to happen.

  • Alicb


    The Church leadership has to realize that this can’t end well for them, don’t they?

    Technically, the present leadership just has to hold on until they’re dead, right? I’m sure they would like the power of their institution to continue forever after, but it won’t affect them directly if the Church falls apart ten years after they pass away and the people just below them rise up to take the reins.

  • Honestly, I blame the conclave who appointed Ratzinger in the first place.  They had to know that elevating someone to the papalcy who spent more than two decades being charged with maintaining doctrine would persue an agenda of enforcing it.  If anything, it tells me that they are the ones who wanted so see the church taken back to a more “traditional” stance on, well, everything. 

    Would have been nice if they appointed a Latin American bishop to the papalcy.  I get the impression that one of them would, due to first hand experience, have a very different set of priorities…

  • christopher_young

    When it gets to the point where they’ve lost the government of the Irish Republic and the  leadership of Sinn Fein, you have to wonder whether they’re trying for some kind of scorched earth policy here.

  • Tricksterson

    IIRC (and I may not) the prime rival to Ratzinger  was both Latin American and relatively liberal.