American Nuns, Radical Feminism, and the Fear of “Another Religion”

American Nuns, Radical Feminism, and the Fear of “Another Religion” April 19, 2012

“I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me.”Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker

For years now there’s been a quiet effort to rein in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the Catholic Church’s largest association of American women’s religious orders. Back in 2008 it was announced that the Vatican was undertaking two large-scale investigations of American nuns who may “have opted for ways that take them outside” of Church teachings (meanwhile, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops instituted a ban on Reiki ). Many American nuns didn’t take kindly to this display of authority, did not participate in the investigations, and in some cases spoke out about what was happening.

LCWR National Board

“Where did the impetus for the visitation and investigation originate? During a visit to Rome last April, several officers of the Leadership Conference put this question to Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of CICLSAL, and were informed that the initiative had been suggested by American members of the curia, some U.S. bishops, and some members of religious communities. Cardinal Rodé told LCWR officers that “concerns” had been expressed on issues ranging from living arrangements to the lack of new vocations to the public positions some women religious take on topics such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, and abortion.”

In short, too many American nuns were openly questioning Catholic doctrine on hot-button issues. Now, the results of one of those investigations has been released, it states that the LCWR has “serious doctrinal problems” and the conference will be “reformed” by a Cardinal and two Bishops.

“The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” […] “I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.”

While this decision may have shocked some American nuns, the writing was on the wall for some time that a crackdown on their autonomy and spiritual authority was coming. Last year, the US Conference of Bishops accused Catholic theologian and nun Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson of violating church doctrine in her 2007 book “Quest For the Living God,” issuing a 21-page critique and recommending the book not be taught in Catholic universities due in part to her suggestion of using female imagery for God.

“The passages drawing the harshest admonishment, however, concerned Sister Johnson’s proposal that feminine as well as masculine imagery be used in prayers referring to God, a recommendation that has been debated and rejected by the bishops before. Still, the book persisted, “all-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement.” Wrong, the bishops said: If the Gospels use masculine imagery, it is because divine revelation would have it that way. […] Dr. Tilley, the Fordham theology chairman, described that argument as “approaching the incoherent.”

So let us place the pieces together, shall we? Banning energy healing, banning a book that suggests female pronouns for the Christian God, banning gender-neutral formulations of baptism ceremonies, turning access to contraception (for women) into a national referendum on religious freedom, and now, accusing the largest conference of American nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes” and moving to bring them under control.  What do you get? In his book “The Ratzinger Report”, then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, made very clear his views as to what radical feminism was.

I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.”

Another religion. That is what Catholic Women Religious in America are being accused of, practicing another religion. When nuns start advocating for the ordination of women, for making poverty and health care a priority over abortion and making sure gays can’t marry, they are no longer Catholic. They trigger an atavistic fear in the Catholic mind, the fear that women will start listening to a Goddess instead of a God.

“We will not listen to the things you’ve said to us in the name of YHWH. On the contrary, we will certainly do all that we’ve vowed. We will make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and pour libations to her as we used to do – we and our ancestors, our kings and princes in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem – because then we had plenty of bread and we were satisfied, and suffered no misfortune. But since we ceased making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by sword and famine. And when we make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her, is it without our husbands’ approval that we make cakes in her likeness and pour libations to her?”Jeremiah 44:15-19, translation by Graham Harvey, from the Hebrew text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, excerpted from “The Paganism Reader”.

The move against American nuns is just the latest effort to squash reform-minded thinking, just as the Franciscans in Assisi, Italy were smeared with accusations of allowing blood sacrifices at their altars when interfaith gatherings there became too popular and high-profile (the Pope, naturally, doesn’t meet with “pagans”). Like Cronus, the Catholic Church fears too much reform will act as an emitic, and all the pre-Christian elements, traditions, figures, and imagery it has swallowed over 2000 years will vomit forth and usurp the Church’s role as religious power-player on the world stage.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

Think I’m perhaps overstating things? In 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizersAt the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism.” During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession. There are the words and actions of a man, of a church, who fears that as religion becomes female-dominated, it might also become “pagan.”

The question now is, will there be unintended repercussions from this move by the Vatican and the US Conference of Bishops? Will the nuns, pushed into a corner, and ordered to heel, simply leave? Can anyone imagine the chaos that a mass exodus by Women Religious would instigate? Perhaps this action will really amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist, leaving the sleeping giant(s) in the Catholicism’s belly alone for awhile longer, but I think the more this quiet force is insulted and ordered the more the Church risks exactly what it fears: the rise of another religion.

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