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Why The Hierarchy Fears The Nuns

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

In recent weeks we’ve watched the Vatican try to stifle a vital part of the Catholic Church: the nuns. Indeed, the Church fathers seem to have become quite unhinged in their efforts to quiet women who have dedicated their lives not only to Catholicism, but to betterment of all.

Why is this? Its simply because the good Sisters have the ability to redirect the Church to a place where conservative men do not want to go.

Chris Hedges once wrote “faith is how we treat each other.” Perhaps no other group of Catholics embodies Hedges’ definition of faith than the various orders of Catholic nuns. The women’s orders and individual nuns perform a wide range of services; from teaching in parochial schools; to providing health care; to making great contributions in theology. It has often been nuns who reported their suspicions of priestly pedophilia and forced transparency in how these matters were handled.

Nuns have also been at the forefront of a potential Catholic remonstrance. Is it any wonder that the hierarchy and their friends on the Catholic Right are trying to reign them in?

The Vatican has revealed itself in the current spectacle as more reactionary than conservative. Even the suggestion of discussing progressive takes on dogma is often denounced as heresy. Arguably, moderate and liberal Catholics live in a new reign of terror whose principal players are
Bernard Law, disgraced former Boston Cardinal; Cardinal William Levada, Prefect for the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura; and well-placed, movement conservative-friendly bishops and cardinals in cities such as Madison, Wisconsin, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

These clerics apparently recognize that the nuns could become a rallying point and potential leadership for reform for those of us unhappy with the turn away from Vatican II’s Aggiornamento – “bringing up to date” that has occurred since the ascendancy of Pope John Paul II.

In fact, that is exactly how many of us who oppose the reactionary doctrine and culture trickling down from the hierarchy see the nuns’ potential for leadership. They are not a dissident lay group such as Call to Action, but part of the institutional Church. It would be a change from within.

While many in the hierarchy are courting reactionary movements such as Opus Dei and SSPX, groups that seek a more insulated, doctrinaire – and smaller Church.

But the sisters toil in the real world; rubbing elbows with everyday people; dealing with the grey issues of life. This provides them with perspectives sorely missing in the Vatican, notably women’s points of view. The nuns understand pregnancy; they understand glass ceilings; they live with being marginalized by gender. And they see how related injustices play out in the lives of real people.

One nun who dealt with the grey issue of abortion and paid the price was Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator who allowed an abortion in order to save the life of a critically ill pregnant woman. As I reported two years ago, doctors had determined that continuation of the pregnancy would end the mother’s life due to complications from a pulmonary hypertension. For Sister Margaret, it was obvious that if the mother died, so would the child. For this, she was excommunicated by her bishop and removed from her hospital position.

On questions of theology, nuns who put forth heterodoxical but feasible religious theses, they too are censured and bullied. The most recent example has been Sister Margaret Farley, author of the Vatican-criticized book, Just Love. And what did Sister Margaret write so as to incur such wrath? She simply used a theological standpoint to challenge current Church teachings on — among other things — masturbation, homosexuality, gay unions and the problem of divorce and remarriage. To its credit, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) backs Sister Margaret.

Now, LCWR, the umbrella group that represents most of America’s nuns has been falsely accused of promoting “radical feminist themes.” This has been amplified by Rush Limbaugh who (claimed the good sisters “have gone Femi-nazi”) and Catholic League President Bill Donohue (who said of Sister Margaret Farley, “Nor would anyone think she was a nun if he consulted her official Yale biography.”). This is not the first time Donohue has gone after the LCWR.

After all, progressive-thinking nuns break down the myth that “good Catholics” only vote Republican and an Ayn Rand-inspired economic plan appear godly.

But the nuns have responded to all this by calmly and gracefully brushing aside the sneering accusations with cool reasonableness that exudes confidence.

However, it is worth underscoring that to accuse the nuns of disobedience is to say the same of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was also denounced in his day for daring to integrate the teachings of Aristotle into Catholic thought.

But part of the threat to the hierarchy is that the nuns point out the obvious; that mere discussion of new interpretations of faith is not disobedience, but the exercise of reason. What’s more the nuns are doing about social Social Justice is more than just talk. Most notably with a bus tour that challenges the American bishops apparent tacit approval of GOP economic miserliness.

Pope Benedict is no stranger to persecuting Catholics who propose more enlightened paths of the faith. As head of the CDF — formerly known as the Office of the Inquisition — he had theologian Father Charles F. Curram sacked from the faculty of Catholic University in Washington, DC, for questioning the validity of the Church’s disapproval of artificial birth control. Likewise, he ostracized the esteemed theologian Hans Küng, rescinding his authority to teach Catholic theology because he questioned the notion of papal infallibility.

But the situation with the nuns is different. The CDF can pick off one deviant theologian at a time, but it is harder to oust 57,000 American nuns. Catholic hospitals and schools would shut; many other day-to-day functions would simply cease. The Vatican is walking a tightrope and they are in danger of falling off.

In a previous post, I called for a Catholic remonstrance against the current Vatican’s strident rejection of Vatican II.

Now a vehicle exists within the Church for the return of reason. These brave sisters should be a rallying cry for every one of my co-religionists who are tired of the bullying, the lack of transparency on issues such as hiding pedophile priests and the absurd notion that the Church is to be a co-belligerent with Protestant evangelical theocrats in a culture war in order to advance the economic agenda of the Republican Party. In short, the nuns’ fight is our fight. Let’s lend them a hand.


4 Responses

  1. I am an American Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest… and a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a “Christian” Brother in high school who caused my estrangement from the “Church” (but not from the teachings of Christ) almost fifty years ago.


    I have been lied to, ignored and denigrated by the “Catholic,” male hierarchy and their representatives for coming forward with my story.

    I support the Sisters wholeheartedly…

  2. Congratulations, Frank. I see that your blog has been picked up by Truthout and Reader Supported News (and probably others I don’t know about. Good job!!

  3. LCWR’s average age is, by its own admission, over 70; barely 15% of the tiny number joining for over 18 have been under 34 years old. Why not just wait for them to end up in wheelchairs and for their biggest struggle to become who gets to control the TV remote?

  4. You don’t have to “oust 57,000” if over half of them are over 72 and very few young people are joining their organizations; you just have to wait a few years.
    Unfortunately, recognizing this fairly obvious fact seems to be beyond many on both sides of the issue, the ones who see chunky ladies in short grey hair and pants suits as threats and the ones who see the nuns as “prophetic ministries”. Delusional, both of them.

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