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Why the Pope Hates Nuns

It's tempting to simply view the church hierarchy as a cult of misogyny. But at its heart, it's a cult of power; misogyny is but one tool for securing that power.

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Sarah Posner, writing at Religion Dispatches, reports:

Fusing the martyrdom of Catholic saints with Independence Day, the Bishops write, "Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power . . . . Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty."

All of this will of course come to a head as the general election campaign is heating up over the summer months. The Bishops urge commemoration of "resistance to totalitarian incursions against religious liberty" and call on "an immense number of writers, producers, artists, publishers, filmmakers, and bloggers employing all the means of communications—both old and new media—to expound and teach the faith. They too have a critical role in this great struggle for religious liberty. We call upon them to use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom."

The irony here is that a good part of the problem the Vatican and the bishops are having with their American nuns and parishioners is, in fact, their very Americanness. For the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Rome, its American flock, as it assimilated into the greater American culture, became increasingly troublesome. American Catholics, often enthusiastic in their patriotism, are, in reality, subject to two different and contradictory faiths: the American civic religion of liberty, individualism and participatory democracy, and the Roman tradition of collective submission to ecclesiastical authority. As time has passed, the American religion in many ways came to surpass the faith tradition of their ancestors in terms of forming a primary set of values. Roman Catholicism, for many, is more a subcultural identity than a daily practice of the rules and rituals mandated by the magisterium.

American Catholics have long flouted the popes' prohibition on the use of birth control, and are not inclined, as a bloc, to be moved by the bishops' complaint of liberty infringed -- especially when the liberty the bishops claim for themselves is the right to deprive a class of people, who represent half of world's population, of a fundmental aspect of health care particular to that class -- a class that is deemed unworthy by the bishops for admission into their ranks, by dint of the shape their bodies take at birth. Although sexism still thrives in the United States, the average American, even the average American sexist, does not generally classify it as one of the precious religious freedoms for which Americans should lay down their lives.

In the years leading up to the sex-abuse scandal that has gripped the church for more than a decade, many American Catholics viewed the bishops and the popes as simply out of touch with the modern world in matters of sexuality, especially on the reproductive front. But since the scandal, the bishops find themselves widely discredited as it became known that so many were aware of the sexually predatory behavior of some priests toward minors, and acted to cover up the crimes of those clerics. One such bishop was William Levada, who served as archbishop of San Francisco and Portland, Ore., and is now the Vatican prefect in charge of the nuns' persecution.

The nuns, on the other hand, have only grown in moral stature since Vatican II in the eyes of many Catholics, as they seriously implemented the council's mandate to go out into the world and do good works. Today, the most visible Catholic advocates for social and economic justice are often nuns, who work with the poor and minister to the sick. They are, by and large, better educated than the bishops who would rule them, and are consequently often more articulate in expressing their work in the context of their religious values, which they commonly frame in terms of the Gospel's calls to work for justice and healing, rather than as demands for obedience to a power structure whose princes preach adherence to a set of rules that is, at once, cruel and absurd.