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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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In 1979, Sister Theresa Kane was given a very special task. As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for most orders of U.S. Catholic nuns, Kane was asked to deliver four minutes of welcoming remarks, on behalf of American sisters, to the newly elected Pope John Paul II during his first papal visit to the United States. At a gathering inside the grand church in Washington, D.C., known as the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Kane offered the pope a warm greeting, and then launched into this:

As I share this privileged moment with you, Your Holiness, I urge you to be mindful of the intense suffering and pain which is part of the life of many women in these United States. I call upon you to listen with compassion and to hear the call of women...As women, we have heard the powerful messages of our church addressing the dignity [of] and reverence for all persons. As women, we have pondered these words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the church, in its struggle to be true to its call to reverence and dignity for all persons, must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of the church."

All ministries -- including, of course, the priesthood. Her meaning was not lost on the pope or, it seems, his henchmen in cassocks.

Chief among the new pope's enforcers was Joseph Ratzinger, the bishop from Bavaria, whom, three years later, JPII would appoint to the position of prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine the Faith, an entity once known as the Roman Inquisition. As prefect, Ratzinger soon had his Congregation all but living up to its historical inquisitive reputation as he conducted a jihad against liberal bishops, clerics and nuns in the U.S., and around the world. Today, the former prefect is known as Pope Benedict the XVI, still an enforcer, and one with a long memory.

On April 28, nearly 33 years after Theresa Kane's unprecedented challenge to the pope, the Vatican delivered a verdict against LCWR, the nuns' group led by Kane in 1979: Its members were defying Catholic doctrine, Vatican investigators said, by promoting "radical feminist themes," as well as contradicting church teaching on homosexuality and the no-girls-allowed priesthood. Further, as Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported it, "The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that 'disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals.'"

As punishment, Cardinal William Levada, who now occupies Ratzinger's old job at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee LCWR for up to five years, giving him final say on every speaker at the group's conference and every public utterance made in its name. He'll also revise LCWR's governing statues and oversee the revision of a handbook that, according to the Times, was "used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine." Links between LCWR and two liberal Catholic groups will also be investigated.

Speaking on CBS This Morning [video] last week, Sister Maureen Fiedler, host of the public radio program, Interfaith Voices, said, "If this were the corporate world, I think we'd call it a hostile takeover."

On Friday, in an unprecedented act of defiance, the LCWR board, after a week of meetings in Maryland on how to respond to both the Vatican crackdown, issued a statement of its members' intention to contest the hierarchy's takeover of their organization. It reads, in part:

Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.

The sisters said that LCWR President Sister Pat Farrell and Executive Director Sister Janet Mock would travel to Rome to take up these concerns with the prefect and the bishop he appointed to rule over the sisters, and would then consult with the organization's general membership in August. One option the organization could choose is to disassociate with Rome altogether and reconfigure itself as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, according to its Web site, "has approximately 1500 members who are elected leaders of their religious orders, representing approximately 80% of the 57,000 Catholic sisters in the United States."

Theologian Mary E. Hunt, co-director of the Catholic feminist resource center, WATER, told me in a telephone interview from her office in Silver Spring, Md., that the Vatican set its sights on LCWR because, as an organization that is part of the church structure, its members are "canonically vulnerable" -- meaning that they are subject to the law of the hierarchy, known as canon law, as interpreted by its appointed enforcers. Should the group dissolve itself and incorporate as a non-profit, it need only operate within the bounds of U.S. law, under which the religious freedom of its members is guaranteed under the First Amendment.

A Cult of Power

When examined in combination with the recent tantrum taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the birth control mandate in the health-care reform law signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, Pope Benedict's crusade against the nuns would seem to render the Roman curia and the bishops, above all other things, a cult of misogyny. But that would be too simple a reading. At its heart, the church hierarchy is a cult of power; misogyny is but one tool for the already powerful to ensure that power remains in their possession.

One need only look at the current scandal engulfing the Vatican over dealings at the Vatican bank, and an internecine battle waged by partisans and enemies of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Last week, the pope's own butler was arrested for allegedly having leaked confidential papal correspondence and documents to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, author of a just-released book about Pope Benedict.

Then there's the recently revealed pay-offs doled out by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while he served as Archbishop of Milwaukee, to priests accused of abusing children who agreed not to contest their own defrocking.

The campaign to discredit Bertone is believed to be orchestrated by partisans of his predecessor, who want Bertone out of the way before Benedict dies, in order to prevent him from presiding over the conclave that will elect the next pope. In Dolan's case, he used payouts as a means of preserving his own power while serving as Archbishop of Milwaukee, by getting troublesome priests out of the way. (It seems to have worked; Dolan is now the cardinal archbishop of New York.) Dolan's payola scheme, of course, is but one tiny aspect of the enormous and shameful disaster the hierarchy brought upon itself by covering up the crimes against children committed by more than a few priests over the course of decades -- all in an effort to preserve its own power by maintaining a false appearance of propriety that put countless children at risk.

Writing at Religion Dispatches, Mary Hunt contends that the Vatican's attack on the nuns isn't simply about nuns -- or women. It's about the laity -- keeping the people of the church from actually claiming them the power granted them during the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and maintaining the power of the clerics. "The effort to rein in LCWR is meant as much to scare the rest of us into line as to corral the nuns," Hunt writes.

This isn't this first time that the Vatican has sought to silence U.S. nuns. In one famous case, 24 sisters were threatened with expulsion from their orders for having signed a statement that asserted "a diversity of views" on the subject of abortion existed within the church, including the belief that abortion could sometimes be a moral choice. The ad was sponsored by Catholics for Choice, then under the leadership of Frances Kissling. Cardinal Ratzinger presided over the inquisition.

But this time is different, Hunt contends, because of the role played by nuns in the passage of Affordable Care Act, the health-care reform law initiated by the Obama administration and signed by the president. When the bishops, via the USCCB, sought to to block the legislation, largely because of measures that dealt with coverage of women's reproductive health issues, theadministration turned to Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, which represents some 600 Catholic hospitals and 1400 health-care facilities. When Keehan backed the bill, she lent a Catholic imprimatur to the administration's much-contested hallmark piece of law. After Obama signed the bill, he sent Keehan one of the ceremonial signing pens he used to make the bill a law. Keehan's defiance was compounded when a coalition of U.S. nuns penned a letter supporting the law that was signed by leaders of 55 religious orders and umbrella groups, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. .

Earlier this year, Sister Keehan stepped up again, when, after the administration announced that Catholic institutions would not be exempt from the law's mandate to employers that their health insurance plans fully cover patients' contraceptive costs, and do so without demanding a co-payment from the patient. After the predictable outcry from the bishops, the administration offered an "accommodation" requiring health insurance companies to pick up the tab for the conception coverage, and Keehan gave her approval.

Nuns Defy Bishops on Health Care; Bishops Cry Foul on 'Religious Freedom'

In choosing the nuns to provide a stamp of Catholic approval for both the health-care law itself and the contraception "accommodation," the Obama administration acted on a calculation that the bishops' hard-core position against contraception and abortion under any circumstances was not supported by the majority of American Catholics, whose views are more in line with those represented by the nuns. The administration's concern was winning buy-in from Catholic lay people -- the voters -- and its legislative strategists knew that the moral imprimatur of the nuns would go a long way to that end. But in executing its strategy, the administration dared to do what no other before it had: expose the powerlessness -- the impotence, if you will -- of the hierarchy when faced with the will of what the church reform documents of Vatican II called "the people of God." The bishops, and presumably the pope, were not amused.

While it's true that the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious began nearly four years ago, the timing of the Vatican's announcement of its "hostile takeover" of LCWR coincides with the launching of a barrage of lawsuits against the administration by the bishops and Catholic entities challenging the requirement that all health insurance companies contracted for employer-provided health plans offer contraceptive coverage to the insured, and with no co-payment by the patient. This requirement applies to virtually all employer-provided health plans, including those that cover the employees of Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions. The timing of the Vatican attack on the nuns also aligns with the timing of a public relations offensive by the bishops that frames the contraceptive mandate as an infringement of religious liberty -- an offensive that includes a heretofore unprecedented attempt at overt political organizing by the clerics for what they're calling a "Fortnight for Freedom," spanning from June 21, which commences the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, through to July 4th.

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.

Is it any wonder then, that when the Vatican condemned LCWR for, as the New York Times' Laurie Goodstein reported, "for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping 'silent' on abortion and same-sex marriage," Catholic across the country expressed outrage in demonstrations that took place in some 50 cities?

Vatican Inc.

When Sister Maureen Fiedler described the Vatican's action in the language of big business, she wasn't just being clever. According to Mary Hunt, the Vatican's power structure is very similar to that of a corporation, while the structure of the U.S. coalition of women's religious orders function more on the model of your local food co-op -- very process-oriented and deliberative. Speaking of the Vatican, she told AlterNet: "This is a business, where people do what people do in business."

But with the scandal currently gripping Rome over the pope's leaked correspondence and problems with transparency at the Vatican Bank, and the worldwide disaster of the sexual abuse claims against priests and the bishops who harbored them, Vatican Inc. seems to be treading the path of Lehman Brothers and Enron. The sexual abuse debacle has led to the bankrupting of two archdioceses in the U.S., under the burden of settlements made to victims: Milwaukee, less than two years after Cardinal Dolan became Archbishop of New York, and Portland, Oregon, under the leadership of Cardinal Levada. Such was Levada's brutality, in fact, that he punished a priest who reported a child-abusing fellow priest to the police -- a move that came back to haunt him when the whistle-blower, Father Jon Conley, brought a defamation case against the archdiocese after paving the way for the family of an abused child to win a $750,000 settlement from the archdiocese. (Politics Daily contributor Jason Berry told the sordid tale here in 2010.)

Now head of the church in the city once described by Pope John Paul II as "the capital of the world," Cardinal Dolan is among those charged with making the case for the bishops bogus claim of religious persecution by the U.S. government. But as the U.S. bishops mount their "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign (perhaps better named "Fortnight of Fury"), the Vatican stock would appear to be tanking.

"Roman Catholicism, in its institutional form, is imploding," Hunt told AlterNet.

Some might see in that implosion a divine act of creative destruction. For without the institution, what remains of the church could be simply the "people of God." And in the Gospel of Matthew, that's pretty much how Jesus defined the church.

In its statement, the LCWR board asserted:

[The board] believes that the matters of faith and justice that capture the hearts of Catholic sisters are clearly shared by many people around the world. As the church and society face tumultuous times, the board believes it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity.

Read the Vatican document condemning the Leadership Conference of Women Religioushere[PDF].

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan