Catholic Sisters on Trial
Don’t expect Catholic sisters to shrink like delicate flowers in the shadow of the Vatican’s recent crackdown. For centuries, women religious in the Catholic Church have been marginalized and often maligned even as they exemplify what it means to be Christians who bring healing to a wounded world. Full of grace and grit, they still keep living Gospel values– healing the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless – as the storms of politics (ecclesial and civil) thunder around them.
Highly educated and fighting for justice in corporate boardrooms and on Capitol Hill, Catholic sisters are not remaining silent as they grapple with the recent scolding from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “When you touch a woman, you touch a rock,” a South African proverb reminds us.
Apologies to St. Peter, but the rock of our Catholic Church today would be more like a house built on sand without the enduring witness of Catholic nuns in the United States and around the world. As R. Scott Appleby, a prominent church historian at the University of Notre Dame, notes in an important interview on this subject – “This is not the way to treat other Christians.” Appleby continues:
I don’t think the church intends to attack women or denigrate women. But the church in its wisdom has to recognize the impact of the way it has conducted its affairs. If certain members of the hierarchy of the church are not intending to denigrate women or to subordinate women or to make them think they are second class citizens, they are not doing a very good job of conveying that message. I think we should err in the church on the side of respect, and praise, and support, and gratitude and acknowledgment of what these women have done.
In an eight-page, “doctrinal assessment” based on an investigation that began in April 2008, the Vatican’s doctrine office blasts the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for “promoting “radical feminism” and writes:
While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance in the life of the church and society, such as the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching.
We’ve reached a really dangerous and sweeping definition of what constitutes “dissent” if one can be punished or subject to “reform” solely because of what one is supposedly not doing or saying loud enough. Let’s be clear. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby (also named in the document) do not make it their business to challenge church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. They do not lobby on behalf of pro-choice positions or launch campaigns for same-sex marriage. They are busy defending human dignity and the Catholic notion of a consistent ethic of life by fighting for living wages, quality health care, an end to the death penalty, and laws that treat all immigrants as human beings instead of “aliens.”
By advocating for health care reform and the Pregnant Women Support Act, for example, Catholic sisters strengthen families and in the process help prevent abortions by making sure women have the kind of robust pre-natal and post-natal support they need. This is pro-life advocacy in the fullest sense of the term. In fact, women religious supported health care reform legislation precisely because they view access to quality, affordable medical care as a pro-life position.
Their disagreement with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the bill’s final language was not a challenge to the fundamental moral principle of respecting life, but rather over a different reading of complex legislative language balancing an array of competing goods. They applied the Catholic principle of prudence to come to a conclusion about how to best apply a moral principle to the particulars of public policy (a conclusion shared by many independent experts and many pro-life Christians). This should not be read as a power struggle with bishops or creeping heresy. It’s putting faith and reason to work in a pluralistic democracy.
It’s also important to ask why every Catholic organization must have as its primary mission a focus on abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholicism’s institutional muscles are well-honed on these issues at the national and diocesan level. Significant capital – human, political and financial – are leveraged to fight these battles. I would bet if you were to ask most Americans today (including many Catholics) about what the Catholic Church stands for you would likely get an answer describing what the church stands against (abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage).
Less well known is the Church’s rich social tradition that puts workers’ rights, economic fairness, respect for immigrants, care for the environment and a preference for the poor at the heart of orthodox faith. The perception of a double standard is given when Catholic organizations that ignore or speak in hushed tones about these urgent issues bearing on human life and dignity are given a free pass by church leaders.
Finally, the Vatican move raises enduring questions about “who speaks for the Church?” Explicit in the CDF report is the clear reiteration that bishops are the “authentic teachers.” In one sense, this is undoubtedly true. Bishops have a unique teaching charism and in a hierarchical church they sit atop the organizational pyramid. The Church, we are often reminded, is not a democracy. But institutional leadership is not the same as moral leadership, an attribute that is earned not given. The fact is most bishops are not getting their hands dirty in hospitals, jails, homeless shelters and in blighted communities where titles are less important than leadership by example.
As judged by St. Francis of Assisi’s famous admonition – “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words” – Catholic sisters are undoubtedly “authentic teachers.” The fundamental question about who “speaks for the Church” is too frequently framed as a simplistic struggle: Bishops v. Catholic Sisters. Bishops v. Theologians. Bishops v. Laity. The reality is many people speak for the church in different capacities and at different times. But that’s a heretical proposition for some conservatives and not a few bishops who seek a smaller, purer church. As a powerful America magazine editorial captured so well in the wake of the Obama-at-Notre Dame controversy:
In the United States today, self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy, like Randall Terry and the Cardinal Newman Society, push mightily for a pure church quite unlike the mixed community of saints and sinners—the Catholic Church—that Augustine championed. Like the Circumcellions of old, they thrive on slash-and-burn tactics; and they refuse to allow the church to be contaminated by contact with certain politicians. For today’s sectarians, it is not adherence to the church’s doctrine on the evil of abortion that counts for orthodoxy, but adherence to a particular political program and fierce opposition to any proposal short of that program. They scorn Augustine’s inclusive, forgiving, big-church Catholics, who will not know which of them belongs to the City of God until God himself separates the tares from the wheat. Their tactics, and their attitudes, threaten the unity of the Catholic Church in the United States, the effectiveness of its mission and the credibility of its pro-life activities.
Catholic sisters have been given the back of the hand when they deserve sustained applause. Let’s hope Archbishop Sartain, tasked with overseeing the work of LCWR for the next five years, will seek in whatever way possible to move forward with greater respect for those who are true heroes of our church.
Photo credit: Catholic Courier/Tamara Tirado