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Catholic Sisters on Trial

May 1, 2012, 1:46 pm | Posted by John Gehring

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

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11 Responses to “Catholic Sisters on Trial”

  1. Greg Lucid says:

    What about the sex scandal priests we never hear about? Why don’t they be held to the same regard instead of, some, being transferred to different Catholic parishes and not put on trial? What about those religious who steal money from the church? Are they put on trial? If someone wants to say what these Sisters have or have not done is sinful and against the laws of the Church, then make the importance of everyone’s actions equal in scope.

  2. Mary says:

    I was raised by nuns from the earliest years of my life, from kindergarden to my graduation in college. The nuns loved us, they acted at times like the “big sisters,” “2ndary mothers”, ” aunties” we didn’t have that we could run to in times of trouble . They were the dedicated women, without salaries or frills, who taught us about God, educated us, brought out the love for charity, and they basically defined us as Catholic women. I think without them I could never have realized my potential and power as a woman in the role of mother and grandmother to steer my children towards loving God. My husband who also grew up in the Catholic tradition , was taught to understand his role as husband is to be the disciple of Christ to protect, and guide our family in our home, and at work! The Catholic traditions of God first, family second, and to work with our Church to charity within commuity are exemplary values. We have to stand by our own community, and these nuns and priests who are the tireless workers need our support now!

  3. Bob F. says:

    These ain’t the nuns of yesteryear. They are the sort of nuns that drive faithful Catholics out of the Church for distorting Church doctrine.

    A friend of mine, who is basically the closest thing to a saint this side of heaven, was basically driven from her job at a Catholic school because she was pro-life and is faithful to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. She, being a music teacher, taught the girls some gregorian chant (which the students loved, its amazing how tradition draws young people). The nun in charge flipped out and basically tormented her until she left. This nun was more into yoga than actually standing up for what the Church believes.

    This is why the LCWR is being investigated. That’s not to say there aren’t nuns out there that do great work, but there are some seriously rotten apples that are spoiling the barrel.

    There’s a reason Walker Percy wrote in Lost in the Cosmos: “For every Mother Theresa there are 1800 nutty American nuns.”

    • Lea Brown says:

      Bob, “Faithful Catholics” won’t be driven and have the right to question and discuss. Faithful Catholics were not driven out by the sex scandals of priest. There are more rotten apples in the barrel of priest than there will ever be in the barrel of nuns.

  4. Applause as well to John Gehring for this insightful and accurate article. The patriarchal system of the Catholic church that has shaped our world for nearly 2,000 years has now brought us to the edge of destruction with its dualisms, hierarchies, exclusivity, domination, oppression, denial, and inequality. This may be the Vatican’s final assault that breaks the hold it has had on the world. The nuns of today will lead the world in recognizing the full humanity of all of us.

  5. Elizabeth Sholes says:

    When institutions focus on narrow doctrine rather than vital witness it is the last shriek of a dying entity. Every organization that demands intellectual purity and rigid conformity does so out of fear. It never works. This inquisition against women doing the real work of the faith is the death knell for that institution. Beware of your wishes.

  6. Helen Kemper says:

    As an associate of the Sisters of Notre Dame, I know many Sisters that devote their lives to caring for the poorest of the poor and teaching the word of God. They work long hours for very little pay, living on the edge of poverty. They exemplify what it means to be a Christian.
    Perhaps this investigation will teach the hierarchy a thing or two about being a true Christian.

  7. It seems to me that you should not be worry; I don;t know what is the overall problem, most probably what the Vatican does not like about the american sisters is their independence and liberty. I read today in any accidental way the gospel of John in which he transcribes when Jesus gave the new commandment that is love the others as you love God. Well if the Vatican does act according to this words of Jesus, you shouldn’t be worry because they are going to apologize to you, if they don’t care about love, then your have to have the wisdom to understand that you are inside an institution that only administrates in earth what they hallucinate god told to do, and you just have to survive, as we all do.

  8. kesmarn says:

    Well said, my dear friend!

    And to Bob F. I know quite a number of those allegedly “nutty nuns,” and they’re brilliant women with good hearts. They also have enough self-esteem to respect themselves and the work they do, and to resist domination by men who have plenty to account for themselves.