Nun Better

I wrote the following piece for the blog BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich, and I’ve already gotten myself into trouble over it. I’ll reprint the article, and then the dialogue that followed.


Yesterday, the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—with over 1,500 members, they’re the largest and probably the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the country—because they have challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

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.” (This last was mainly over their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010—that is, the big health care overhaul that everyone has been arguing about for years—because they supported it and a bunch of bishops opposed it for political and religious reasons.)

The group was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, but of course this was during the period of significant church reform that led to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Another group of Catholic nuns—Network, a social justice lobby—was also reprimanded by the Vatican for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage. I know a number of these nuns, and worked with them on several issues in the past; I would agree with the Vatican’s assessment that they are indeed passionate about poverty and economic injustice, though while they may not have made public statements about abortion and gay marriage, in private many of them are less than happy about the Vatican’s heavy-handed suppression of social justice issues.

Certainly health care reform was one of those issues, since they feel that poor people will always receive the dregs when it comes to health care. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said, “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad. We haven’t violated any teaching; we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

So the Vatican appointed an archbishop and two other bishops to “reform” LCWR: they have five years to revise LCWR’s statutes, approve every speaker at the group’s public programs, and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. The trio of bishops will also review LCWR’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes—a particularly dangerous nonprofit because it gives its members financial and legal resources.

You may recall that Pope Benedict XVI was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition) back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but long after he was a member of the Hitler Youth and the Luftwaffenhelfer. (I’m sorry if that sounds like an ad hominem attack on the pope. If anyone would like to discuss his doctrinal positions instead of his personal history, I’d be happy to do that, too.)

In 2009, when the Vatican’s investigation of the LCWR was being conducted, the New York Times ran a story that suggested it was indeed a doctrinal inquisition:

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force,” said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet.”

One last tidbit: while the Vatican was investigating the LCWR, it was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public. I’m thinking the nuns’ observations from 2009 will prove prophetic.


Timothy, who writes the Catholic Bibles blog, commented:

I am not sure where to begin in assessing your post. You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country. On the issue of health care reform, I am sure you are aware that the Catholic Church has been for comprehensive health care coverage since the early 20th century. A short glimse of these document, all only within the last 20 years makes this very evident: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/. This is of course a social justice issue, but one the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death. Of course the Church is also opposed to the death penalty and the protection of illegal immigrants, both which are social justice issues, and ones more often promoted by the ‘left.’

The Church has done visitations over the past few years to religious sisters. But also religious brothers, seminaries, and dioceses. I work at a Catholic high school, and representatives from the dioces visit us every year. So, this is nothing odd or extraordinary.

Finally, your comment about Pope Benedict is unnecessary and an unjust attack on the man. All German boys of his age were enrolled in the Hitler Youth at that time, there was no getting around it. The Ratzinger’s were known to be anti-Nazi . His father was a police officer in a small Bavarian town, who opposed Nazi rallies. So, I find you comments on this issue to be unfortunate.


My reply:

You say that healthcare reform is an issue which “the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death.” This implies that organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church should be allowed to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of their employees, who may not even be Catholics themselves, much less Catholics who adhere to official Catholic doctrine. If an employee (perhaps a gentile employee) of an Orthodox Jewish organization had to go on food stamps, would it be right for their shul to block their access to non-kosher foods?

As for the pope’s past: Ratzinger joined the Hitler-Jugend in 1941, three years after the terrible Kristallnacht brought the horrors of Nazism to general public awareness. While you are correct that it was compulsory for young people to join, both Joseph Ratzinger and his brother Georg have said that “resistance was impossible” at the time and that it’s not surprising or morally culpable that they also “went along.” This is insulting to the many who risked their lives to resist the Nazi regime, both in organized cells and on an individual basis. In fact, there are many examples of those who refused service in the Hitler Youth for a variety of reasons. Many of Ratzinger’s age joined young people’s resistance groups like the Edelweiss Pirates, or the Swing Kids, or the Helmut Hubener group, or the White Rose (though this group didn’t officially form until 1942). Yes, the Ratzinger family did object to the Nazis and as a consequence were forced to move four times—they did not passively and quietly accept what was going on, as many other families did—but whatever the family did, it doesn’t appear to have been enough to warrant being detained and questioned by the Gestapo.

But as I said above, I am happy to discuss the pope’s current doctrines and statements, and leave aside all further references to his past.

You write, “You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country.” I realize that today’s Catholic Church hierarchy values adherence to current teachings above all else, and that the bishops are the ones to crack the whip. Never mind the fact that the Second Vatican Council promised an open and dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world! Since the 1980s, Rome has retreated from those reforms. More to the point, the bishops are clearly at odds with most practicing Catholics today. Liberal Catholics the world over hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.

Nuns are placed in a particularly difficult position. On the one hand, they are expected to obey the rules of their order, which in turn likely includes obedience to the Holy See. On the other hand, they are the ones in the trenches, on the streets, in direct service to the poor and disenfranchised, working with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They must obey their own consciences and the urgings of the Holy Spirit. And frankly, the Holy Spirit trumps the pope.

I daresay a goodly number of this “ecclesiastical work force” will continue to stand against oppression, even at the threat of excommunication.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Politics, Social Justice, Theology | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Nun Better

  1. This evening on BLT, Timothy and I had another exchange. Timothy:

    I simply don’t find your attacks on Benedict to provide any substance to your main argument of the post. And the fact that you concede his whole family was clearly opposed to the Nazi regime, but for whatever reason a young Joseph didn’t actively join a resistance or end up in some prison or dead doesn’t seem to be fair.

    The current Church, as well as well as the Church for the past two thousand years has been concerned with upholding her teachings. Vatican II did not change that. Lumen Gentium clearly is consistent with the importance given to the hierarchy:

    Bishops, therefore, with their helpers, the priests and deacons, have taken up the service of the community, (11*) presiding in place of God over the flock,(12*) whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing.(13*) And just as the office granted individually to Peter, the first among the apostles, is permanent and is to be transmitted to his successors, so also the apostles’ office of nurturing the Church is permanent, and is to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. (14*) Therefore, the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, (15*) as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.(149)(16*). (lumen gentium 20). The paragraphs that follow contiunue with the same theology of the episcopacy.

    I would also disagree with you assertion that Rome has retreated from dialogue with the world. How would explain the days of prayer in Assisi, the many ecumenical/interfaith meetings of JPII and B16, the Joint Decleration on Justification, among others?

    My reply:

    While Lumen Gentium affirms the primacy of the Catholic Church as “governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (Lumen Gentium, 8), the document immediately adds: “Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.” And this, I would argue, is where the nuns who are being silenced have been working, and their voice is the cry of the people of God.

    Unfortunately, I think you and I have such profoundly differing views of what “dialogue with the world” means that to continue our discussion would be less than fruitful.

  2. Should anyone like to enter into the discussion on BLT, here is the link:http://bltnotjustasandwich.com/2012/04/19/nun-better/

  3. Kittycat

    Yep. It’s all the same. Vatican II said this in it’s Constitution Dei Verbum:
    “Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”

    Vatican II showed that traditions should be kept with loyalty. Nice right?

  4. Anna Filmore

    Can you tell us why you think the RCRI is “a particularly dangerous nonprofit because it gives its members financial and legal resources”? With what advice they have given do you disagree? I am at a loss for this statement. Please speak in layman’s terms with specific examples.

  5. Anna, I believe you missed the sarcasm in my voice. The LCWR and its support of RCRI are exactly what the church so desperately need. It is the bishops who apparently view the nonprofit as dangerous, as they are intent on starting an investigation into the group’s workings. And they may have a point: women religious without resources may be an annoyance, but give them legal and financial resources—that is, the real wherewithal they need to continue their important work—and they move from annoyance to actual threat to the patriarchy. More power to them!

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