Rome vs. the Sisters II

April 30, 2012 at 11:53 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Last week I promised to continue my analysis of the April 18 Vatican doctrinal assessment of the major umbrella organization of US Catholic sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. As it turns out, my article “Rome vs. The Sisters,” which elaborates on the first three points in my post, appears today in Religion Dispatches, the online religion magazine.

It begins:

“Commentators offer a range of explanations for last week’s Vatican “assessment” charging a group that includes the largest number of US Catholic sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) with ‘serious doctrinal problems’ and ‘radical feminism.’

“One frequent explanation is that the report was issued in retaliation for support given the 2009 Affordable Care Act (ACA) by Network, a Catholic social justice lobby with close ties to the LCWR.   Continue

Another post, on point #4, coming soon…


Bringing the Nuns to Heel

April 24, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments
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By now, it’s hard to imagine anybody who hasn’t heard about the Vatican’s doctrinal condemnation of the main umbrella organization of Catholic sisters in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and its appointment of a conservative archbishop to control the organization’s future actions. The New York Times reported on the Vatican statement April 18, the day it was issued, and the next day, it published an editorial in support of the nuns. The PBS NewsHour covered it, interviewing one of the fine Catholic theologians of the rising generation, Fordham’s Jeannine Hill Fletcher. The National Catholic Reporter, the liberal Catholic paper of record, has published multiple articles about the condemnation. Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, one of the best known Catholic sisters in the US , has spoken out strongly against it. US Catholic, a distinctly middle-of-the-road Catholic magazine, published an article on its website detailing the ways in which the Vatican statement is misleading if not downright dishonest, and showing how some of the report’s ostensibly damning quotations of a speaker at an LCWR assembly are taken out of context. And Scott Appleby of Notre Dame University, a dean of American Catholic historians, discusses and models in an on-line interview the pastoral care the Vatican should have but did not exemplify in its treatment of the LCWR.

Virtually everyone I know is upset over this blatant abuse of US Catholic sisters by the Vatican, but I am more or less beside myself. This is the case not only because, like literally millions of other US Catholics baby-boomers, I was educated almost exclusively by Catholic sisters for fourteen years, the first twelve of them without charge, and had my life transformed by the experience.

It’s also because over the last decade I have been researching the life of an American Catholic sister, Mary Daniel Turner SNDdeN, who was for most of the 1970s the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the group currently under attack. As executive director, Sister Mary Daniel spearheaded many of the changes that have made the LCWR the model of democratic governance and commitment to the Gospel that it is today. In the course of my research on Sister Mary Daniel, I interviewed a good number of the women who are currently in the leadership of the LCWR, or are LCWR members by virtue of leadership roles in their respective congregations (or orders). I have rarely met women who impressed me more. The idea of these utterly dedicated and highly educated women coming under this kind of attack for exercising their freedom of conscience by sometimes disagreeing with the American bishops drives me nuts.

Because I have been researching and thinking about these women and their incalculable contributions to church and society for ten years, I am going to write several posts in the next week or so in response to the Vatican’s attack on the LCWR. I list below some of the directions I propose to explore in hopes that you will check back in from time to time:

1) The Vatican caused this problem. In the 1950s, it ordered US women’ religious congregations to begin meeting together. The nuns didn’t want to but they obeyed orders. Be careful what you wish for, fellas.

2) One of the reasons for US Catholic sisters expressing themselves on various issues is because they are some of the most highly educated women in the country. This, too, was the Vatican’s doing: already in the 1950s, it ordered the nuns to get more educated so they could respond more effectively to the modern world. See last sentence in item #1.

3) There is nothing new about the bishops and the pope going after the nuns. This sort of attack has occurred repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity, though this history makes the current attack no less horrifying. The difference is that in previous centuries and millenia, the attacks were on individual congregations and groups who lacked the power to fight back. Today, the nuns are organized, thanks to the wisdom of the Vatican. See last sentence in item #1.

4)The Vatican, and particularly the US Catholic bishops, may not grasp the effect that this move against US sisters is going to have. In recent years there has been, of course, a considerable decline in the number of white-ethnic Catholics in the American church. But an astonishing number of us have plodded on, despite the institution’s condemnation of our need to limit the size of our families, forbidding us to so much as talk about women’s ordination, and describing the sexual expression of some of our children, our siblings, our friends and ourselves as “intrinsically disordered.” Even before the Vatican condemnation of the LCWR, however, more and more of my faithful Catholic women friends had taken to saying that they don’t know how much more they can take. And now the Vatican and the bishops have set out to bring our spiritual mothers to heel. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Shall I Forgive Him?

April 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments

One of the ways I spend my time here in New York is participating in the NY region of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement. In March, for example, I attended the annual Pax Christi retreat out at the Sisters of St. Joseph Renewal Center in Brentwood, Long Island.

The retreat leader this year was spiritual director Judy Schiavo. The subject of the retreat was forgiveness. Judy is a lovely human being and I found much of what she said about forgiveness, reconciliation and peace quite moving. And others clearly did, too. The small group conversations after Judy’s talks were thoughtful and animated.

But I have to confess, there’s something about forgiveness I don’t get. I am the first to acknowledge that Jesus, and Paul after him, call us, unambiguously and often, to forgive those who have harmed us, if we are to have any hope of being forgiven for the harm we do. That part I get. But when it comes down to forgiving specific people, especially when they seem to have no interest in being forgiven, I don’t always understand how to do it. Doubtless a lot of people are more generous than I. But just because I believe I should forgive somebody doesn’t mean I find it easy, or even possible, to do.

Let me be specific here. I think a fair amount about my great-grandmother, Hannah Kelly (or Kelly, depending on which document you consult). Hannah was an Irish Catholic domestic, the daughter of Irish immigrants. By what could be perceived as a stroke of luck, she married one of her employers, John Osler Turner, an Episcopalian, and the superintendent of an iron works. They had five children.

Unfortunately, something went wrong. At some point, Great-grandfather Turner took to going to the bar after work at noontime on Saturday, drinking we know not how much, returning home and beating my great-grandmother. The story is that while he was doing so, he would say, or maybe shout,  “Hannah, you have the brains of an oyster.” Their two youngest daughters, my great-aunts Helen and Essie, would attempt to hide her in a closet so their more or less drunk father wouldn’t find her. “The aunts,” as we called them, never married–you can see why–and lived with and cared for their parents until they died. Great-grandfather Turner also, I have heard, required  his four daughters to drop out of high-school and do factory work, while his only son, John Turner, Jr, remained in school and graduated.

I wonder if I should forgive my great-grandfather–someone I never met–for all this. This may sound like a theoretical question, but it’s not. When my own mother died, a year ago last December, I found, when going through her things, two historical documents, great-grandmother Hannah’s baptismal certificate from the Catholic cathedral in Wilmington, dated 1859, and the certificate of her marriage to John Turner in an Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1878. I also found a snapshot of my great-grandparents, taken when they were quite old, standing about a foot apart.

I am thinking about having Great-grandmother’s baptismal certificate archivally framed, along with the part of the snapshot in which she appears, cutting out the wife-beating great-grandfather, and hanging it on the wall behind my desk. I think my great-grandmother might enjoy looking down on her smarter than an oyster great-granddaughter as she blogs. Perhaps this will offset the large framed photograph of Great-grandfather Turner that stood on top of the my mother’s tv  at the time of her death.

So here’s my question: shall I cut this guy out of the photograph? Or shall I leave him there to raise the question of forgiveness again and again as the years go on? What do you think?

Deliver Us From Douthat

April 10, 2012 at 10:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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In an Easter Sunday column in the New York Times, Ross Douthat argues that “the disappearance of a Christian center and the decline of institutional religion more generally” has led to “division, demonization and polarization without end” in American politics. The piece is so shot full of inaccuracies, generalizations and ideological hoo-hah that I very nearly laid my face down on my  breakfast pancakes. There was so much to disagree with, the thought of commenting on the article totally exhausted me. Even more horrifying, the article is taken from Douthat’s presumably just as bad new book, the title of which I refuse to mention for fear of contributing to sales.

Thank God, religion and journalism scholar Mark Silk has more energy than I; he eviscerates Douthat point by point in an Easter Monday article, “Bad Douthat,” on the Religion News Service webpage.  No, Ross, JFK was not the first non-mainstream-Protestant US president. No, the 1950s saw nothing like the acknowledgement of common theological ground between Catholics and Protestants. No, Obama is not an “unchurched Christian,” and stop making offensive remarks about him. No, Romney’s LDS church is not growing quickly. No, not all institutional churches in the past “proved their worth as both sources of moral authority and hubs of activism”–consider the opposition to civil rights by white churches in the South. No, Ross,  “the problem in our time is not that religious causes have polarized the polity, but that they have been mapped onto partisan politics. By consciously building a base of supporters on religious lines, the Republican Party has taken the normal cut-and-thrust of religion in America and institutionalized it politically. It’s not bad religion that brought this about. It’s bad politics.”

Silk’s article is well worth reading in toto. It offers an insight into the nonsense that passes for journalism these days. Why, I wonder, does the New York Times, the “paper of record,” as some say, publish this stuff?

(Many thanks to my friend, Religion in America scholar David Watt, for posting a link to Silk’s article on his Facebook page.)

The Women Did Not Give Up Hope

April 7, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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After Jesus died on the cross, a group of women disciples remained faithful to him and believed in his resurrection.

All over the world, faithful Catholic women continue to believe that God will save the Catholic Church from its misogyny and authoritarianism by admitting women to the priesthood. God knows what a long hard slog it has been for women’s ordination activists, how much easier it would be to give up hope.

Just south of here, in Philadelphia. some very dear friends of mine have been working for women’s ordination since the 1970s. One of the actions they undertake year after year is to celebrate a Eucharist outside St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Philadelphia on Holy Thursday while the archbishop and his priests celebrate a Mass inside in honor of the priesthood. My friends also hold up signs and banners calling for the ordination of women.

This year WHYY, the PBS station in Philly, filmed and posted on their webpage an interview with two of my dear friends, Dr. Regina Bannan, the president of the southeast Pennsylvania women’s ordination group, and woman priest Rev. Judy Heffernan, as they carried out their Holy Thursday action. Click here to meet my friends and hear their thoughts about women’s ordination and the future of the Catholic Church.

God raised Jesus from the dead. Surely God can and will cause the male leaders of the Catholic Church to welcome the larger half of the people of God into full membership, thus saving and reinvigorating the church we love.

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