The Vatican and the Nuns: Episode 973

May 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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A few weeks back, in my article on Pope Francis and women’s ordination, I told a story about meeting Sister Helen Prejean at an event celebrating the publication of the twentieth anniversary edition of Dead Man Walking. I gave Sister Helen a copy of my book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the NunsShe replied that with the new pope, all of the trouble between the Vatican and American sisters was going to go away.

I had my doubts. As I explain in the central article in Sister Trouble, popes, bishops, and theologians have been attempting to get celibate Christian women under control since just after the Roman persecutions. The history of sisters (women religious) is studded with stories of famous mother foundresses running from one diocese to another to escape the local bishop’s crack-down on their congregations. Some of these women were subsequently excommunicated. Some of them were then, ever more subsequently, canonized.

So when the address by the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, accusing the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) of disobedience, was posted on the Vatican website on Monday, I was sorry, but I was not surprised. Good Pope Francis never retracted the hostile doctrinal assessment against the LCWR issued by Müller’s predecessor, Cardinal William Levada, in 2012. And Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Levada and Müller both. After which Pope Francis made Müller a cardinal.

The two emphases in Müller’s address are that the LCWR had decided to give an award to the nun-theologian Elizabeth Johnson CSJ, whose book, Quest for the Living God was condemned by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011, and that they have persisted in publishing material about “Conscious Evolution,” the discourse spearheaded by Barbara Marx Hubbard. In his address, Müller compares Conscious Evolution to Gnosticism.

I plan to write at further length regarding this latest episode of the Vatican and the bishops trying to bring the nuns to heel. At the moment, however, I will put aside the sheer idiocy of Müller resurrecting the pitiful business of the USCCB condemning a book by as orthodox and middle-of-the-road a theologian as Elizabeth Johnson (though it is worth noting that the head of the Committee on Doctrine at the time of the condemnation of Johnson’s book, Rev. Thomas Weinandy, has a reputation for being one nasty, hostile human being). And as for U.S. Catholic sisters integrating “Conscious Evolution” into their ministry and spirituality, has anybody read Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Berry lately? Teilhard’s works were, in fact, censored by the Vatican, but in 2009 a Vatican statement made all of that seem ridiculous (sort of like canonizing previously excommunicated Mother Foundresses).  As for Berry, by applying his “New Story of Creation” to the Christian faith, he took far greater risks, it seems to me, than Hubbard’s freestanding discourse does.

The real issue between the nuns and the Vatican is gender, plain and simple. However benign Pope Francis may be, he shares, as I have argued, the embarrassingly medieval theology of gender that his predecessors promoted. Indeed, the institutional church has been using control of women and sexuality as a weapon against the modern world since at least the liberal revolutions of 1848. Women–and sexuality–are the only things the popes were able at least to try to keep under control as the separation of church and state, the loss of the Vatican territories, etc., took away their ancient “secular” powers.  Hence the Vatican condemnation of contraception after Vatican II, when the bishops had finally accepted “the modern world.”

Today, in 2014, the Vatican and the bishops can’t even keep the vast majority of Catholic women under control. During the (unfortunately ongoing) uproar over religious freedom and the ACA contraceptives mandate, 97 percent of U.S. Catholic women surveyed reported having used contraceptives at some point. And it’s not just in the U.S.: several years ago, in an on-line chat, an African (Kenyan) Catholic (lay) woman studying for an MA in international relations in Nairobi said to me,”Who are these Catholic bishops, that they think they can tell us women what to do with our sexuality?”

This leaves nobody but the nuns for the bishops and the Vatican to control. According to Pope Francis’s theology of gender, women–but today, really, only nuns–are supposed to exhibit the “feminine genius”—to be warm, sensitive, intuitive, and complementary. Kneel down and kiss the bishops’ feet, that is. But as I argue in a variety of ways in Sister Trouble, the boys made a big mistake. After World War II, they used the sisters’ commitment to obedience to force them to get educated; they did this to avoid making the church look bad if secular counterparts were better qualified than than the sisters were. And the sisters obeyed.

What the men in authority got for their trouble was women like Sister Elizabeth Johnson. But they never give up. Johnson’s book, in my opinion, was condemned, impart at least, because Johnson dared to publish it without an imprimatur, an official statement of permission. And now the idiots in Rome are resurrecting the whole episode, and criticizing some of the smartest women in the history of the church, the LCWR, for not asking permission before publishing material regarding a line of thought that seems fruitful to them.  And they wonder why American Catholic women aren’t rushing into religious life?

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