Vatican Report on U.S. Sisters

December 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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For days now, friends and colleagues have been awaiting with excitement the report on U.S. Catholic sisters that the Vatican Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) issued this morning. Based on an Apostolic Visitation of active (non-cloistered) congregations of sisters that began in 2008, this report has been anticipated since at least 2012. Hopes were high that it would be positive and appreciative (unlike the separate doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of 2012) because it was issued under the current pope, not Benedict XVI, who authorized the Visitation.

Most would agree that the outcome is much better than was initially feared. A headline in Crux, in the Boston Globe, reads “Vatican probe ends with an olive branch for American nuns.” The National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report acknowledges the report’s “roundly positive, even laudatory, tone towards (the sisters’) life and work,” while also mentioning several “couched but barbed criticisms” of them. (But the British Guardian calls the report a “mild rebuke.”) A sister of Notre Dame de Namur whom I admire enormously for her decades of relentless social justice advocacy said she would be grateful for a positive report so that sisters could stop worrying and get back to the work they were called to do.

I, too, am grateful that the report is as positive as it is. I am especially moved by the section on finances,  reminding readers of the difficult financial situation of many women’s congregations and that many sisters worked for nothing. God willing, at the end of the report, readers will express their gratitude by getting out their checkbooks. I also appreciate the report’s acknowledgment that the decline in the number of Catholic sisters in recent years was not the result of their secular life-styles, but in part at least, because the huge increase in the number of sisters in the middle of the twentieth century was an historical anomaly.

Nonetheless, I feel the need to make a few points.

First of all, the report describes the visitations as “sister to sister” undertakings. And it is true that a nun, Mother Mary Clare Millea, supervised the entire (massive) effort, and a “core team” of other sisters did the actual work of visiting and interviewing other sisters in their four hundred-some groups across the U.S. It is worth remembering, however, that Mother Mary Clare  reported to the entirely male CICLSAL leadership, and that she herself was part of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the more conservative organization of U.S. sisters that  split off from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)in 1992. It would be interesting to know the percentage of “core team” sister/interviewers who also came from congregations in the CMSWR.

I also have real problems with the final  paragraphs of the report, beginning with the  expression of hope that the “feminine genius” of more women, including competent women religious, will be “actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding the ‘possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.'” I will spare you my thoughts about the “feminine genius” and note only that the phrase “actively involved in…dialogue…about the possible role…” is  scandalously indirect and ambivalent. Possible roles?

This paragraph is followed by the statement that the Apostolic Visitation modeled its approach on the Gospel encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, “one a virgin and the other married but barren,” who overcame fear and uncertainty to embrace their roles in God’s plan. Myself, I would have preferred a description of these extremely significant women in light of something besides, or at least along with, their reproductive status. I would have also been grateful if the final paragraph described women, especially women religious, as actually doing something, instead of (or along with) the church celebrating “the great things that God does for them” and Mary herself “constantly contemplating the work of God.”

Some U.S. sisters may object to my focusing on these details; the book about the process, Power of Sisterhoodand the report itself stress the unity that resulted from the Apostolic Visitation; some sisters also express hope for better relations between the LCWR and the CMSWR.

But it’s crucial to recognize that the report actually does nothing to change the governance structure of the Roman Catholic Church. The church is an absolute monarchy, and unlike other monarchies, only men get crowned. If a pope dies, there’s no telling what his successor will do, as some of us learned to our dismay after the deaths of Pope John XXII, and, to some extent, Pope Paul VI. (This is particularly amusing in a religious organization given to saying “As the church has always taught.”) Pope Francis is a big improvement over his two predecessors, particularly because of  his stress on the poor, though the possibility that the church’s teaching on women might actually contribute to their poverty seems to elude him.

All this notwithstanding, Pope Francis is an old man. And if he dies, God knows what position his successor will hold, on women and a lot of other things. The current heads of the  Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are much more appreciative of  U.S. Catholic sisters than Cardinal Franc Rodé was. Will their successors be? Until the Catholic church ordains women priests and bishops, appoints them cardinals, and elects them pope, its treatment of Catholic women, including and especially nuns, is at the least unpredictable. As things are, the only role allotted to women by the institutional church is to pray that the pope lives a long time and that the bishops and cardinals he names will be more enlightened on questions of gender and sexuality than he is.

 

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?

“Secrets of the Vatican”

February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
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As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.

But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The  Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.

So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?

It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?

The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe.  Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.

Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.

Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.

Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?

 

Let A Billion Vatican II Blossoms Bloom

July 30, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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The following article appeared in current issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. It was originally titled “The Death of Vatican II,” but given the title of the piece I posted last week, I thought something more upbeat might be in order.

There’s nothing original about arguing that many of the hopes generated by the Second Vatican Council have been dashed. Leonard Swidler speaks of the “devastating disappointment” of the Council. Rembert Weakland observes in his 2009 memoir that the decision not to ordain women meant “the loss of the future.” Indeed, papers recently released by the Catholic moral philosopher Germaine Grisez reveal that even before the end of the Council, Paul VI indicated that he would do what he would do regardless of what the bishops had decided.

All this notwithstanding, recent developments suggest that the Vatican and the US bishops are now intent upon bringing the Vatican II era definitively to a close. These efforts began, I would argue, with the 2002 command that the faithful return to the (literally) medieval practice of kneeling during the canon of the Mass. Even as I regret the sexism of Mark Massa’s The American Catholic Revolution, I agree with his observation that for most US Catholics, Vatican II began with the renewal of the liturgy. I can still see the nun who taught religion at my Catholic girlsʼ high school during Vatican II, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Marcella Marie Missar, explaining joyously that “we stand during the canon out of respect for the dignity of the human person.” I wish I could believe that we have been ordered to fall to our knees once again to increase our respect for God rather than for the male leaders of the church.

If kneeling during the canon was one step in the Vaticanʼs campaign to bring the Vatican II era to a close, the “new” translation of the Roman Missal is clearly another. That the translation is ugly, wordy, cumbersome and inaccurate is only part of the story.As the once-conservative Benedictine liturgist, Anthony Ruff, argues, another purpose of the Vatican veto of the translation the bishops had already approved was to show the entire community of English-speaking liturgists that their work didnʼt matter. Nor, apparently, do the beliefs of the English-speaking Catholic laity, who took from Vatican II the bizarre notion that they share some kind of equality with the clergy. “And with your spirit” reminds us, however, that the ordained possess a sacred quality the rest of us do not.

Another discouraging effect of the “new” translation is that before it was promulgated, a number of main-line Protestant denominations shared with the English- speaking Catholic Church certain responses and other fixed parts of the liturgy, for example, “And also with you.” Many of us considered these shared liturgical passages a foretaste of the eventual reunion of Christians–a foretaste now eradicated.

Recent doctrinal statements issued by the Vatican and the USCCB manifest another break with Vatican II. Unlike the previous twenty councils of the church, Vatican II defined no doctrines and issued no anathemas. It was a truly pastoral event. Documents like the recent Vatican assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the USCCB condemnation of Elizabeth Johnsonʼs Quest for the Living God show that the men in power are accelerating the new era of anathema begun in 1968. “The joys and hopes, the griefs and sorrows” of the men and women of this age recede precipitously as doctrinal truth becomes, once again, the center of the Catholic faith.

In the face of these attempts to move the church back to the First Vatican Council, and especially the vile CDF attack on the Catholic sisters who embody the faith for many of us, itʼs tempting to give up on the whole sorry business. To decamp to the Unitarian Universalists, or the United Church of Christ, or the Episcopalians, whose stances on women and gays and peace and justice are vastly more inspiring than those of our own church seem to be.

As I argue in a post on Religion Dispatches, however itʼs likely that this is exactly what the Vatican and the USCCB have in mind—to drive out the “Vatican II Catholics” and cut back to what Pope Benedict XVI has called “the church of the little flock,” the smaller, purer Catholic Church that tolerates no dissent, no theological development, no renewal.

In the face of this attempt to eradicate the most powerful manifestation of Vatican II—the people of God—I urge us all, myself included, not to take the bait and give up. Instead, let us continue to identify ourselves as Catholics in whatever ways our consciences allow—as members of parishes where the leadership clearly does not support Vatican repression; as members of small faith communities who ordain their own celebrants or celebrate the eucharist communally; as ordained or lay participants in an RCWP congregation; as members of Independent Catholic churches; as leaders and activists in a wide range of Catholic reform groups like SEPA-WOC and Call to Action and Dignity and Voice of the Faithful. And let us invite younger Catholics, gay and straight and Black and white and Latino and in between to join with us in these efforts.

Letʼs collaborate and speak out and publish and resist the death of Vatican II to which Rome and the bishops seem committed. Let a billion Vatican II blossoms bloom.

 

 

Shall We Give Up on Rome?

June 18, 2012 at 11:32 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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Since I became a feminist in the early 1970s, non-Catholics have been asking me the same question: “If you want women ordained, why don’t you just become an Episcopalian?” Or “You know Rome is never going to change. Why not just quit?”

I’ll spare you my responses, which have to do with my six Famine Irish great-grandparents turning over in their graves, and the fact that when I fall down and skin my knee (or break both wrists!), I say “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

But now it’s practicing Catholics who are raising this question, and with increasing frequency. First there was a nationally recognized nun (not Sister Joan Chittister),  who didn’t say it’s time to leave, but that it may be time for US women’s religious congregations to give up their canonical status as the Los Angeles Immaculate Heart Community did after Cardinal McIntyre kicked the shit out of them in the late 1960s. Next a local Catholic sister in leadership in her congregation suggested it’s time to separate from Rome and form an American Catholic church. I wasn’t exactly shocked by what she said, but I certainly took notice; this woman is a classic, law-abiding nun, somebody who has spent her life working her butt off for her congregation and the church.

But now the cat is really out of the bag, in an article in today’s New York Times about “The Rottweiler’s Rottweiler,” Bill Donohue, the head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. I seriously doubt that the author of the article (and former executive editor of the Times), Bill Keller, is a practicing Catholic, but he admits to a level of disagreement with Donohue that I and many of my Vatican II Catholic friends share. Keller is amazed, then, to find himself agreeing with Donohue when he says that the solution to the massive conflicts roiling the American church is for people like the nuns and me to accede to the wishes of the chief rottweiler, Pope Benedict XVI, and go away. Citing the positive example of Spiritus Christi “Catholic, not Roman Catholic” Church in Rochester, NY, Keller writes:

“Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go. Bill Donohue will hold the door for you.”

I can hardly fault Keller for raising the question that many other US Catholics have raised since the crack-down on Catholic Sisters began. Though as for his suggestion that perhaps Cardinal Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, will agree to pay off the departing sisters as he paid pedophile priests to disappear when he was the archbishop of Milwaukee, I have a different idea. Women’s religious congregations should get themselves lawyers with expertise is disaggregating their savings and property from the institutional church pronto. Some have already done so.

So what do you think? Is this the direction the huge number of American Catholics who support marriage equality, the right of all women to reproductive health care, and the election of political candidates who won’t eviscerate the social safety net, should follow–to give up on the Vatican and its episcopal enforcers? Would we be losing something here, or gaining a whole lot?

Can the Church Hurry Up?

March 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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To give you a little background on my approach to this question, I begin with a story. It’s 2000 or 2001 and my husband, the Baptist minister, and I are in Siena on holiday. We are visiting one of the basilicas in Siena; I forget which one. In the basilica we come upon a statue of a young man. Next to the statue is a sign that says “This is a statue of Blessed Joachim Piccolomini, who died in 1305 and was beatified in 1609. The Servite fathers and brothers of this basilica never cease to pray for the canonization of Blessed Joachim. If you or someone you know has been blessed by a miracle through the intercession of a Blessed Joachim, please notify the Servite Superior, Father So and So.”

My husband has learned to value much about the Catholic tradition in our quarter century or so together, but I have to confess, he began laughing hysterically as we read the sign.

“It’s been four hundred years since he was beatified!!” he shouted? “And they’re still praying!?”

“This should give you some insight into the women’s ordination issue,” I replied.

Blessed Joachim seems to have been a holy fellow, utterly dedicated to the poor. But he is not my main concern today. My concern is that in recent months I have been reading like a crazy person about climate change and related catastrophes–extreme weather, desertification, floods, climate migration by hundreds of millions, water shortages, and wars that those shortages are guaranteed to produce. (See Gwynne Dyers Climate Wars if you need the details.) By 2050 we are going to be into all of this big time. And some of it much sooner.

So my question is, can the Church–and here I mean the Catholic Church, the second largest religious body on earth–hurry up and get its members to focus on the imminent destruction of nature, including the Life with which it is otherwise so preoccupied?

Now in point of fact, Pope Benedict XVI has made a number of statements about the seriousness of the climate crisis. At the Third World Water Forum in 2003 the Vatican representative  actually called the world water crisis, “in the broad sense of the concept, a right to life issue.”

Trouble is, I have never heard the world water crisis or climate change mentioned from a Catholic pulpit. Certainly not the way I have heard the rights of the unborn stressed from the pulpit. Yet truly, if the human race is washed away, or if it incinerates itself with nuclear weapons as Pakistan has already threatened to do to India over water shortages there, will this not be the killing of the unborn on a scale that abortion could never possibly effect?  So why aren’t the (remaining) Catholic priests in the US denouncing the massive  CO2 production by American Catholics (including me, let me add) that threatens God’s very creation? Why isn’t the Vatican ordering them to do this?

Now we know that the institutional church can hurry up. It recently decided to ignore the time limits on the canonization process–not on behalf of Blessed Joachim, from whom the Servites must continue to pray–but for Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified in May.

The question is, can the Vatican and the bishops get a move on with regard to the survival of nature, including all God’s children? Or is the beatification of one of their colleagues, with whose politics they identify, more important than that?


Sex Abuse Bibliography

April 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Those of you follow my blog know that I am occasionally subject to an obsession with the Vatican that I consider a serious personal failing. A falling off the wagon, as it were. Of course, the (as virtually ever journalist in the world describes it) “mounting” Catholic sex abuse scandal certainly helps to explain my current mania. You can  barely turn on the radio without hearing a reference to the Vatican and sex abuse. Still…

In an attempt to “achieve some closure” on this latest episode of Vatican mania, I have decided, in classic professorial style, to construct  a list of articles about Catholic clergy sex abuse that in my opinion add at least some nuance to the “conversation.” Your paper on same is due May 1.

I have already mentioned the Ross Douthout April 11 NYTimes op-ed piece about Benedict XVI being “The Better Pope” with regard to sex abuse. I mention it again because it doesn’t seem to have gotten much play. Hard to fathom how somebody who was in charge of the Catholic Church for almost three decades within the period during which a massive cover-up of sex abuse ostensibly took place could continue to get a pass. But JPII was a brilliant tactician; perhaps he continues to be so even after death.

Another article on sex abuse and the church, “On Scandal and Scandals,” by priest-psychologist Brendan Callaghan, appeared last week on Thinking Faith,  the on-line journal of the British Jesuits. The striking thing about this article is that, although it’s written by a Catholic priest, it exhibits neither the inept defensiveness of the Vatican nor the vituperative tone of too much  journalism on the scandal. Callaghan’s concluding thoughts on sin and reconciliation in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus instilled more hope in me about this great mess than anything I’ve read in a long time. (Thinking Faith, by the bye,  is free, and well worth subscribing to.)

On another front, one well to the south of the countries where the scandal is getting the greatest play, the Catholic Information Service of Africa (CISA) has published a talk on clergy sex abuse by the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale. Archbishop Thlagale is unambiguous in his condemnation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy. And he speaks of the clergy in first person plural–“we,” not “you,”–detailing the enormous harm that has been done to the Church by priests. But he doesn’t stop there, ending, instead, with words of hope, those spoken by Jesus to Francis of Assisi at the time of his conversion: “Francis, go rebuild my house, which, as you see, is all being destroyed.” Would that Archbishop Tlhagale’s emphatic condemnation had been quoted alongside those of the Vatican nitwit who, during Holy Week, compared the treatment of the Church to the oppression of the Jews. (CISA’s email coverage of the Church in Africa is also free and worthwhile. Subscription info here.) 

Finally, I bring to your attention yesterday’s article in the New York Times  (April 23) about an $18.5 million sex abuse judgment  against the Boy Scouts of America. Apparently the Scouts for decades kept a secret file of sex abusers that ostensibly “detailed many instances across the country in which troop leaders or volunteers were allowed to continue working with children even after the Scouts had received complaints that they had committed sexual abuse.” The Scouts’ lawyer argued that “the files proved that the Scouts were ahead of their time in tracking child sexual abuse, even if the system was ‘not foolproof.’” One commentator, at least, suggested that the setting up of the file actually was well intentioned, initially at least.

Ross Douthat: Benedict XVI is Better

April 12, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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This is more a transmission than a blogpiece, but I was struck, just now, by an op-ed in today’s New York Times  in which Ross Douthat argues that Benedict XVI is a better pope than John Paul II was. I know a lot of people who will disagree with that, and a number more who will say “Who cares?” But I find the article an interesting one in the midst of all the venom and condemnation swirling around lately.

By the way, does anybody know how to pronounce “Douthat”? Is it “Doubt-hat?” “Do that?” Something else altogether?

Sex Abuse Intolerable; Diphtheria Less So

April 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I may have spoken too soon. As my Catholic cousin Maureen Dowd reports in today’s New York Times, the AP has broken “the latest story pointing the finger of blame directly at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quoting from a letter in Latin in which he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually molested children.”  So here is the proof I said in a previous blog didn’t exist. The pope, in his previous position, took years to respond to a letter from the bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, asking permission to “defrock” an admitted child abuser. And when he did respond, “God’s Rottweiler” urged “the diocese to give the 38-year-old pedophile ‘as much paternal care as possible’ and to consider his young age” as well as “the good of the universal church.”

Now it’s possible to quibble a bit with Dowd’s  interpretation.  For example, we might take into account a report on NPR Saturday attributing part of the problem here to Pope John Paul II’s decision to staunch the flood of men leaving the  priesthood after Vatican II by making it much more difficult for them to receive laicization.  

But this is precisely the kind of buck-passing for which the Vatican is much criticized of late. Let’s stick to Maureen Dowd’s column. Let’s consider, for example, the column’s sub-head: “Suffer the little children. Don’t make the little children suffer.”

Now it seems perfectly obvious which little children Dowd is referring to here: the thousands of American and European Catholic boys and girls who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests. In recent years, however, I have become interested in another group of little children, those who live in the Global South and die in large numbers from water-borne diseases (diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera, for the most part). Experts tell us that one child dies of such a disease every fifteen seconds.

Now you may well think that there’s no comparison between the millions of children who die of these diseases every year and children abused by priests. After all, the children in the Global South die. Their sufferings are over. Sexually abused children, however, suffer for the rest of their lives.

My late mother would disagree. When she was four, her six-year old brother, my uncle Jimmy, died of diphtheria. Mom told me many times that her parents never recovered. After her brother was buried (he could not have a funeral because of the contagion), her father sat looking out the window for six months. My grandmother took in laundry so they could eat. And that grandmother heaved deep and frequent sighs throughout my own childhood.

Others may argue that unlike sex abuse, these diseases are natural. Nothing can be done about them. You will note, however, that epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid, or cholera are pretty rare in the US these days. After World War II, we became rich enough to put in sewerage systems and make potable water almost universally available. The debt-burdened countries of the Global South, on the other hand, can’t afford to do this, so their kids die in droves. 

There is something you can do about the suffering of some of these little children, however. The nuns who educated me, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, are constructing a photovoltaic grid in Congo, where their African sisters work, to provide electricity. Such electricity will, among other things, make it possible to purify the water that local children and their families drink.

You can make a donation right now toward the construction of this photovoltaic  grid.  Just send a check made out to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Here’s the address: Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Congregational Mission Office, 30 Jeffreys Neck Road, Ipswich, MA, 01938.

But perhaps you are hesitating. Your life is pretty complicated. You have many commitments, many things to consider. You’d better not hesitate too long, though, because just since you began reading this column, a child or two died. And if you wait much longer, someone may denounce you for temporizing while little children suffer, much as Maureen Dowd denounces the evil Cardinal Ratzinger  in today’s Sunday Times.

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