Interview about Catholic Sisters, the Church, and Women

January 13, 2014 at 10:24 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Last weekend I was down in Ft. Myers, Florida, talking with the SW Florida branch of the Catholic reform group Call to Action about my recent book, Sister Trouble and the 2012 Vatican crackdown on U.S. Catholic sisters. I hope to share with you what I said there in a future post.

In connection with the book talk, however, I was interviewed on the local NPR station, WGCU. In lieu of a blogpost, here’s the link to the interview. I suspect you will have no trouble recognizing my sweet, receptive feminine voice.  ( :

http://news.wgcu.org/term/marian-ronan

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Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

September 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The following is a somewhat revised version of my article that appeared on Religion Dispatches last night. There’s a reason I’m an academic and not a journalist: attending to the twenty-four hour news cycle makes me a nervous wreck. Minutes after I mailed my article to RD,  in which I suggested that Pope Francis’s Latin American upbringing might have contributed to his attitude toward women, an email appeared announcing that Francis had denounced machismo in his interview published in fifteen Jesuit publications last week. Once this post is up, I’m going back to my research.

Sucker Punched by the New Pope?

 Soon, many optimistic, not to say naïve, Catholics—and Protestants—will be shocked to learn that the kindly new Pope Francis has excommunicated an Australian priest for supporting women’s ordination. Perhaps it’s all right to be obsessed with some pelvic issues after all.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Rev. Gregory Reynolds, of Melbourne, was notified on September 18 that he had “incurred latae sententiae excommunication for throwing away the consecrated host or retaining it ‘for a sacrilegious purpose’” (Somebody in Reynolds’s small Eucharistic community had apparently given the host to a dog) as well as for “speaking publicly against church teaching.” A letter to the priests of the archdiocese clarified that Reynolds’s support of women’s ordination was a primary reason for his excommunication.

I am not among those shocked by this development. As enthusiastic commentary about the new pope flowed out from the media in recent weeks, I was reminded of a comment my husband used to make about the police in Philadelphia back when we lived there. Some poor kid shoplifted something and BAM, there’d be three police cars surrounding him. “These boys don’t play,” my hubby would say. Neither do popes and cardinals, no matter how benign they seem.

Other Catholic feminists—Mary Hunt, for example—expressed wariness of the new pope even before Reynolds’s excommunication. It was not lost on us that even in the first interview, on the plane from Brazil, Pope Francis drew the line at women’s ordination. Indeed, the clear hierarchical distinction between genders underpinned by the refusal to ordain women has been the line in the sand since just after the Roman persecution of the church. But since John Paul II’s 1994 statement declaring women’s ordination absolutely off-limits, it’s been a twofer: something the church “has always taught,” and an example of “papal infallibility.” Never mind that papal infallibility applies only to church doctrine; no pope is going to undercut his own authority.

Of course, the boys’ declaring women’s ordination the line in the sand is something just this side of a death wish for the church. Despite attempts to obscure the fact, the men now in seminaries can’t begin to replace the priests retiring and dying, or to reverse the parish closings that necessarily follow. I have been arguing for forty years that women’s ordination is a fundamentally conservative issue; I cannot tell you how many Catholic women I know who would have been perfectly happy living their lives as grunt parish priests, baptizing and marrying and burying people. Instead, they’re picketing cathedrals, or writing articles for Religion Dispatches.

Of course, Pope Francis’s position on women’s ordination doesn’t mean he won’t initiate other more moderate reforms in the Catholic church. Indeed, his position on this issue may well be an olive branch to the conservative wing of the church so as to be able to introduce other changes. Pope Bergoglio is a strategic centrist; in Argentina he proposed civil unions as a compromise between the right-wing bishops on one side and the Kirchner government’s efforts to legalize gay marriage on the other

Then again, describing Pope Francis as a “strategic centrist” may credit him and the rest of the institutional church with more coherence than is warranted. I concluded a previous version of this article with speculation that Pope Francis’s origins in a machismo culture played some role in his excommunication of Rev. Reynolds. Just after I mailed it to Religion Dispatches,, an NCR blog by Phyllis Zagano appeared in my inbox. Francis had apparently spoken negatively about machismo in the original Italian version of his famous interview published last week by fifteen Jesuit journals. But somehow, the English version published in the Jesuits’ America magazine omitted the statement. Since then, America has apologized.

Maybe the pope sucker punched us by excommunicating Father Reynolds. Maybe he knew nothing about it. Maybe we’ll get a kiss tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Note to the New Pope: Half of the World’s Poor Are Women

March 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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(Or as Ronald Reagan would have put it: “Pope Francis, tear down this wall!”)

Well, we have a pope. After two weeks of speculation, prediction, even handicapping, the first non-European pope in over a thousand years, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, stepped out on the Vatican loggia at 8:22 Central European Time yesterday to be introduced to the world.

In some respects, the election of Cardinal Bergoglio is a very promising sign. As an archbishop from the most populous Catholic continent on earth, Latin America, the new Pope Francis I symbolizes a shift that has been a very long time coming, from Eurocentrism to the church of the Global South. And his reputation as an advocate for the poor, emphasizing the Christian Gospel of love, washing the feet of AIDS victims, and more, can’t help being a good thing.

The new pope’s ethnic heritage will stand him in good stead as well, since his parents were Italians, and he speaks Italian fluently—not a bad thing for a pope—even as he has never served in the Vatican curia, the focus of much criticism and concern in recent months. He is also the first Jesuit pope in history. Being a member of the largest religious order in the Catholic world certainly can’t hurt.

For a church that isn’t exactly known for headlong change, this may well  be the best we Catholics could have hoped for. But let’s be clear: Pope Francis is a conservative, as anyone elected by this conclave would have been. From the beginning of his career, he has opposed liberation theology, the Latin American-rooted progressive theology that has inspired many liberal Catholics, myself included, since the 1960s. And he is opposed to homosexuality.

Most people have already heard more than they need to about the problems the new pope will face: the sex abuse scandal, corruption at the Vatican Bank and throughout the Vatican administration, secularism in the West, reaching out to the burgeoning church in the Global South. Good luck to him on all counts, I say.

For me, though, the kicker, the “line in the sand,” as Archbishop Timothy Dolan would put it, is the church’s benighted attitude toward and treatment of women. This could be perceived as the opinion of a privileged North American woman who cares more about gender than about the poor to whom this new pope is dedicated. But let’s be clear: half of the world’s poor are women, and the church’s efforts to deprive the Catholic women among them of contraceptives, of the use of condoms that could protect them from HIV-AIDS, and of the ministry of women priests who would baptize, absolve, and bury them, is no service to them.

Even as President Ronald Reagan challenged Michael Gorbachev to tear down the wall between East and West, the much-loved Pope John Paul II put every effort into freeing the Catholics of Eastern Europe from religious and political oppression. The new supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, has the opportunity to end another form of oppression, the second-class status of women in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, bring down this wall!

(This is a faintly revised version of an article that appeared on Religion Dispatches on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.)

Catholic Church is Lucky it’s Just Same-Sex Marriage

June 12, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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This week the representatives of the US Catholic Sisters’ organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are in Rome defending themselves against accusations of “radical feminism.” But what the Vatican means by “radical feminism” is hardly anything at all when you compare it to the increasing complexity of sexuality and gender in our time.

You can find my reflections about all this here on Religion Dispatches.

$upport Our $ister$

May 18, 2012 at 9:00 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Last night I attended an event at a Catholic parish in Manhattan to support US Catholic sisters in response to the Vatican’s recent statement about them. First we viewed a new documentary about the sisters, Women and Spirit which tells the amazing story of Catholic sisters’ work in the U.S. since the first of them arrived here in 1727. It’s produced and marketed by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the primary target of Vatican criticism. Then we discussed the current situation facing the sisters and US Catholic women more broadly. A number of us had read in advance the assessment of the LCWR by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I am often struck by how basically benign US Catholics are (except about clergy sex abuse)—especially those who still belong to parishes, as most of the attendees last night did. A few of them were angry, but for the most part they seemed more disappointed, or sardonic…

Continued on Religion Dispatches

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.

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