Thursday, July 19, 2012

That which you do to the least of my brethren...

There has been a recent, and, to me, fascinating back and forth between American nuns and Rome about how much Catholics should emphasize care for the poor in the public discourse, as opposed to focusing on being anti-birth control, anti-gay marriage, anti-ordination of women, and anti-abortion.

Now, I'm not Catholic.  So I'm treading oh so lightly here.  But I simply do not get a Pope saying that nuns should focus less on the poor.  That is really, really strange to me.  And because of the history of the Catholic Church with women and with American Catholics, generally... I can't help but wonder if this is a smack down of a group of uppity American women.

After coming out with a scathing review that specifically accuses the organization of promoting "radical feminism," Rome has now placed 3 male surrogates in charge of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (American nuns).

The response from the pretty clearly unrepentant group was to go on a bus tour protesting the conservative Paul Ryan Budget, which cuts a wide swath out of governmental aid to the poor.

In some ways the nuns performed a modern-day miracle. Their moral authenticity transformed apathy and cynicism into hope and joy. They spoke against the immorality of the Ryan budget cuts and presented an alternative—the Faithful Budget—that asks us all to do our fair share. They made it clear in visits to charities that government funding and faith-based efforts are not opposed to each other but rather if you hurt one, you wound the other. And they heard stories of lost jobs and homes and lack of health insurance—stories that “break your heart,” according to Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK who organized the tour. 
As word of the tour spread, crowds grew and the nuns were embraced as they stepped off the bus. Signs read: “We love our sisters,” “Keep up the good work,” “Nuns rock!”, “The church needs nun sense not Vatican nonsense.” Balloons saying “hope” soared in the air. 

Here's how NPR summarized the back and forth, and their interview with Sister Pat Farrell...

One nun has gone so far as to call the actions by Rome a "hostile takeover":

Now, I'm pretty solidly on the nuns' side.  What do you think?


  1. Catholicism and feminism? Of course I have to chime in.

    As always, it is a lot more complicated than the media is portraying, and both sides are guilty of overheated rhetoric and soundbites with no info.

    1)The Vatican itself repeatedly praised the good work the women have done, as have a lot of other Catholic leaders.

    2)Their role is not just to promote those aspects of Catholicism (ministry to the poor, e.g.) they agree with. As Catholic nuns, they are obligated to follow and pass on Catholic teachings, and some of what they advocate is directly contradictory. And it is not just about the sex stuff, either -- some of these nuns are teaching that Jesus really wasn't God, or that he did not actually rise from the dead. You cannot be a Catholic religious and put forth these views.

    3)These orders of nuns are dying out. One of the startling things about post-Vatican II religious orders is that those orders that are the most liberal, the most in line with secular beliefs, have the hardest time generating vocations and drawing recruits. I don't think the Vatican has articulated it (and God knows they need some good PR people) but the reason for the hullabaloo is that the Vatican wants convents to thrive -- they are a vital, albeit often overlooked part of the Church. if the Vatican really wanted to get rid of these uppity women, they'd just have to wait a few decades (the Church is so slow-moving as it is) and poof, problem solved.

    4)There tends to be this meme that women who disagree with the Church on gender and sex issues are brave, uppity, thoughtful women and those who agree with the Church are sheep oppressed by the men in the hierarchy and in their own families. That's not always the case, obviously, and there are plenty of nuns, lay female members of orders, female apologists, female theologians, and ordinary women who follow all of the Church's teachings because they believe those teachings actually make sense. Always looking at religious issues through the filter of "women v. the Church" is simply not a good approach.

    (Curses, continued in next comment)

  2. 5)Which brings me to my last point, which is that I think the dispute has more to do with "Americans v. the Rest of the World" than gender. In the last 10 years or so I've gotten way more involved in my faith, specifically in researching the Church's teachings and understanding the issues, partly because I was so fed up with certain public Catholics who so gleefully hitched their wagons to the GOP during the Bush years. I've noticed two things.
    A) American Catholics tend to think they know what's best, and that the Church should conform to their beliefs and practices. They tend to completely ignore all the other Catholics all over the world who don't see things the way Americans do. These American nuns are only a minority of all nuns, and to assume they represent all nuns is a mistake.

    B) Americans in general, partly i think because of the dominance of Protestantism and partly because of our history and culture, seem to want to make religions democratic -- if the majority want women priests, or legal abortions, or whatever, then the Church should change to reflect that. But that's not how faith works, and that is certainly not how the Church works. Americans, notoriously individualistic, are no good at obedience, and that's exactly what's going on here. Regardless of who's right or wrong, the nuns took a vow of obedience, and some of them are violating that vow. It's a hard one that most people struggle with, but they willingly took it on. They have an obligation to obey their superiors. This does not mean they have to be sheep -- they can work within the system, they can find ways to make their concerns and viewpoints heard, there are even ways to deal with personal dissent from particular Teachings -- the Church understands that its teachings are hard and all people struggle with something. But they have to remember that they chose to be Catholic nuns in the first place, with all that entails. It's not just the bishops and cardinals that can be guilty of arrogance.

  3. That's really interesting. I didn't know that about the state of Nun orders, though I guess it makes sense: if you are a liberal female Catholic in a modern era you have so many more options open to you than you might have even 30 or 40 years ago, so being a nun might seem less attractive. And if you are a conservative female Catholic, you might be less likely to join an order that you felt was opposed to your religious and political beliefs.

    I do think Americans tend to think religion should fall in line with their own beliefs, but I think that's almost because they want to be truthful and forthright about the whole thing. In my experience, European Catholics tend to just ignore the places they disagree with the Church. Whether because Americans are naive (as some Europeans might suggest) or because we're overly earnest, I think we have grown to believe that if you want to go to heaven, you follow certain dictates. I would argue, however, that which dictates people think are the most important tends to be a selective thing, too.

    I think it's also possible that our political culture invaded our religious culture in a significant way. If you're political culture is democratic, you are far more likely to challenge authority, wherever it derives. Plenty of European countries still have royalty.

    And then there's Africa, which is a whole other conversation :-)

  4. "I do think Americans tend to think religion should fall in line with their own beliefs, but I think that's almost because they want to be truthful and forthright about the whole thing. In my experience, European Catholics tend to just ignore the places they disagree with the Church."

    The European approach can be wrong too, depending on the circumstances. Are they making an effort to really understand the issues? Are they being honest with themselves? How are they living their lives? Of course, Europeans as a whole are far less Catholic than Americans, and I think a lot of them don't even bother identifying as Catholic anymore.

    On the other hand, a lot of American Catholics who dissent big time and don't follow any of the teachings still identify as Catholic; why not join the Episcopal Church instead? I'm fascinated by the fact that some people won't leave the Church fully, no matter what -- I was the same way back when I was pro-choice. I had convinced myself that abortion was ok under at least some circumstances, but I had a fit if anyone told me I was not a true Catholic.

    " If you're political culture is democratic, you are far more likely to challenge authority, wherever it derives. Plenty of European countries still have royalty. "
    Very good point. And did you know there are conservative Catholics who seriously advocate a Catholic monarchy as the best way to run the U.S.? They have yet to explain what to do about a Catholic monarch who is evil, or just plain incompetent. Or dissenting :>

  5. Oh, you mentioned ordination of women, and I was wondering what you think of that, too, because I really, really don't understand that.

  6. The reasoning is thus -- Jesus had lots of disciples, male and female. In fact, Mary Magdalene is often considered His greatest, most devoted disciple. He also was counter-cultural in a big way, including the way He hung out with women, had female disciples, treated women as equals, etc. -- the statement in Galatians 3:28 ("there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female . . .") was hugely controversial in Jesus' day. And yet, despite this, He only chose 12 male disciples for the Last Supper, which was the institution of the priesthood I.e., it was not because He was a product of His time -- quite the opposite, actually. The Church's position is that if He chose only men to be priests, who are we to change that?

    It's not a matter of faith and morals, which means it is theoretically possible that some day the Church might change it's mind about this. But it is highly unlikely. If the Church does, I'd be A-OK with female priests. I won't support the actions of heretical priests who actually try to ordain women, however -- I don't want to be in dissent with the Church.

    There was a fascinating discussion a while back on a Catholic blog I read about how technically a woman could become a Cardinal -- a priest noted that it is only a matter of Canon Law that requires Cardinals be ordained, so if that rule is removed, women could be nominated. As you can imagine, it sparked quite a bit of animosity, including the absolutely stupid claim that the reason women can't be priests is because we can't keep secrets. We gossip too much, dontcha know?

  7. Ha. Yeah, it's quotes like that that have always made me think of Jesus as a bit of a hippie. Well, that, and being a kid of the 70s. :-)