Friday, June 15, 2012

Nuns on the bus!

Watching Lawrence O'Donnell last night and playing with my smart phone led me here

In a spirited retort to the Vatican, a group of Roman Catholic nuns is planning a bus trip across nine states this month, stopping at homeless shelters, food pantries, schools and health care facilities run by nuns to highlight their work with the nation’s poor and disenfranchised.

The bus tour is a response to a blistering critique of American nuns released in April by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which included the accusation that the nuns are outspoken on issues of social justice, but silent on other issues the church considers crucial: abortion and gay marriage. 

Which in turn led me here:

 The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” 

Which, finally, took me here:

 A committee of American Roman Catholic bishops announced Wednesday that a popular book about God by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, should not be used in Catholic schools and universities because it does not uphold church doctrine.

The book, “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” examines different understandings of God through experiences of the poor and oppressed, Holocaust victims, Hispanics, women and people of religions other than Catholicism. Among the chapter titles are “God Acting Womanish” and “Accompanying God of Fiesta.” 

Ain't the internets wonderful?

Now what I know of all this I've read in the New York Times.  And I accept that the bishop's must assert their authority, and that the church doesn't really approve of social justice preaching and teaching and acting which exceeds what the Church considers its mandate.  I have a copy of Gustavo Gutierrez'  The Truth Shall Make You Free, which includes his response to two Vatican pronouncements penned by the present Pope critical of liberation theology (Cardinal Ratzinger declared it constituted "a fundamental threat to the faith of the church.")  Leaving the Pope's (and the Vatican's) position at that quote, however, misrepresents, perhaps even fundamentally, the Vatican's position on liberation theology.  The same may well be true of the Vatican's position on the nuns on the bus.  But still, it's hard not to sympathize with them.  Start with Sr. Johnson.

Sister Johnson is a prominent feminist theologian and a former president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. She belongs to a religious order in New York, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood.  

Not likely to be too radical, then.

The Rev. Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine, said, “The primary concern was not over feminism or nonfeminism. The bishops are saying that the book does not adequately treat a Catholic understanding of God.” 

Which is an understandable problem, even from a Protestant's point of view.  And there is this:

Theology professors at Catholic universities said they did not see a theological cause for the bishops to condemn Sister Johnson’s work.

 Stephen J. Pope, a theologian at Boston College, said: “The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There’s nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It’s making an example of someone who’s prominent.” 

Still, with any institution where someone has the final say, that power is wielded by human beings, and human beings are, as Aristotle well understood, political creatures.  So undoubtedly there is some politics involved here; and the bishops know it:

 The recent Vatican crackdown on the largest organization of U.S. nuns turned into a public relations "debacle" for the bishops, said Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston.
"Our church, both in the States and at the Holy See, does not do a good job of communicating around controversial topics," O'Malley said. "We need more help and more sophistication in our messaging." 

 But Sr. Johnson's defense is not critical of the bishops:

“One result of this absence of dialogue is that in several key instances this statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote,” she said. “The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops. A conversation, which I still hope to have, would have very likely avoided these misrepresentations.”
 Which sounds to me a bit like the Bishops and the Girl Scouts.  I don't know if the Bishops truly believe the rumors about the Girl Scouts, or if they feel it would be wise to make an investigation and thoroughly scotch those rumors. Either explanation is possible, but the way the Bishops have been presenting themselves lately, the former is going to gain favor over the latter in the public mind.

As for the nuns on the bus, well, that little matter was handled in a way not exactly calculated to reassure:

Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”
That explanation rings true with the Vatican's critique of liberation theology. Say what you will about linking liberation theology critically (as in "with criticism") to Marxist analysis, the upshot seems to be Marxism is not to be allowed because that is a bridge too far.  (Let me say, arguendo, that Marxist thought is no more "unChristian" than Aristotle's philosophy, and yet Aquinas and the Church don't balk at using the old Greek's ideas as the basis for Christian doctrine.  I might argue there is no more inherent a problem in using Marxist analysis to reach theological conclusions than there is in using the influence of Egypt on Plato to argue for an immortal soul.  But that's another matter....).  Likewise, the nuns say, their critique of social justice issues is more than the Church will allow.

Which the Church itself has all but said:

 Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

It isn't really out of line to point out there are no statements in the Gospels, nor anywhere in the letters, about abortion or same-sex marriage (the latter is confined entirely to Leviticus, which is another discussion).  There is plenty of mention, throughout the New Testament, about poverty and economic justice.  You may or may not think it is central to the teachings of Christ (I do, but we can agree to disagree), but I defy you to show me one clear statement in any of the Christian scriptures on abortion or same-sex unions.

So while the Bishops worry about "messaging," this rebuke of the nuns has all the earmarks of a smackdown.  Whatever language the hierarchy wants to put it in, this is clearly an assertion of power.

Are assertions of power always wrong?  No; nor do they need to be taken as a coup de tete.  Sr. Johnson sees her situation as in invitation to dialogue.  Sr. Campbell sees hers as a reason to get on a bus.  They even join their critique of the Ryan budget to that of the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

I don't presume to critique the position of the Vatican based on a few newspaper stories.  But my sympathies, and my heart, are with the nuns.


  1. Sherri11:07 AM

    The bishop in charge of reining in the nuns is Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle. He's certainly in line with the position of the Vatican; a couple of weeks earlier, he sent a letter to all the parishes in the archdiocese urging them to collect signatures to place Referendum 74 on the ballot. Referendum 74, if passed, will overturn the legislature's recent action allowing same-sex marriage in Washington state.

  2. I'm not quite sure how that request doesn't violate IRS guidelines, btw.

  3. This is almost certainly related to the power struggle within the Vatican in the face of what is going to be seen as a big mistake in electing Ratzinger as pope. He has negated anything positive he's done (some of that trying to correct the long list of blunders and wrongs committed by JPII) with several times more negative things.

    It was the pope and the cardinals and bishops, along with some priests and religious, who prompted me to leave Catholicism, not theological or philosophical issues, not those who were struggling for justice. I'll bet that the majority of those who have left leave for those kinds of reasons.

    The Vatican under JPII and Benedict XVI are fixed on centralizing and preserving power in the hands of a small clique of unmarried men. It was inevitable that they'd go up against women religious who could consist of a potential alternative center of power. But I think they might have done something really stupid in this because, as opposed to power by authority and ability to impose punishment, the power of women religious comes from their service, their example, their hard work and their superiority as a moral example.

    You can compare how the Vatican is acting in this and how they have acted to even openly heretical "traditionalist" groups and cults. These are going to go down as among the more corrupt modern papacies. Sometimes in the past reform followed those, maybe it will in the future, once Ratzinger is gone.

  4. Sherri2:24 PM

    There is actually a distinction in the IRS guidelines between advocacy for a candidate and advocacy for a referendum. The first is strictly forbidden, the second is allowed as long as it is not a substantial part of the activity of the organization. I looked this up when a non-profit board I was on was asked to endorse a referendum. We eventually chose not to take a stand, but we discovered that it would have been legal and would not have put our tax-exempt status at risk.

  5. Windhorse4:14 PM

    But my sympathies, and my heart, are with the nuns.

    Mine are as well.

    You can compare how the Vatican is acting in this and how they have acted to even openly heretical "traditionalist" groups and cults.

    I agree. You are referring to Bishop Lefebvre's traditionalist movement and perhaps the Legionaries of Christ? For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, the Legion of Christ is an ultraconservative Catholic religious order founded by the charismatic Fr. Marical Maciel in 1941 and known for the "fervor" of its members in combatting "modernism" and heresy and pledging a special allegiance to the authority of the Vatican. In return, the Legion has been favored by Vatican officials for providing spiritual and doctrinal "shock troops" for the Church.

    What few people knew until fifteen years ago is that the Legion is essentially a cult that exists for little more than to perpetuate itself and make money, and that its founder - on whose charism the order was based and which the members are meant to imitate - was not only  responsible for sexually molesting underaged children but had a secret mistress in a luxury apartment with whom he fathered several children over the years.

    The order uses classic cult techniques of deception and praise to lure in and indoctrinate members including lay members, who once brainwashed are set in motion to raise money from conservative donors by leveraging the fear of the modern world and of false teachings. They do not serve the poor or the sick or engage with them in any way. The only service they are involved in besides fundraising and propaganda is opening schools, which themselves are primarily avenues for fundraising and further recruitment, and many of which have found to be so substandard and fraught with controversy and complaints they have been forced to close down.

    Despite becoming aware of some these charges as far back as the 1970's the Vatican chose to overlook them, until a few years when Maciel's mistress came forward and they had no choice. In that time, hundreds of people have suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of the order, many requiring psychiatric help.

    And yet - the Vatican never intervened. On the contrary, during that time the order was held up as the STANDARD for the Church and received all sorts of singular praises and accolades. Intervention only came when their hand was forced by a very public scandal, which served to undermine the founder's spiritual legitimacy and (rightly, it turns out) call into question his influence in shaping the organization. Back in 1985, as a naive, wet-behind-the-ears ultra-conservative eighteen year-old Catholic who loved the Church I met some guys who'd dropped out of the Legion after a few short weeks, and upon hearing how they were treated even I could tell they were a cult. If I could deduce this from a passing conversation, church officials must have known all along and done nothing. Either that, or their moral compasses are terribly, terribly skewed....

    The stark contrast between the treatment of the American sisters - who aren't a cult, haven't been abusing anyone, and who have instead devoted their lives to serving the poor and the sick while living out their vows of poverty and yet are being harrassed over "not focusing enough" on polarizing doctrinal concerns - versus the treatment of the Legionaries of Christ, Opus Dei, and traditionalist heretics whom the Pope is re-embracing would seem to show that the current Vatican truly values power, control, and doctrinal purity over faith, hope, and charity. 

  6. Sherri--thanks, I was seriously wondering about that. I appreciate the clarification.

  7. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

    I would think the bishops make plenty enough noise about it on their own.

  8. Anonymous11:32 PM

    The average age of these nuns is, by their own admission, over 70. Why go after people who'll be in wheelchairs soon? If in 10 years buying Depends for their members will be a big chunk of their budget, let them drift off watching "Matlock".