Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Gunning for the Nuns, Part 2: the Nuns Respond

About three months ago I was chatting with a New York City nun after mass crackdown on the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious). "It will backfire," Sister said. "The LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) won't back down," she chuckled. Sister was laughing not because the situation was funny (earlier she had spoken of how hurt members of her "community" were) but because the siege was absurd. The Vatican had nothing to gain by staging a tantrum and humiliating the nuns. Like a cool-headed mom managing a child demanding candy in the supermarket checkout line, the LCWR waited for the histrionics to pass, and yesterday a statement was released and Sister Pat Farrell the outgoing president of the LWCR commented, and leaving off with  an eloquent, back-handed and not at all veiled (so to speak) insult.
"They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the springtime."
Sister Pat Farrell explained that she had learned this saying while working in Chile under a dictator. One need not examine the analogy all that closely in order to see that the crushed flowers are nuns; the springtime is the evolving, Christ-centered church; and that the Holy Father and his armies -- in the context of this analogy, at least - would seem to be mass-murdering Chilean despot Augosto Pinochet in his armies. I have heard it said that Roman Catholic priest and peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a (Viet Nam) Purple Heart, women's ordination advocate and founder of SOA Watch claims his experience with dictators prepared him well to contend with the Vatican (which has recently sought to defrock him). It would seem Sister Pat Farrell learned a thing or two, also, from a tyrant during her time as church worker in Chile. (Pinochet is not a SOA graduate but many of his intelligence agents were.)
900 representatives of the LCWR approved of public response issued on Friday August 10th in which the LCWR resolves to enter a dialogue with the Seattle's Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, who has been appointed to serve as their "minder"; push for equality in the church, and work to achieve an environment more hospitable to the discussion of differences. Farrell notes the LCWR's refusal to "compromise" on their "mission" -- and adds that the "dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point" -- which really means: "Both the women and the men will set the agenda." On the face, the LCWR appears willing to play nice. The Vatican may be more interested in monologue than dialogue but there are many reasons for the sisters to take the high road, not the least of which is that the nuns are more interested in peace than in domination.

And there are practical reasons. Ratzinger signs the payroll checks.

There is a curious "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" aspect to this conflict. The men (Vatican et al) want the women to do and say what they are told or, failing that, just keep silent. The women have been saying all along: "Let's discuss doctrine as it applies to contraception, sexuality, and 'right to life' issues beyond abortion." It is a bit ironic that both the accusations and the punishment in this conflict could center on dialogue, given that what landed the witches in the pontiff's caldron in the first place was the refusal of nuns to pipe down.The crime was talk. The penalty? Talk.
William Levada, an American cardinal in Rome who up until recently headed up the CDF, has warned that the Vatican might "withdraw official recognition" from orders that fail to act in compliance with CDF mandates. While "official recognition" by the current pontificate probably means little to many LCWR nuns, the withdrawal of it would be catastrophic for those within and outside of the LCWR. "Withdrawal of recognition" could result in nuns losing jobs ministering to the poorest of the poor, neediest of the needy, and sickest of the sick. Nuns under such punishment could lose their homes, health care and retirement benefits. Withdrawing "official recognition" would cost the Vatican, too. Nuns work cheap. The effects on Catholic hospitals and schools would be catastrophic. The last thing the scandal-ridden Vatican needs now is to be forced to root around India and sub-Saharan Africa in haste searching for nuns who know how to behave.
The smart move for Ratzinger now, would be to back off. He won't. The "Apostolic Visitations" now will be seen as a vigilance-developing wakeup call. If the CDF is right, and convents are secret think tanks for women's ordination, radical feminist politics and liberation theology , progressive nuns will continue doing what they have been doing --but under deeper cover. That is what activists do. Bullies get their motors running. Dictatorial muscle unleashes the beast.
The CDF may have done the LCWR a favor this past spring, when it hurled its "finest" (nuns) under the bus. Every nun who was disgusted with the Apostolic Visitations is now on high alert thanks to the CDF's Captain Queegish smack-down.
Some argue that the "Apostolic Visitations" may not so sister-unfriendly as they may seem. These orders are poised to die out, they say, and the Vatican had hoped to prevent that. No one on any side of the nun question disputes that nuns are becoming extinct. But nuns are becoming extinct not because women are less drawn to what nuns do, but because where women are concerned, the Vatican is devolving while the secular world evolves.
The Vatican is pinning its hopes on the kind of nuns we New Yorkers occasionally see floating about St. Patrick's Cathedral -- angelic-looking throwbacks in wimples. They play for the other, more obedient team: the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The Vatican's great hope for women religious is that these orders will grow. Most of these nuns come from developing regions. To a 13 year-old prostitute living on the streets of Manila, life in the convent looks a lot like salvation. But even the pope knows that once they have been educated, even the most devout Catholic woman often has a way of wising up. There is no guarantee that such women will remain shackled by the Vatican.
The world knows Roman Catholic leadership is at best inhospitable to women religious; at worst, it's something much worse. Even the most conservative Catholics today don't particularly want to see their daughters enter the novitiate. The Vatican's disrespect for nuns has made being a nun seem less respectable in the eyes of Catholics of all degrees of orthodoxy. So why is the Vatican still fighting this losing battle against progressive, activist nuns in North America and Europe?
Nuns provide cheap labor. Once nuns become entirely extinct, the whole house of cards comes down. The Vatican will have to pay fair, living wages to teachers and nurses in Catholic schools and hospitals. Evangelization in the developing world, where the church is currently growing, will take a huge hit if the supply of sisters runs out. Because they teach in schools and preside over so much education in the church, nuns at the parish level in North America and Europe, are often big earners.
Catholic women called to ordination have, until quite recently, often settled for becoming nuns -- which is not to say that all nuns are called to be priests. Many women who might have become nuns fifty years ago now serve as priests in Episcopal and Anglican Churches, or become priests through the growing (underground) Roman Catholic ordination movement. The Vatican's choice to squeeze doctrinal compliance out of nuns may be a case of biting off one's nose to spite one's face. Sending CDF muscle into convents to spy on nuns doesn't help recruitment; it forecloses upon it.
The LCWR will stroke archbishop in charge of their penance (Peter Sartain) as needed. They will say what they need to say in order to stay "officially recognized." Meanwhile, nuns. progressive and otherwise, will continue to reflect and impart Catholic teaching as they understand it, supported in this work, we Catholics all hope, by the Holy Spirit and the gift of discernment.

Convents will continue to thrive, some will continue on as hotbeds of social justice endeavor and there's not much the CDF (formerly known as the "Office of the Inquisition") can do about it. These greenhouses, wherein springtime gets helped along, will flourish. Smug little dictators can break the windows with rocks. They may crush a flower or two, but they'll have no luck keeping the light out.

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