The Vatican vs. the Nuns
Perhaps it takes a political campaign to reveal the fault lines in both our nation and in institutional religion. At least that is what appears to be happening in current American politics. The political season has a way of loosening latent fears, exciting the extremists and bringing silliness to the political arena. We have watched that process for long, long months now. There have been moments when it was the theater of the absurd. Now a news story comes out of the Vatican announcing that, as a result of issues raised in this campaign, an American archbishop, J. Peter Sartain of Seattle has been appointed by the Vatican to deal with “serious doctrinal problems” that have appeared among American Catholic nuns.
When the Catholic bishops criticized the Obama health care law’s requirement that contraceptives must be made available to female employees of Catholic institutions, President Obama immediately worked out a compromise. Churches had already been exempted and now it was agreed that contraceptives will be provided free of charge to those female employees of Catholic institutions by the health care companies themselves, so that the Church’s moral teaching on this issue was not compromised. It seemed a reasonable solution and was widely applauded. The largest body of Catholic nuns called “The Leadership Conference of Women Religious,” many of whom work in hospitals and health care facilities, agreed to the compromise immediately. The bishops, however, a few days later did not agree, thus pitting the sisters in a public dispute against the bishops, who are in the Catholic system proclaimed to be the church’s only “authentic teachers.” Dissent in an autocratic system strikes at the root of authority and threatens the imposed conformity. It now appears that the “independence” of these sisters had to be countered and the sisters brought into line, that is into conformity with the teaching of the bishops. So now a “visitation” has been ordered by the Vatican and, once again an all-male hierarchy in the name of a God named Father, has directed that women be disciplined and forced to conform to the patriarchal ordained leadership of the church if they want to remain in religious orders. Since no women can be ordained, there is no way that women in this church will ever be empowered to do anything, no court to which they can appeal this abuse of authority and the world gets to see how empty the idea still promulgated by this church really is: namely that treating women as second class citizens does not mean that women are regarded as “inferior” only that they are “different.” In this church all power flows through the hierarchy of the ordained and since no woman is in that flow chart, women are inevitably and finally powerless. “Separate but equal” was once nothing more than propagandistic perfume sprinkled over the stench of segregated America, now it is to be propagandistic perfume sprinkled over the stench of a patriarchal, sexist church. “Separate but equal” is always separate, but it is never equal!
There were, of course, other issues. It was said that the nuns have also challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality, a male-only priesthood and promoted a “radical feminist agenda incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Roman Catholic nuns have always been more open than the priests and the bishops, at least since the time of Pope John XXIII. With the death of this broad spiritual leader conformity to yesterday became the rule of this church. Hans Kung, probably the best read theologian of the 20th century, was removed from his position as a Catholic theologian at Tubingen because his mind could not be twisted into the medieval concepts required by his church. This action was carried out by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at that time under Pope John Paul II held the office that in another time gave us the Inquisition. Matthew Fox, one of the most popular retreat and meditation leaders and an environmental activist, was then silenced by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Professor Charles Curran, one of America’s best known ethicists, was removed from his tenured professorship at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., also by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Father Leonardo Boff, the best known Latin American liberation theologian, was forced to renounce his ordination in order to continue his work for justice among the poor of Latin America by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. Next we learn that the Vatican, now headed by Cardinal Ratzinger under his new name Pope Benedict XVI, has ordered the removal of a book from all Catholic schools and universities written by a popular female theologian at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson. Now the nuns are to be investigated. Conformity trumps truth in every direction.
By entering into the American political process so blatantly and by forcing the issue of contraceptives into that debate so centrally, the Catholic bishops have blurred the lines between church and state rather considerably.
In the candidacy of former Senator Rick Santorum, a very traditional Roman Catholic lay person, he not only stated his opposition to contraception, but he also dismissed President John Kennedy’s understanding of the separation of church and state, saying that it made him “want to throw up.” That candidacy gave us a clear vision of how the Catholic bishops will try to manipulate the American political process. The scene was not pretty. Without any fanfare, the nation now awakens to the fact that two thirds, that is, six of the nine sitting justices on the Supreme Court today are Roman Catholics and that three of them, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito, identify themselves with the most hard line conservative wing of that church. Suddenly, the American dream of “Freedom of Religion” looks shakier that it has ever looked before.
This ecclesiastical attack against health care for women, against contraception, against the nuns and against their leading theologians, presents us with a picture not of strength, but of a desperate power play, designed to recover influence that this religious system has so clearly lost.
When abortion was the defining issue in church-state relationships, the polls continued to show that a majority of Roman Catholic lay people wanted abortion to be a legal option, a safe option, while being at the same time as much as possible, a rare option. Every study reveals that the availability of contraception cuts down the abortion rate dramatically. The Roman Church, however, also wants contraception to be curtailed. Once again, polls reveal that up to 98% of Catholic women in America avail themselves of contraception during some part of their lives. These women are clearly not following the teachings of the bishops. So the bishops have now decided on a plan to use the health care bill of the government of the United States to force its own members to do what their church is not capable of forcing them to do. Is this not a strange twist on the relationship between church and state?
Next, they want to use male hierarchical power to silence any dissent within the largest body of nuns in America. If the lay people of this church are not buying what this church is selling and now if the nuns are not buying what this church is selling, perhaps the bishops might ask themselves whether they have truth on their side. No, truth is not determined by majority vote, but truth can be distorted by those who think they possess it just as quickly and just as surely as it can be by those who find its tenets no longer self-evidently true.
During his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Santorum also complained that 60% of those who enter a college or a university with a strong religious faith had that faith challenged, disturbed or destroyed by what the senator described as “liberal secular professors.” It did not seem to occur to the senator that maybe these students’ “strong faith” was based on concepts that are either dated, immature or simply wrong. Is knowledge in the future in our universities to be bent so as not to offend the naïve faith of some religious believers? Are we ready to put the Catholic Church in charge of discerning all truth? Was this Church not wrong about Galileo, about Darwin, about Hans Kung? Are they not wrong about women, about birth control, about celibacy, about homosexuality, about mental illness and about left-handedness? Has not the papacy itself owned slaves in its history? Have we not had enough inquisitions, crusades and religious wars to make us loath to return to the Middle Ages? Do we wish to cancel the Enlightenment in order to preserve the faith of the Catholic Church as it is interpreted by this Pope, rooted as he obviously is in a world that no longer exists?
Where was this passion for truth and for the exercise of moral leadership when priests were abusing children and the hierarchy was covering it up? Why is Cardinal Bernard Law, the prelate guiltier than any other of covering up that scandal, in a senior Vatican position where he will never have to be called to testify under oath for his criminal behavior?
The last thing I want to see is divisive, religious hostility present in our American body politic, nor do I want to see this nation get to a place where we decide that a person is not fit to serve in any public office because of his or her religion. If the Catholic bishops, however, keep trying to impose their agenda on this nation, that is what they will bring about. This nation will be a poorer nation if devout Catholics are excluded from public service. That would remove people like Speaker John Boehner, Senator John Kerry, Vice-President Joe Biden, Chief Justice John Roberts and a long list of other high ranking officials of both parties. We are not at this point yet, but if the Catholic bishops, spurred on by the Vatican, continue to walk the path on which they now seem to be embarking, they will inherit the wind and reap the whirlwind.
Those vital nuns are now on the battle line facing this out-of-touch male hierarchy. I predict, however, that the nuns will ultimately prevail. The Vatican has never understood either feminine wiles or the fact that truth cannot be finally trampled in the service of institutional power.
~John Shelby Spong