In April I linked to a Religious News Service article about the Vatican’s attempt to rein in American nuns. Boiled down, Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or, as it was called in its glory days, the Inquisition) complained that the nuns were thinking for themselves rather than letting the bishops think for them, and letting human suffering distract them from fighting the culture wars.
Rome’s solution was to put a man in charge of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious*, which represents 45,000 American nuns. Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, will (in his own words) “review, guide and approve, where necessary, the work of the L.C.W.R.”
Picking up the gauntlet. Apparently, LCWR will not take this meekly. After a three-day meeting, LCWR’s board released a statement saying (more or less) that the Inquisitors don’t know what the Hell they’re talking about:
[LCWR] board members raised concerns about both the content of the doctrinal assessment and the process by which it was prepared. Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency. Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.
Unsubstantiated accusations, lack of transparency, and a flawed process, leading to disproportionate sanctions that cause scandal and pain … who would expect this from the Inquisition, given its sterling historical reputation?
LCWR’s president and executive director plan to go to Rome on June 12 to “raise and discuss the board’s concerns” with Sartain and his boss, Prefect (or, as the office used to be called, Grand Inquisitor) Cardinal William Levada.
Even after meeting the Grand Inquisitor face-to-face, the LCWR does not promise to obey, but only to “gather its members both in regional meetings and in its August assembly to determine its response”.
Conscience vs. obedience. So far, the Inquisition show no signs of being worried about the nuns’ response. Sartain’s recent article in the Catholic weekly America reads like the kind of flattery you shower on subordinates you expect to have no trouble with. (“That’s a good girl. Daddy’s proud of you.”**) He refers only obliquely and abstractly to his new role and mission, while effusively praising the obedient nuns of the past.
But in spite of having all the institutional power on its side, perhaps the Inquisition should be worried. A responding America article from Fordham University ethics professor Christine Firer Hines (not a nun) paints a more challenging picture:
Catholics sometimes compare the church to a corporation or a military organization, with clergy, religious, and laity answerable to bishops and pope as their top executives and CEO. From this (ecclesiologically dubious) vantagepoint, “wayward” behavior of L.C.W.R. members or their affiliates endangers the church’s discipline, and requires firm correction …
As Vatican II affirms, the episcopal office uniquely serves the revealed truth of the gospel. But that truth resides in and with the whole church. Beholden to military or business organizational models, pundits who deride L.C.W.R. sisters for posturing falsely as a “magisterium of nuns” disrespect the authentic authority not only of religious communities, but of the laity in their various charisms and vocations. Because the official magisterium does not have a monopoly on gospel truth, office-holders must constantly listen for that truth in the whole church …
From this point of view, the Vatican intervention, intended to “assist the L.C.W.R. in implementing necessary reforms” to bring it more fully in line with “an ecclesiology of communion,” cannot be properly understood as a one-way street. The very meaning of “communion” forbids this. … If bridges toward communion are to be strengthened in this process, what John Paul II calls the “dialogue that leads to repentance” must work in both directions.
In addition to implying that Rome’s treatment of women might have left it with something to repent, Hines’ implicit framing (“the magisterium” vs. “the whole church”) invites lay Catholics to interpret the hierarchy’s disrespect for the nuns as disrespect for them as well: Only the conscience of a bishop is valid; all others must simply get in line.
On the blog Catholic Moral Theology, St. John’s University theology professor Christopher Vogt uses similar framing:
It seems to me that one of the questions at the heart of this controversy is whether acting in conscience is primarily about being obedient to authority or about conscientious discernment.
He quotes the Inquisition’s assessment of LCWR:
Some speakers claim that dissent from the doctrine of the Church is justified as an exercise of the prophetic office. But this is based upon a mistaken understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in the Church: it justifies dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and a ‘legitimate’ theological intuition of some of the faithful.
The assessment denies that possibility, leading Vogt to comment:
According to this framework, there is no possibility for the bishops ever to learn anything from the laity. The bishops are never wrong; they don’t need any help. Such a view collapses the tension we find in the [Second Vatican] Council documents which try to balance an affirmation of the importance and legitimacy of magisterial authority with the recognition that sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks authentically to the faithful in a manner that doesn’t pass through Rome – in the depths of their hearts.
It’s not just lay Catholic intellectuals who have taken up the nuns cause. The NYT reports:
Catholics in more than 50 cities held vigils and more than 52,000 have signed a petition in support of the sisters, organized by the Nun Justice Project, a coalition of liberal Catholic groups. The project is telling Catholics to withhold their donations to Peter’s Pence, a special collection sent to the Vatican, and give the money instead to local nuns’ groups.
Whose religious freedom? This argument comes at a time when the hierarchy is invoking “religious freedom” against the contraception provisions of Obamacare. But they defend an odd kind of religious freedom that America’s Founders would barely recognize: the freedom of religious institutions, a right virtually unrelated to (and sometimes at odds with) the consciences of individuals who are not bishops.
Meanwhile, Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association — a consortium of organizations more directly affected by the contraception mandate — was happy with the compromise the Obama administration offered:
We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.
Commonweal, a left-leaning Catholic political journal, described the bishops’ argument as “hyperbolic” and warned:
If defending religious freedom becomes a partisan issue or, worse, an electoral ploy, it will engender enormous cynicism in an electorate in which a significant majority of voters already think religion is too politicized. … In their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors.
Catholic Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne commented: “Many bishops seem to want this fight.” And on the NYT Opinionator blog, Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting first dissects the bishops’ arguments, then says:
their often demagogic reaction suggests political rather than religious concerns. There is, first, the internal politics of the Church, where the bishops find themselves, especially on matters of sexuality, increasingly isolated from most Church members; they seem desperate to rally at least a fervid core of supporters around their fading authority. But the timing of their outbursts also suggests a grasp for secular political power.
The wider issue. The Commonweal editorial quotes research from sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam showing that the politicization of churches is causing young adults to disengage from organized religion, a message similar to the one David Kinnaman (president of the evangelical Protestant research organization the Barna Group) put forward in the 2007 book unChristian.
A similar message based on personal experience was in the blog post “How to win a culture war and lose a generation” I linked to two weeks ago, in which Rachel Held Evans described her 20-something generation as “ready to stop waging war and start washing feet”.
This is an issue that crosses denominational lines. In one sense, it is Christianity’s perennial doctrinal purity vs. good works conflict. But it seems to be striking this generation with particular force. More and more young adults want to know not which religion is winning or even which religion is right, but whether any religion does any good.
Through their lives of service, the nuns are showing one way to answer that question. The bishops seem deaf to it.***
* Translation from the Catholic: religious in this context comes from the Latin religata, meaning bound. In other words, these are not just women who have “got religion”, but women bound by their vows to the Church; i.e., nuns.
** Not a direct quote.
*** Probably you’ve already run into the story of Cardinal Dolan’s threat that Catholic organizations will halt their charitable work rather than comply with the contraception mandate. I’m not linking to that claim because I still haven’t found an unedited tape or transcript of enough of Dolan’s remarks to convince me he wasn’t taken out of context.