Vatican Crackdown On Nuns Over Social Justice Issues, Women Ordination

April 21, 2012

Oh dear. There is so much to say on this one, but first you need to know, on a strictly personal note, that I would not amount to much without the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Do not underestimate the influence of Catholic education or the religious orders that operate those schools.

There is a lot going on in the news coverage of the crackdown on religious orders, including  bias. The Catholic Church is, after all, run by a bunch of older guys so it simply must be culturally irrelevant and misogynist. That’s just the way boys are, always acting up and starting wars, being ugly. You can’t trust men at all. Got it? And the Roman Catholic Church is the oldest and largest old boys club around. Fortunately, the journalistic community, led by the New York Times, is working hard to bring down this menace to society.

(OK, newer readers of Pat Lynch may need instruction that you just experienced what we often call the “Pat Lynch treatment” in which the author employs irony, satire, and gentle mocking to make a point. It is now safe to continue reading.) Here are some highlights of news coverage.

The report, four years in the making, found that the nuns promoted political views at odds with those expressed by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, “who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” The Vatican chastised the nuns for airing discussions about the ordination of women, the church patriarchy and ministry to gay people.
The Vatican also rebuked the nuns for spending too much time “promoting issues of social justice” while failing to speak out often enough about “issues of crucial importance to the life of the church and society,” such as abortion and gay marriage.
Determined to cleanse the sisterhood of “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” the Vatican appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to effectively take control of the Leadership Conference, rewriting its statutes, supervising its meetings, and investigating its relationships with politically active groups.

Here is the NPR report.

You can read even more of the coverage at the link below.

Vatican Crackdown On Nuns Over Social Justice Issues, Women Ordination.

Honestly, it is hard to “get” exactly what is happening here in the fullest sense. A lot of American Catholics have been theologically “off the reservation” for a half-century or longer. That some of the nuns are in this group should be no surprise. Nor should you presume that all the error (in some cases outright heresy) lies only among the socially progressives, although they seem to be getting most of the attention right now. Here in Arkansas, a group of seeming super-traditionalist nuns were excommunicated (yes, excommunicated. I know that is a very rare occurrence but it is true, nonetheless).

Sorting this out will not be easy and I am sure to miss something, so feel free to comment. The reports tend to distance the Catholic position on birth control and abortion from its teaching on social justice. While I am not a Roman Catholic, or a professional theologian, it is no distortion to suggest that the Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion are an integral part of a comprehensive doctrine on social justice. While I disagree with the position on contraception, for example, it is a teaching that has some social value in observing the dignity of the procreation process and the need to be open to the possibility of new life. It follows from this rather naturally that Christians also should accept inconvenient life, those who do not fit into the American ideal of being productive and also a good consumer of material goods. In a similar way, the position on abortion, with which I am more sympathetic, recognizes the sovereignty of God and our need to accept him as a partner in the life-giving process. A society that respects this kind of thinking (which American thought dismisses entirely) will be more humane and just.

There is also a matter of homosexuality. Apparently there is an allegation that some of the religious orders were too accepting of gay folks. (Yes, a very simplistic observation!) It is necessary for the church, the living body of Christ in the world, to bring the gospel to all people – including the ones that might make some of us uncomfortable. Evangelicals are also lacking when it comes to meeting the needs of those with alternate sexual orientations. If the “good news” always begins with condemnation, it may sound more like the judgmental kind of “gotcha'” that is so much of our discussions. This calls for an old-fashioned “gut check.” Each one of us are fallen sinners and completely deserving of divine condemnation, except for the amazing gift of Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of all sorts of bad people, That includes people who are prideful, greedy, covetous, angry, adulterous, liars, thieves, idolators, blasphemers, cheaters, and people with a disordered sexuality. Without God’s grace, we should all burn in hell. There is no reason for any rotten-to-the-core sinner to feel superior to any other sinner. We are all a mess.

There is also an issue of ordaining women into the Roman Catholic priesthood. Since I am not a practicing RC, although I was born into the Church, this is merely the opinion of an outsider looking in. In the first place, modern sensibilities put aside, the question before us is not a civil rights issue. A ministry is not a “job,” it is a “calling.” Tied up in the RC doctrine of the Eucharist is the idea of a sacrificial priesthood. The Catholic understanding of this sacrament simply leaves no room for a female priest. Some Anglicans, such as myself, have a different understanding of the Lord’s Supper. At the core of it, the gender of the minister is less of an issue, although some Anglicans and many Evangelicals do not have women ministers. Roman Catholic women who do not agree with their church’s doctrine in this area need to either accept how it is, or move on. That is a very brief overview of a very complex matter and it is sincerely not my intention to offend anybody.

The Archbishop of Seattle, Peter Sartain, who was once Bishop of Arkansas, is in a tough spot. He has been put in charge of straightening this out and Sartain is smart. Firstly, it is fairly straightforward to identify and remove those who are undoubted heretics. Secondly, it is better to let troublesome old women fade out of view. No reason to turn them into martyrs. The part that demands some deft handling is sorting out politics and priorities. Some organizations are more concerned with matters of economic justice than abortion and contraception. This is the place where Abp. Sartain comes up against the credibility question.

Last week, Catholic bishops went a long way to demonstrate some balance by questioning the proposed Republican federal budget. There is still, however, a lingering question mark over the seeming primacy of so-called “life” issues over those of economic justice. There has to be a genuine balance and respect for both aspects of church teaching.

Balance, however, has not been the church’s strongest characteristic, or even the Archbishop’s. In Seattle, Sartain is getting resistance from a few parishes on the church support for the anti-gay marriage petition drive. The actual nature of the opposition of some local clergy and members is hard to objectively measure based on news reports. It is possible to strongly support church doctrine on marriage and oppose the particular tactic. This seems to be a symptom of the previously mentioned failure to properly evangelize people with different lifestyles. Again, from here it is hard to know for sure.

Prediction: Sartain wins, sisters lose.

The Roman Catholic Church has been around since the fourth century and they ain’t going anywhere. These are not desperate old men fighting for life’s precious last breath. I consider myself a Protestant and an Anglican and must attest that we all owe a tremendous debt to the Church of Rome for its vigorous defense of fundamental Christian doctrine, especially the Trinity, the Doctrine of Christ, and the dignity of human beings. If they get a few things wrong, so do I. This is why Christians must learn to practice patience when dealing with each other, even cranky old sisters.


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