Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Those Damn Nuns

The basics.
The Vatican, via former San Francisco bishop Levada and archbishop Sartain, is investigating the US umbrella organization of women religious. The premise is that American nuns are not emphasizing certain Vatican positions while stressing other less orthodox teachings, and that they are not formally connected to the USCCB.

Cardinal Levada
Why is this relevant, in any way?
Because of their thousands of schools in the country, women religious are a major voice in this country's religious conversation. And they are really the only big voice talking sensibly about women in the church. As the US bishops grow more single-issue around abortion, women religious are really a bright, alternative light.

So if you want to hear a more progressive diversity of voices, you better like some nuns.

At the heart, organizational issues.
Let's look at those positions later; first we should mention the structural implications if this process.
Men and women religious are organized under a hierarchy that is independent of local bishops. Each individual vows obedience to his our her superior, along with the vows of poverty and celibacy. For example, each Ursuline nun answers to her superior locally, who then answers to a national organization of Ursuline sisters. That national organization sends delegates to a national leadership conference. The national conference, as well as the Ursuline order internationally, is obedient to the Vatican. So you see how they sort of skip local bishops.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious - LCWR - represents about 80% of 68,000 women religious. They have regular meetings, mission statements, educational conferences, etc. They also oversee hospitals and schools run by member nuns.

In general the LCWR works collegialy, with a sense of democracy and sisterhood. However, the USCCB, and the Vatican, tend to operate hierarchically, with a firm sense of centralized control. The Vatican is at the climax of about two hundred years of centralization that has reduced the independence of bishops and other religious leaders, like the LCWR. The LCWR has sought transformation for over 40 years, so this current action is part of an ongoing chafing.

This has had the advantage of enabling the organization to operate with a level of independence from local turmoil, be it ethnic cleansing in the Sudan or American politics, so they can speak truth to power. It also consolidates some of the brightest minds on spirituality and theology, producing some really landmark works.

But when the hammer comes down it can really aggravate local leaders. And the centralized leadership is all male, quite old, and disproportionately Italian, so there are a lot of (potential) biases. US Catholics in particular tend to be more progressive than the Vatican, and there is even talk of an American Catholic Church schism.

Add to this Benedict's clear intention to further consolidate power through the bishops he has selected in traditionally progressive areas, plus a certain pastoral insensitivity on sensitive issues like homosexuality, the ordination of women, the child abuse scandals, and the Legions of Christ. 

The  objections, just a little ironic.
Based on this history, the outrage at the LCWR review should be no surprise. Not only will the nuns have to undergo total scrutiny for the second time in a decade, but the issues happen to be some of the most divisive around right now. And issues on which the Vatican has been particularly tone-deaf. Allegedly the LCWR hasn't done enough to insure orthodoxy concerning:

1) Homosexuality: the nuns haven't been condemning homosexuals well enough.
2) Women's ordination: many nuns have spoken and written publicly about women's ordination, whereas the Vatican considers the issue closed since 1994
3) Other Religions: Benedict's position is that members of other religions are gravely defective, but nuns continue to dialogue across religions.

I think the nuns are on the right side of all these issues. The Vatican has been criticized from all corners on all three of their positions here - from catholic universities, from bishops and cardinals, from monks and nuns. I mentioned earlier that even local priests in rural Louisiana have big problems with these. I have big problems with these.

These are not just emotional responses from a millennial American. These are valid positions of concern and disagreement. Even the Vatican has changed position on these issues in the last thirty years, moving to a more conservative stance.

The Vatican and Vatican-selected conservative bishops are squashing legitimate disagreement from independent voices in the Church, instead of engaging in dialogue. This will only lead to more schism, more people leaving the American church. These are just shades of Inquisition, the darkest hour of church history, that ended in the protestant reformation progressing.


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