Friday, May 04, 2012

Lessons That Should Not be Learned

A group of three bishops -- Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, along with his task force deputies Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield -- is about to get busy investigating and "reforming" the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  The bishops are doing this, at the behest of the the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which wants the nuns involved with the LCWR to be reigned in.

It might be worthwhile to consider some of the implications of this crack-down by American bishops on the LCWR.  This is, I suspect, a long-term deal -- a chance to put both theological dissent and fiesty women (they're not so sure that Jesus was as afraid of women as the male hierarchy is!) -- on the ropes.  Evidently the CDF thinks this is a good way to impress American Catholics.

Among the lessons that American Catholics will learn from this episode: 

1.  The LCWR will likely have to "earn" its way out of prolonged supervision by going silent on major theological and cultural controversies.  Like a child placed in time-out, they will end up getting supervised longer if they dissent in public (or in private?) from the official papal line on matters such as women priests and the pastoral care the Church extends to people who are LGBTQ.  Those are two of the main issues, evidently, that caused the CDF to send in the bishop-overseers.  Lesson #1:  The members of the LCWR are about to be put in their place and told to quiet down.

"Voices Carry" by Til Tuesday (live in NYC, 1985)

2.  Religious orders beyond the LCWR -- the Jesuits, perhaps -- will be sent an implicit message as they watch the crack-down on the LCWR:  do not dissent, do not encourage the laity to think for itself, do not create new ministries that don't have the papal stamp of approval -- no matter what you believe Christ is calling you to do.  The Vatican gets to call the shots -- even though it has fumbled badly with financial scandals (Vatican bank) back in the 1980s and as recently as the last few months, and even though the Vatican was indifferent at best or dishonest at worst in dealing with a widespread (not just American) sexual abuse scandal.  Lesson #2:  Defer to the Vatican or you'll have bishops looking in at you.

3.  Fulfilling the tasks of the CDF -- an agency powerful enough to have been the launching pad for Josef Ratzinger's rise to the papacy -- is a good career move for any bishop who willingly takes on the task.  Conversely, getting under the hood and deciding, essentially, that the engine is working fine, there's no need for a recall, is not likely to earn those bishops many points.  Lesson #3:  Bishops who want a good career path can build it on the backs of nuns.

I realize, of course, that the bishops who have been appointed have stated that they are not going after nuns, but rather the leadership group that the nuns have elected.  Right.  The message there -- still mighty sexist even though the bishops are trying to use it as their "nice guy" card -- is that these poor little old nuns did not realize that their big bad organization was up to bad stuff; after all, you don't expect them to pay attention to such matters, do you?  That's pretty insulting.  It would be kind of like saying, "The bishops did not know what they were getting when they elected Archbishop (Cardinal) Dolan to head the USCCB; they did not realize that they were going to get someone who is using bombastic rhetoric to reject any compromise with the White House to help ensure that Americans who lack access to good health care get that access.  The bishops got fooled by Dolan and his buddies -- the poor guys."  Sorry, I don't buy that notion either.

The women religious who make up the LCWR will survive, and their faith and good deeds will outlive this political play by men in the Church who just can't manage to sit still while women are questioning their right to make all the important decisions in the Church.  Just like Mary Magdalene and the other women who were loyal to Christ Jesus even as the male apostles ran away in fear for their lives, the nuns who are being targeted for "reform" have plenty of credibility with the faithful in the pews.  In fact, if they want, the bishops will probably have a chance to learn how to do some of the nitty gritty, rubber-meets-the-road ministry to the poor and marginalized that nuns seem to be good at and which most of the male hierarchy of the church seem to side-step after a certain point in their careers.  (Bishop Paprocki is a bit of an exception in that he has played a vital role in the creation and evident success of a legal clinic for the poor in Chicago.)

No, I'm not afraid for the women religious of America -- they're strong folk.  But I do hope no one -- not the women religious, not the orders outside of the LCWR, not the laity who also are the Church -- will allow themselves to be silenced in the name of casting stones at "radical feminism" and that very scary yet always necessary concept, dissent.  (Without dissent, faith becomes fossilized, and then it is no longer alive; it becomes more of an artifact of a religious tradition instead of a living, breathing faith.)

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