The leadership of the largest organization representing U.S. women religious announced this afternoon that the board of the group will meet in an "atmosphere of prayer, contemplation and dialogue" in May to discuss news that the Vatican has ordered it to revise its statutes and has appointed an archbishop to oversee the revision.
The attitude toward women that prompted the Vatican crackdown on the LCWR was there in the beginning and it's never been exorcised from Catholicism. It even got into the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians, for example, where the writer declares that women "should keep silence in the churches for they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate. ... If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husband."
Today, we are assured by every credible Scripture scholar that this was inserted by some scribe after Paul's death; it totally contradicts his attitude toward women and his acceptance of women as co-workers. In Romans, he commends an entire list of women, including Junia, whom he calls "prominent among the apostles." Nevertheless, several putdowns of women got placed in the texts and have remained as stumbling blocks for the unwary.
Sisters Under Scrutiny is a new NCR blog that aims to be your one stop site gathering the latest news, actions and reactions arising from the Vatican ordered reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization for 80 percent of American Catholic sisters.
This past Sunday, I was privileged to give a talk at Epiphany Parish in Louisville, Ky. This is a lively, progressive parish with social justice at the center of its life.
As luck would have it, the topic on which I had been invited to speak on some months ago was "faith-filled dissent." I began by thanking the Vatican for providing me with so much rich material just before the talk. I was referring, of course, to the ultimatum from the Vatican that, if implemented, would destroy the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as we know it.
The Epiphany folks roared. Their sentiments, like those of the vast majority of Catholic (and other) commentators ranged from "What are these guys thinking? Do they really think they can win?" to "Hey, nuns are the best thing going in the church" to "You go, girl!"
About twice a month, my wife meets up with a Vietnamese-American nun in a rough part of town, and together they roam in a beat-up white van, scouring the streets for homeless women. It never takes long. The sister knows just where to look: dirty alleys, dark underpasses -- they are there.
Many of them are regulars, seeking out the van from their hidden places. The sister and my wife offer to bring them back to a church shelter; if the person refuses, they hand out bags of food and essentials then head on their way.
This slender, slight but fierce nun is apparently a clear and present danger to the Catholic church.
I'm talking, of course, about the now-infamous Vatican report that says the real trouble with the church in America is that our nuns here just can't seem to toe the line of the bishops, "who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."
"Please give me bigger blindfolds and larger ear plugs or tell me how to continue to belong to a group that constantly tries to discourage my participation."
A friend offered this simple prayer after news broke of the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. At times like this, I wish I was a pew-warmer Catholic, faithfully fulfilling my obligations while turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the messiness of church politics. But I can't. And this past week has shown that many Catholic women and men can't.
Discussion boards have heated up with predictable reactions from both ends of the trad-lib scale. Support for the sisters and their work is loud, strong and unwavering among those who embrace the renewal efforts of Vatican II. For those who eagerly anticipate a turning back of the clock, the sisters represented by LCWR symbolize the dissident church, straying from both purity of doctrinal teaching and unwavering obedience to the hierarchical leadership. The ideological lines of division are being drawn ever more deeply.
In his Holy Thursday sermon, Pope Benedict XVI made headlines for criticizing those who refuse to obey the church's position on the ordination of celibate men. He traced his argument back to Christ's obedience to the will of God.
"His concern was for true obedience," Benedict said, "as opposed to human caprice."
The Los Angeles Times has chimed in, adding another incredulous voice to many more certain to come, as reasonable observers consider the Vatican's destructive attack on U.S. women religious last week.
Columnist Steve Lopez writes that when he first heard of the Vatican doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group of 80 percent of U.S. women religious now under attack by Rome, he thought it was some kind of satire, "a parody of the out-of-touch Vatican patriarchy."
Last night, "PBS NewsHour" dedicated a segment into the Vatican takeover of LCWR. They interviewed two women of opposing views on the issue. Supporting LCWR was Jeannine Fletcher Hill, a professor specializing in feminist theology at Fordham University. Supporting the Vatican was Donna Bethell, a lawyer who serves as the chairman of the board at Christendom College.
Christendom College, for those out of the loop (and I was one of them until last night), is a liberal arts college founded 30 years ago "in response to the devastating blow inflicted on Catholic higher education by the cultural revolution which swept across America in the 1960s."
The college's website boasts, "Catholicism is the 'air that we breathe,' " and "Academic excellence takes the Magisterium as its guide."
Pope Benedict loves Christendom College. And Bethell spent her airtime discrediting women religious for not presenting the "full doctrine of the church" and not helping members "to understand it and to live it." But a web search of Ms. Bethell quickly reveals that some of her most deeply held convictions conflict significantly with Roman Catholic doctrine.
Last Saturday, I was privileged to attend the 40th Anniversary dinner of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby founded by nuns 40 years ago. Since 1972, this organization has done stellar work on the Hill advocating for social justice, the needs of the poor, world peace and the earth itself.
It was a wonderful gathering, and LCWR leaders were very visible and vocal in their praise of NETWORK -- and well they might be. Here was a gathering of the real leaders of our church for the future, members of religious communities: nuns, co-members, associates and wonderful friends.
Now, we get news from the Vatican, appointing an archbishop to lead what they dare to call "renewal" of LCWR. When you look at the specifics, it's more like dismantling, if LCWR actually does any of it.
And from the point of view of the Vatican, one of the problematic associations of LCWR is apparently NETWORK. What in the world are these hierarchical types thinking? Have they checked their calendars? Do they know this is the 21st century, when all the issues of NETWORK are crying out for action?
I have just one thought: Resisting injustice is the ultimate act of virtue in our time.