Vatican Lashes Out at Michigan Nuns for Charges of “Radical Feminism”
I am laughing. I can’t help it. Go Michigan nuns! According to a Detroit News article, Michigan nuns are the subject of controversy with the Vatican that is so intense that bishops have been called upon to investigate the nuns. The nuns ostensibly have not been upholding the whole Catholic premise of agreeing entirely with the men in power in the Catholic religion–those uppity nuns! How dare those women stand up to Catholic male supremacy by supporting Obamacare? I mean, really, nuns aren’t supposed to be feminists according to the Catholic church? According to a Detroit News article, the nuns are being investigated for radical feminism. :
Nuns from Michigan and throughout the nation are assembling in St. Louis this week to prepare their response to a Vatican crackdown that criticized their loyalty and accused them of “radical feminism.”
This spring, the Vatican ordered a review of the umbrella group of the nation’s 55,000 nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, claiming the sisters had gone rogue, focusing on social justice issues and neglecting church teachings on subjects including contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
The rift, which has sparked a split among the faithful and a wave of sympathy for the nuns, is being felt in Metro Detroit.
One of the bishops conducting the Vatican’s review of 400 orders for American nuns is Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair, a former auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
The reports are being reviewed by Archbishop Joseph Tobin, a top Vatican official and a native Detroiter who was a priest at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in southwest Detroit.
Sister Nancy Sylvester said nuns didn’t invite the showdown. She is a former president of the Leadership Conference and former executive director of NETWORK, a social justice group named in the written assessment.
“We don’t teach theology. This was a political assessment, not a faith assessment,” said Sylvester, a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary religious order in Monroe who now runs the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue.
The nuns are expected to devise their next step during the Leadership Conference meeting, which runs Tuesday through Saturday. Public vigils are planned nationwide to support the nuns, including Tuesday in Muskegon and Toledo.
Sylvester said she suspects Catholic bishops are unhappy because NETWORK supported President Barack Obama’s health care plan. The church opposed the legislation because it mandates that all employers’ health care plans — including religious groups’ — cover contraception.
One in 10 U.S. adults is a former Catholic, according to the poll, which attributed the decline to disagreements about the church’s views on homosexuality and abortion, treatment of women and handling of pedophile priests.
Jim FitzGerald, the executive director for the national office of Call to Action, said the scrutiny of American nuns is “just another attack on women in the church.”
“The Vatican’s crackdown … is not just about nuns, it’s a crackdown on women’s full equality and dignity in the U.S. Conference of Bishops,” said FitzGerald, whose group advocates liberal reforms to the church.
“That’s a debate that has been going on for a long time.”
‘When you mess with nuns’
Michigan’s nuns have a rich history of the type of social activism that some say is under attack by the Vatican.
The state is home to about 2,100 nuns, about half at Archdiocese of Detroit parishes. The largest women’s religious group is Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe with 375.
From soup kitchens to literacy centers, their mission is to help the area’s poor and unfortunate. They also have been on the front lines of protests against nuclear weapons and the war in Iraq.
Thomas Kyle, a member of the Catholic lay group Elephants in the Living Room, said the issue over the nuns is one that is being closely watched by Catholics throughout the world.
“When you mess with the nuns, people get upset,” said Kyle, who lives in Oakland County. “There is a lot of angst in the pews about what they perceive is happening to the nuns.”
The nuns won support from female members of the U.S. Senate in July with a resolution calling them “trailblazers” because they “teach our children, care for the sick, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, lead major institutions, demand corporate policy and fight for policies that promote human dignity.”
Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference, said in an interview that the Vatican seems to regard questioning as defiance, while the sisters see it as a form of faithfulness.
“We have a differing perspective on obedience,” Sister Farrell said. “Our understanding is that we need to continue to respond to the signs of the times, and the new questions and issues that arise in the complexities of modern life are not something we see as a threat.”
These same conflicts are gripping the Catholic Church at large. Nearly 50 years after the start of Vatican II, which was intended to open the church to the modern world and respond to the “signs of the times,” the church is gravely polarized between a progressive wing still eager for change and reform and a traditionalist flank focused on returning to what it sees as doctrinal fundamentals.
The sisters have been caught in the riptide. Most of them have spent their lives serving the sick, the poor, children and immigrants — and not engaged in battles over theology. But when some sisters after Vatican II began to question church prohibitions on women serving as priests, artificial birth control or the acceptance of same-sex relationships, their religious orders did not shut down such discussion or treat it as apostasy. In fact, they have continued to insist on their right to debate and challenge church teaching, which has resulted in the Vatican’s reproof.
The former head of the church’s doctrinal office, Cardinal William J. Levada, said after his last meeting with the nuns’ leaders in June, just before he retired, that they should regard his office’s harsh assessment as “an invitation to obedience.”
“I admire religious men and women,” Cardinal Levada said in an interview with The National Catholic Reporter. “But if they aren’t people who believe and express the faith of the church, the doctrines of the church, then I think they’re misrepresenting who they are and who they ought to be.”
The sisters say they see no contradiction in embracing the Catholic faith while also being open to questioning certain church teachings based on new information or new experiences. The Leadership Conference has not taken a stand in favor of the ordination of women or the acceptance of gay relationships, but it has discussed such topics at its meetings. Members insist that open discussion of church doctrine is not only their right but is also healthy for the church.
They say their approach is no different from that of many Catholic priests and laypeople, not just those in the United States. As evidence, they cite messages of support they have received from Catholic religious orders of men and women all over Europe, Asia and Latin America — as well as in the United States.
“We make our vows, but our obedience isn’t blind,” said one mother superior, who, like others, did not want to be identified while the future of the Leadership Conference is in limbo. “Obedience comes from listening.”
Nor should obedience be blind, but then again, lacking blind allegiance, what does the Catholic church have? According to the nuns, this task is something the church asked them to take on, and even though it was asked of them, now the Catholic church is rejecting the women because it doesn’t agree with the new findings:
“We were the ones who probably took Vatican II and ran the fastest and the farthest with it,” said Sister Janice Farnham, a retired professor of church history at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. “Sometimes our church leaders forget, we were tasked to do these things by the church. The church said jump, and we said, how high?
“The church said update, renew, go back to your sources, and we did it as best we could. We did it with a passion, and we paid dearly.”
At issue, in the Catholic church, is whether or not the conservative bishops agree with the reform instituted more than fifty years ago in a seemingly radically more prescient hierarchy than has been in place for the last twenty to thirty years.
The latest round of bishops, while sensing the public divide with its methods is seeking to exert its control over defectors, the Catholic church seems not to understand that even though the Vatican is based out of Italy, the romance with the mafia is no longer popular. The Catholic church’s preaching of unity and obedience simply means that Catholics are no longer supposed to question or evolve with the times:
The disciplinary action against the nuns comes just as American bishops are struggling to reassert their authority with a wayward flock. The bishops are in the midst of a campaign to defend against what they see as serious threats to religious liberty — especially a government mandate to provide employees of Catholic institutions with health insurance that covers contraception. But the prelates are well aware of polls showing that about 95 percent of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives, and 52 percent support same-sex marriage — little different from the public at large.
The dissonance is of great concern to American bishops and the Vatican.
“The church must speak with one voice,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States, said in an address in June to American bishops at their meeting in Atlanta. “We all know that the fundamental tactic of the enemy is to show a church divided.”
He added pointedly that at this “difficult time,” there is a special need for women and men in religious orders, and for Catholic universities, to “take on an attitude of deep communion” with the bishops.
“An attitude of deep communion” apparently means prosecuting nuns for the ridiculous crime of “radical feminism,” for real. No wonder the church is faltering. Had the church not enmeshed itself in politics, it could be immune to them. For instance, had the Catholic church retained enough clergy to hire as working members of all their institutions, then they might not have to provide birth control coverage; however, in a way, the Catholic church sold out, too. Entering society prepared to take on all the spoils of large institutions, supporting political candidates, all while refusing to acknowledge governmental authority is bound to result in a clash. Had the Catholic church elected to remain small and unnoticed, perhaps it could have secluded itself to the point that it was not subject to governmental authority, but in the U.S., we don’t live in a religious state. The Vatican is an island unto itself, obviously of its own making and out of touch with the rest of the world.