There were two Santa Maria! stories out of the Vatican this week. First, the bad news: The ultra-traditionalists of Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X are another step closer to being welcomed back into the fold – though they have yet to sort out the problem of the dissident group’s Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, whose excommunication Pope Benedict XVI lifted two years ago.
Then there was the even worse news, by my votive lights, that the Vatican is cracking down on American nuns — who, as one of my fellow Catholics noted over a cup of unconsecrated wine last night, “Only do what Jesus told us to do,” in their hospitals, schools and orphanages, “so no wonder they’re in trouble.”
After a lengthy investigation by the office formerly known as the Inquisition, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has been signed up to oversee a forced reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 Catholic nuns in this country.
That’s because, according to the Vatican report released Wednesday, a number of the good sisters appear to investigators to have been influenced by “radical feminism,” and to have fallen out of step with church teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination.
Maybe timing isn’t everything, but the juxtaposition of these two announcements on the same day was perfect. If, that is, the intent was to send the message that while schisms may come and go, feminism won’t be tolerated. Or that a man who says, as Williamson did, that history is “hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed” will be waved back in, but women accused of dissent can leave if they like.
In fact, with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council coming up in October, what better time to remind people how far we still have to go, five decades since Pope John XXIII promised to throw open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air?
Some things about the Vatican report do leave me torn: I can’t, for instance, decide if my favorite part is where they dare to indict the sisters for silence on abortion since, if memory serves, the Vatican itself has now and again been accused of keeping quiet when it shouldn’t have been. Or maybe it’s where they describe one sister’s language about “moving beyond the Church” as “a cry for help.”
“Such a rejection of faith,” the document warns, “is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life.”
The Vatican, of course, knows a lot about scandal – to the point that the nuns are the only morally uncompromised leaders poor Holy Mother Church has left.
Keep right on like this, your excellencies, and before you know it even more Catholics will be “moving beyond the church.”
This whole course correction, the report said, must be properly “understood in virtue of the mandate given by the Lord to Simon Peter as the rock on which He founded his Church: “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned to me, you must strengthen the faith of your brothers and sisters.”
But to the uninitiated, the exercise looks a lot like a common garden power play by a bunch of guys whose control is slipping, their authority undermined by their own failures.
It also looks like payback. Some American bishops openly criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’s support of the Affordable Care Act, which the bishops strenuously opposed.
And though it’s probably a coincidence, the LCWR approved of President Obama’s compromise with religious institutions over providing their employees with insurance coverage that covers birth control — a proposal the bishops have not accepted.
Some of the complaints go back much further and suggest ancient grievances, polished to a high shine: “The LCWR publicly expressed in 1977 its refusal to assent to the teaching of Inter insigniores on the reservation of priestly ordination to men,” the Vatican report said. “This public refusal has never been corrected.”
NETWORK, a nun-founded Washington lobbying group that focuses on poverty, immigration and health-care issues, was singled out in the report as “silent on the right to life.”
“I think we scare them,” NETWORK’s executive director, Sister Simone Campbell, told my Post colleague Liz Tenety, referring to the male hierarchy.
American sisters do outnumber the priests, and it’s the women who have the troops, too – at schools and hospitals the bishops couldn’t close if they wanted to. The nuns no longer only empty the bed pans, but now own the place, too, and you have to wonder whether that’s the real problem.
Melinda Henneberger wrote this for The Washington Post.