Thursday, August 2, 2012

Catholicism in Crisis

Last week National Public Radio did a fascinating series of interviews about the Church’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a body that represents 80% of the Catholic nuns in the United States. The first interview was with Sr. Pat Farrell, the president of the LCWR; the second was with Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, who participated in the investigation and censuring of that group.

Listen to the Interview with Sr. Pat Farrell

Listen to the Interview with Bishop Leonard Blair

Naturally my sympathies lie completely with the sisters. I’ve had the pleasure of working for most of my professional career with women religious in many different orders (Sisters of Mercy, Felicians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, most notably), and what I’ve discovered is that they typically represent what is best and most ideal about the Catholic Church. Women religious are the ones who are usually in the trenches, ministering to the most vulnerable individuals in our society. They are also the ones who do most of the grunt work that keeps the Catholic Church running, and, as a reward, they are often treated like second class citizens within their own Church.

Concerning the substance of the discussion between Farrell and Blair, I have to confess that my feelings are decidedly more mixed. On the one hand, I think that the Church’s fixation on issues of “pelvic theology” (contraception, homosexuality, and abortion) represents an antiquated vision of Christianity that is completely out of step with the reality of most practicing Catholics' lives. The outright rejection of female ordination, likewise, reflects the most misogynistic traits of contemporary Catholicism. Finally, the idea that intelligent human beings shouldn’t even be allowed to discuss issues like gay marriage, the legitimate use of contraception to limit procreation, and the arguments in favor of allowing women to become priests similarly strikes me as an ecclesiastical vision more appropriate to the Middle Ages than to the 21st century.

I am also extremely distressed by the notion that these women religious should be condemned, not for what they actually did and said, but for what they didn’t do and didn’t say. Apparently, it’s not enough that Catholic nuns are on the front lines of doing battle against war, poverty, homelessness, hunger, the death penalty, genocide, racism, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation. It seems that they are also expected to spend a significant amount of their time verbally assaulting married couples who find it necessary to use birth control, homosexuals who for some strange reason prefer not to be celibate, and women forced by dire economic circumstances to have abortions (and I thought that’s what parish priests were for!).

That having been said, I think that Blair’s position is essentially correct. The Catholic Church, as it currently exists, is a hierarchical organization in which essential doctrines of faith come from the bishops and are promulgated downward to the rest of the Church. For better or worse, the magisterium of the Catholic Church has spoken out quite clearly on matters such as abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and female ordination. More enlightened members of the Church might want to see some or all of these teachings modified to better reflect the world in which we live, but in Catholicism it’s the bishops—wise and caring shepherds that they are—who establish the rules, and it’s for the rest of us—members of the flock—to follow them willingly and joyfully.

In the end, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will only really have one viable option. Compromising with a Church that sees total obedience and complete submission as the only legitimate responses to ecclesiastical authority seems unlikely without female religious sacrificing their deepest moral and spiritual principles. The other option is some form of resistance to ecclesiastical authority. But that’s a slippery slope that could ultimately lead to a rupture within Catholicism itself. It seems that Pope Benedict and his bishops are willing to risk such a rupture in their misguided efforts to ensure total doctrinal compliance.

What makes this issue so fascinating for me is that, when one listens to the two positions laid out in the interviews, one is presented with what are essentially two incompatible views of the Catholic Church. The first is much more democratic in nature, open to sincere dialogue, focused on issues of social justice, and totally engaged with the world; the second is hierarchical in nature, autocratic in style, focused obsessively on issues of “pelvic” theology, and completely out of touch with the reality of most normal people’s lives.

I know which Church I’d like to belong to…and it’s most assuredly not the one being run by old white men wearing dresses.


  1. Consider these thoughts of Jacques Ellul in light of this and other controversies in the Church today. All are from his 1948 work "The Presence of the Kingdom" (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989).

    Chapter Two: Revolutionary Christianity
    "...[T]he Christian cannot judge, or act, or live according to 'principles,' but according to the reality, lived here and now, of the eschaton -- the very opposite of an ethic.
    "We must be convinced that there are no such things as 'Christian principles.' There is the person of Christ, who is the principle of everything. But if we wish to be faithful to him, we cannot dream of reducing Christianity to a certain number of principles..." (p. 40)

    "There are no absolute Christian political and social principles, defined in an absolute way. What God reveals to us in this sphere by the Scriptures is not a doctrine or principles -- it is judgment and action, wholly directed toward the accomplishment of the work of God." (p. 40)

    "...[T]he first consequence of this revolutionary function of the Christian is that he ought to be open to all human action, that he ought to welcome it as giving him valuable direction. We are never called to set aside a political or social attempt on account of 'principles' which are supposed to be 'Christian.' Everything that appears to be a step in this right direction (in the sense in which this was defined above) should be most carefully examined.
    "...Thus there is not a Christian attitude which can be applied to all times; but, according to different times, attitudes which appear to be contradictory may be equally good, to the extent in which they make their mark on history as fidelity to the purpose of God." (p. 41)

    Chapter Three: The Ends and the Means
    "The point from which we ought to start is that in the work of God the ends and the means are identical. Thus when Jesus Christ is present the Kingdom has 'come upon' us." (p. 64)

    "The whole action of God consists in realizing through his means the end, which is his work." (p. 65)

    "It means, for instance, that we do not have to strive and struggle in order that righteousness may reign upon the earth. We have to be 'just' or 'righteous' ourselves, bearers of righteousness. The Bible tells us that where there is a just man justice prevails. It is, of course, understood that here the word 'just' means being 'justified' by Christ, and that is why justice prevails where there is a just man." (p. 66)

    Ellul, I believe, would not be impressed with the consistency of the Bishops' "principles," no matter how rooted they are in Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium. Nor would he be unduly concerned with any perceived "inconsistency" on the part of women religious (a point I tried to make in regard to the Occupy movement last November; the fact that they bear witness to injustice is more important than any imagined accomplishments they might have by becoming overtly partisan politicians). He doesn't, of course, talk about today's events or even any specific controversies in the Church of the 20th century. But he does talk, in other books (e.g., "Propaganda") about the corrosive power of ideology which, not incidentally, is exactly what results from the ossified accretion of unquestioned (and unquestionable) principles.

    Just a few thoughts...

    Peter K. Fallon

  2. Personally, I have always looked at the Catholic Church as a whole, being an outdated institution led by rigid people of questionable intent and purpose. The leaders of the Church are the real reason why the message of Christ has grown stale with his followers. If Christ was a living human right now, he certainly would have adapted to the changing times, as we all must. He surely would convey to the bishops that their rigidity and steadfastness in administering his teachings, wasn’t what he intended.

    In terms of the sisters, I also have worked alongside a good number of them. I have also had the pleasure of being taught by them. The sisters are ALWAYS the ones running missions, dealing with real issues on the ground. The Church actually reminds me of the Military. There is a strict chain of command ranging from the low level infantry up to the grand poo-bah. The sisters are the infantry, and the bishops the grand council of generals and colonels.

    It really baffles me that the bishops would be so concerned with what the sisters aren’t doing and saying despite all of the good work they do that not too many people really pay attention to.

  3. A few comments. First of all, the LCWR hasn’t been censured. “Ecclesiastical censure” takes two forms: excommunication and interdict (e.g., denying communion to divorced and remarried Catholics). And “theological censure” is the pronouncement that a theological proposition is heretical. The bishops haven’t censured any theological propositions; rather, as you pointed out, they expressed concern, not regarding what the LCWR actually did and said, but regarding what it didn’t do and didn’t say. So, although you might want to characterize this as condemnation (though even that is a bit harsh), it’s not censure.

    Second, I wouldn’t include abortion among the “pelvic” issues; with abortion, the concern is not about a certain form of sexual behavior but about killing a human being. If I remember correctly, the three issues that Sister Pat mentioned as still being open to discussion are homosexuality, contraception, and women’s ordination; she didn’t say anything about abortion. And, yes, I agree with you that it should be possible for Catholics to discuss these issues. But in fact Catholics can discuss these issues; you and I do all the time. The bishops are concerned rather that a Vatican-approved organization (the LCWR) is fostering discussion of these issues in such a way that it appears (to them, at any rate) that the Vatican accepts that these issues are still open questions (that itself is something open to discussion). It strikes me that the bishops are not concerned about individual sisters—or any individual Catholics—discussing these things (which is different from Catholics teaching the contrary view, say, as professors holding Catholic chairs of theology).

    Third, it might be true that the Church in the U.S. is fixated on issues of “pelvic theology,” but the Church in Belgium (and probably in the rest of northern Europe) isn’t. I’m not certain about the rest of the world; I’m sure it depends on the location. Moreover, while this “fixation” in the U.S. is indeed completely out of step with the reality of most American Catholics’ lives, so too is the Church’s teaching on war, poverty, homelessness, hunger, the death penalty, genocide, racism, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation (where and when that is taught).

    Finally, not all of the bishops are old and/or white.

    There’s much more to say, including where I agree with you, but that will have to wait.

  4. the church is always in crises....And to my mind, this is a very small one.

    I was at a retreat run by sisters, where they put pita bread and grape juice on a table, said a prayer, and had all the participants eat of the bread and drink of the grape juice....It's the Eucharist that holds this Church together. Not pita and grape juice.

    The church offered an invitation to obedience to the sisters. I recognize that this isn't approved language in the year 2012, but the moral law is strong, and their are affects when it is broken. I reflect on the moral law, everyday. So should all Christians.