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.