Nuns Under Fire: Vatican is Patriarchal
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 19:04
This week, the Vatican released a report condemning Network, a political lobby within the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest political group of American Roman Catholic nuns. The Vatican charged the group with promoting a liberal attitude toward homosexuality, supporting President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform and engaging in activism on women’s health issues. The report quotes “serious doctrinal problems,” “unacceptable positions” and “radical feminist themes.”
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the Vatican’s cultural crackdown takes issue with American nuns, many of whom are in fact radical in their commitment to caring for the most marginalized members of society – as Jesus would have done, and as Catholic doctrine is supposed to encourage. The Vatican’s recent attack is not an isolated incident, but is merely one in a series of centuries-long oppression of nuns by priests.
Nuns, expected to take vows of poverty and chastity, have long been accountable for cleaning up after priests, both literally in daily religious life and figuratively in incidences such as the shocking and tragic child abuse allegation scandals that have swept the Catholic Church in the last decade.
American nuns, like the ones I spend time with in my hometown, are often senior citizens who make do with scant food rations and secondhand clothing while the current pope shows off his designer shoes. The nuns I work with in Holyoke are daily, tireless advocates for children’s education and social services.
The root of this conflict is the contrast between nuns’ commitment to social justice and the reality that social justice in action means subverting the patriarchal order of the church, in which nuns are supposed to wait for instructions from the top down instead of conducting their work from a grassroots level. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy and doctrine is designed to control the nuns, keeping them under a male-dominated code of conduct that under the Church’s teachings would be ideally replicated in nuclear families.
And that is why the Church’s crackdown on American nuns is unfortunate and absurd, but also inevitable. These days, so-called “cafeteria Catholics” are more and more common, as churchgoers and cultural Catholics pick and choose which doctrinal teachings they want to follow. For example, 98 percent of Catholics in the United States regularly use birth control, disregarding the Vatican’s ban on birth control and abortion.
In the face of changing social norms, the Catholic Church is losing ground and losing authority in Europe and the U.S., where people have become increasingly secularized.
Instead of adapting to a changing world, in which attacking women’s reproductive freedom and condemning gays are becoming less and less acceptable, the Church is scrambling to hold onto power by bossing around the one class of people they know they can attack: nuns.
Fortunately, nuns are resilient. Network has vowed to keep tirelessly advocating, educating and pushing for social justice, regardless of pressure from Catholic bishops. It remains to be seen whether the most effective theological solution is for the nuns to break from the Church and risk losing what little support they have in the name of their social commitment, or whether the Vatican will permit them to stay within the Church and do their work unpunished.