The Church's Tug of War | The Nation


The Church's Tug of War

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It is a harrowing time for the US Catholic Church. While the American bishops at their Dallas meeting in June agreed nearly unanimously to remove from active ministry any priest guilty of sexually abusing a minor, they didn't render that decision with enthusiasm. For many, anger and resentment roiled just below the surface.

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Angela Bonavoglia
Angela Bonavoglia is the author of Good Catholic Girls:  How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church (...

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To understand the Vatican’s crackdown, look beyond the politics of abortion and same-sex marriage to the theological conflict raging in the Catholic Church.

On his first papal visit to America, will Pope Benedict address the real problems confronting the Catholic Church?

Take the closing remarks of Chicago's Francis Cardinal George. In an elliptical rant, he held the Church's opponents responsible for the hierarchy's diminishing power. George's targets included the campaign of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) to downgrade the Church's status at the UN to a nongovernmental organization; feminists working for laws requiring Catholic institutions that serve and employ the general public to provide reproductive health services, including contraceptive insurance; anyone suing the Church; Catholics with a shaky faith; Protestants; and American culture in general.

"There's been an erosion of episcopal authority and a loss of Catholic faith for a generation," George scolded. American culture, he said, is "a form of secularized Protestantism...self-righteous and decadent at the same time.... There's external opposition...to the Holy See's being in the United Nations...the attack on our healthcare institutes, the attack on our social services through various insurance policies...the attack upon our institutional presence that is only beginning...as plaintiffs begin to go forward in order to bankrupt the Church. All of these...are not coincidental. I believe personally--without looking at it as some kind of cabal...that we have to be very serious about how we're going to go forward."

"Going forward" to George means a smaller, more orthodox Church. It would be free of all those "dissidents" who, as the Catholic League's William Donahue has said, "enabled the behavioral deviance." Reflecting similar sentiments, America's cardinals, upon their return from a visit to the Pope in April, issued a statement instructing pastors "clearly to promote the correct moral teaching" and "publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent."

One thing is clear from the unprecedented gatherings in Rome and Dallas: If fundamental change is to come to the American Catholic Church, the bishops will not be leading the way. Nor will the Pope, who in Canada recently for World Youth Day finally acknowledged publicly the shame of the sex abuse scandals, but not the hierarchy's culpability. That makes the work of the Church's progressive reform movement more important than ever.

Anne Barrett Doyle is a recent recruit. She says she "literally woke up" in January when she read the Boston Globe's stories of clergy sex abuse and diocesan cover-up. The same spirit that had moved her as a tenth grader in a packed Roman Catholic Church to protest her priest's refusal to baptize the baby of pro-choice parents inspired her again. Instead of going to their usual parish, she and her family drove to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where Bernard Cardinal Law would be serving mass. Carrying her scrawled It's My Church sign, Doyle joined a picket line of seven.

"I was so overcome with the sinfulness of the Church and also of myself, as a lay person who had enjoyed being part of this little club and had not fought against [my] subservient role," says Doyle. Her wake-up call resulted in the birth of one of Boston's most spirited Church reform organizations, the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. As a leader of that group, Doyle joins the ranks of a largely invisible but driving force behind the Church's progressive change movement: women.

Arguably, the best known is Sister Joan Chittister. A fiery orator and prolific author, this 66-year-old Benedictine nun made international news last year when she refused to obey a Vatican order forbidding her to speak at an international conference in Dublin on the ordination of women. Chittister made her decision in the face of Vatican threats of "grave penalties," which could have ranged from excommunication to expulsion from her monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. "The Church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures...is...dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that underlay centuries of Church-sanctioned slavery," she told the emboldened crowd at the gathering.

Though Chittister would have defied the Pope alone, in the end, she didn't have to. The Vatican had demanded that the prioress of Chittister's monastery, Christine Vladimiroff, issue the "precept of obedience" forbidding Chittister to speak, or face grave penalties herself. Vladimiroff refused to be the Vatican's henchman. "I could not order something I was in total disagreement with, and that is silencing," says Vladimiroff. Despite advanced age and infirmity, all but one of 128 active members of the Erie Benedictines co-signed Vladimiroff's letter to Rome. An additional letter of support came from nuns in twenty-two other Benedictine communities. The Vatican backed down.

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