Pope Benedict XVI. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico
No organization survives for two millennia by marching, upright, in a straight line. The history of the Roman Catholic Church is one of a constant struggle to adapt to changes that threatened its authority. In the modern age, it has had to deal with Protestantism and the Enlightenment. It has had to deal politically with democracy and fascism, imperialism and nationalism. Industrial capitalism made its vision of solidarity obsolete. Indifference, secularism and cultural pluralism deprived it of the unquestioning obedience of Catholics themselves.
In this twisted and often tormented tale, two things have been remarkably constant. One is Rome’s claim to ultimate decision in matters spiritual and worldly. The other has been unyielding insistence on the rule of men—in church and by implication in society. Many American Catholics have learned to live in spiritual chiaroscuro by discreetly ignoring church doctrine, as with the practice of contraception. Rick Santorum’s Disney World image of the City of God did not enthuse them. Now the Vatican’s theological bureaucrats, many of whom have never ventured beyond its walls, have confronted American Catholics with a crisis which will render many exceedingly uncomfortable, and drive others to one or another form of defiance.
More than 80 percent of the 57,000 Catholic nuns in the United States are represented by an active and outspoken group called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The nuns are not only teachers in the lower grades of Catholic schools, or locked away in perpetual prayer. They are administrators and leaders in social activism, staff Catholic hospitals, teach in colleges and theological schools. Without their presence, much of Catholic institutional life in the United States would be emptied of energy and, pardon the expression, manpower. Factually, they exercise a great deal of women’s power. Legally, however, they are second-class citizens or (poorly) paid servants of the church, obliged to accept the commands of bishops and priests. Extending our non-discrimination laws to the church would revolutionize it—which is why, as in the healthcare debate, the church is at great pains to demand “religious freedom” for itself. The Leadership Conference has been trying, step by step, to loosen the male grip on power in the church. That has brought it into conflict with a significant number of bishops.
Given considerable sympathy amongst the Catholic laity for the nuns, the bishops sought backing in Rome. Since 2008 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (known in simpler and perhaps more honest days as the Inquisition) has been investigating the conference. Now, without notice to the nuns, it has been placed in receivership. The archbishop of Seattle, seconded by two other bishops, has been given a mandate to reorganize it. The nuns have been charged with sympathy for “radical feminism”—and with taking positions on matters like healthcare legislation different from those of the bishops. One of the organizations specifically cited by the Vatican is Network, which is in the vanguard of Catholic activism for equality and justice. Canon lawyers consulted by the Catholic press have said that there is no appeal provided for in the laws of the church.