Monday, April 23, 2012


EJ Dionne wrote an article on the Vatican's problems with the doctrine of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
I identify entirely with my friend and colleague Melinda Hennenberger’s excellent take on the Vatican’s crackdown on American nuns. Indeed, I also liked what one commenter on her piece had to say: “The American Bishops should be washing the feet of American nuns and sisters!” Actually, all of us who are Catholic should honor the nuns. The Church would be lost without them. I hope to have more to say on this unfortunate Vatican statement next week.
This is the first reaction of many to this document. It completely misses the point. The CDF started by saying that these nuns were doing a lot of very good work. Nobody disputes that. The questions are about doctrine. Sure the nuns should be honored. But what does honor look like? You look at Act 18:24-26. Apollos is doing great work but is making some errors in doctrine. He only knew of the Baptism of John. So Priscilla and Aquila explain to him what orthodox teaching is on the matter. That is not disrespect. That is what you do when someone is not teaching correctly. You point out the errors and explain the correct doctrine. You don't just say they are nice people therefore we should just let them be. That would be disrespect. That would imply that nuns somehow could not learn the truth.
It’s especially odd that a criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for apparently placing too much emphasis on Catholic social teaching came in the same week that the Bishops offered strong criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget (without mentioning Ryan by name).
Again, nobody is saying anyone is "placing too much emphasis on Catholic social teaching." This is putting God's truth and God's love against each other. Like we have to choose. It is precisely this kind of confusion that the pope wants to get rid of. That is why he wrote his encyclical Caritas in Veritae. If we think truth and love are in conflict we have likely gotten both of them seriously wrong. Like the quote at the top of the blog says, love can degenerate into sentimentality if you don't have truth. So are these Catholic nuns really living the love of Jesus or some nice, but purely human, sentiment? Don't we believe the former is infinitely greater than the ladder? Doesn't that make this question very urgent?

The other assumption is that somehow recent American politics plays a big part in this. I am sure the Vatican has no idea who Rep Paul Ryan is. The US is only 6% of the worldwide church. They are not following every political proposal in every major country. This is just about doctrine. American bishops commenting on American social policy truly has nothing to do with this. 
There is a real struggle going on in the Church right now between conservatives, who seem intent on making President Obama a target and downplaying the Church’s social mission, and more progressive Catholics, who think the Church should be placing even more emphasis on social justice and issue more emphatic rejections of budget cuts along the lines of Bishop Blaire’s letter. Conservatives have had the upper hand over the last few months, but Bishop Blaire’s statement can be seen in part as a response to the pushback from Catholic liberals who wondered where the Bishops have been in the ongoing budget fight. (Blaire, it should be said, has a strong social justice commitment of his own.)
This is more or what this issue is not. Nobody in Rome cares about the Republican/Democrat divide and who has the upper hand. They did choose Bishop Blaire in part because he does have strong social justice credentials. They don't want those questions ignored and they knew he would not ignore them. But he also did not ignore questions of doctrine. He raised very specific doctrinal issues. What is the reply? Is he right? Have the nuns been making the errors he alleges? No liberal seem to be willing to address it. It is a big game of move the discussion away from what the document actually says is the issue.
My hunch is that the attack on the nuns will bring a lot more blow-back from progressive Catholics. Up to now, Catholic conservatives have been especially aggressive in pushing the Bishops’ Conference to the right.  The Bishops will now be getting a lot more pressure from Catholics on the other side. I think conservatives will ultimately regret targeting the sisters. The nuns have a great many friends in the Church. 
There will be blow-back. There always is when the truth is taught. Some of the fallout will be very good. Some will not. Everyone involved will have a choice to repent or to defend bad behavior. Not everyone will make the same choice. The hope is that many nuns will strongly reaffirm their commitment to the faith as taught by the magisterium. If they can't do that in good conscience then at least that will become clear. Hard choices might need to be made but if they are made based on an honest assessment of what the church teaches and what an individual believes then it will be for the best.

It is not a matter of conservatives targeting nuns. It is a matter of a pope expecting that consecrated people will embrace the faith of the church and not stray from it. That brings up the real issue. Why is that a problem? If you see the bishops and the pope as God's ordained leaders then consecrated men and women should be the best followers. If you see the bishops and the pope as somehow behind the more progressive Catholic thinkers then this will seem like a bad thing. But then you have to think God has somehow erred in putting them in charge. Being Catholic is not about accepting a set of doctrines as much as it is about accepting a set of leaders. Did God really mean for us to follow the successors of the apostles and the successor of Peter?