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Nuns of America Unite

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American nuns dare challenge the Vatican. Sure, but that is not the story. What intrigues is the Vatican hierarchy's rationale for the fight.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has attempted to create a dialogue with the Holy See to explore issues such as ordaining women as priests, birth control and acceptance of same-sex marriage, to name a few. The LCWR represents about 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States. The Vatican has responded by appointing three bishops to implement a hostile takeover, essentially taking the reigns of the LCWR agenda to repress any discussions of forbidden topics and, with a papal mandate, filter and approve any communications from the group.

The rift has highlighted a deep division in how the church approaches a fundamental question: can church doctrine change in response to a changing world. The nuns clearly believe yes. Sister Pat Farrell, president of the LCWR, said that, "Our understanding is that we need to continue to respond to the signs of the times, and the new questions and issues that arise in the complexities of modern life are not something we see as a threat."

The Vatican does not agree. Cardinal William J. Levada, formerly head of the Vatican's Doctrinal Office and now retired, said of the nuns, "they're misrepresenting who they are and who they ought to be." Prior to his retirement Levada met with the LCWR and informed the nuns that his harsh assessment of the group should be seen as "an invitation to obedience." The bishops also concluded that the LCWR was promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" after reprimanding the nuns for hosting speakers who "often contradict or ignore" church teachings and who "disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."

Initially I had intended to ignore this story, which at face value is no more interesting than a debate between the two Grimm brothers arguing whether Gretel should walk one pace or one-and one-half paces behind Hansel. Editing a fairy tale unbound by an objective truth is not terribly interesting.

But then I heard an interview with Sister Farrell on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, followed later by an interview with Bishop Leonard Blair, one of the bishops who evaluated the LCWR. What struck me finally was the indefensible rationale for the status quo as articulated by Blair, who said about ordaining priests: "...If you're a Catholic, this is part of our sacraments and practice for two millennia, and it's not just an arbitrary decision of male oppression over women."

He argues, therefore, that because the church has taught something as correct for 2,000 years those teachings cannot be questioned now; they are an inviolate and integral part of the sacrament. And here is where Terry Gross failed to follow up, because Blair's argument is fatally flawed. Let's go back to 1612.

The church taught as an absolute inviolate truth for 1600 years that the earth was the center of the universe. The bible makes this abundantly clear in multiple passages. The earth was said to be immobile at the center, while the sun and all planets orbit the one planet made special by god. People were burned at the stake for heresy for questioning this absolute truth. But there was a problem, no matter how hard the church now tries to sweep it under the rug.

Galileo claimed in 1612 that the earth revolved around the sun, a conclusion that was in direct contradiction to teachings of the Church. Galileo's observations were a significant threat to the world order because he verified by direct observation the heretical ideas put forth by Copernicus 70 years earlier in The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium), published shortly after Copernicus died in 1543. The Church was not at all amused by Galileo's advances in astronomy, or by his support of Copernicus. Pope Urban VIII denounced Galileo with the following language:

We say, pronounce, sentence and declare that you, Galileo, by reason of these things which have been detailed in the trial and which you have confessed already, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine that is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: namely that Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.

There is nothing ambiguous about that statement: the Vatican declares that the Holy Scripture is clear that the Earth is the center of the universe. No amount of spin can alter the meaning of the Pope's words.

The Pope said that what was correct for 1,600 years could not be wrong. So under threats of torture and death, an unpleasant fate to consider, the Inquisition forced Galileo to renounce his views and to make a public statement that the earth stands still and the sun revolves around the earth. He complied, in order to avoid burning at the stake, and wrote the requisite abjuration.

If you think that this argument is a relic only relevant to the 15th century, you would be wrong. Even today in the 21st century, the Church claims that Galileo shares blame because he made "unproven assertions." Unproven assertions! The best that Pope John Paul II could muster was that he regretted the "tragic mutual incomprehension" that had caused Galileo to suffer. As the new millennium settles in, the Church still claims that Galileo was wrong. The dissonance between Scripture and fact is not a problem relegated to earlier centuries, but remains relevant today.

With each new discovery proving a Biblical assertion wrong, the Church retreats to the safety of errors in interpretation or dismissing the discrepancy as unimportant. Catholic scholars go even further, and claim that the more science advances the "closer we come to the ontological mysteries of Christian faith." Really? The Bible's age of the earth is off by more than 4 billion years. This error, of course, has implications for creation. Speaking of which, we know that not all life was created in six days, and that once created it evolves. This too is a problem for the church: The Pope in 1996 was able to admit reluctantly only that evolution is "more than just a theory." Any fairy tale can be modified to tell a good story in new circumstances because the story is constrained only by imagination and not by any hard objective truth; but even with extraordinary contortions trying to fit reality to the old myth, science only takes us ever farther from the "ontological mysteries of Christian faith."

These accumulating factual mistakes call into question the certainty with which the Church claims the Bible is infallible, since their previous insistence has proven unsubstantiated. These doubts about infallibility apply to all the Church's teachings.

You might try to seek safe harbor in the notion that these discrepancies, and therefore church fallibility, arise when measured against an objective truth but not church tradition. Alas, no, that is not the case. Believers can no longer overtly bribe their way to heaven with indulgences, that unseemly practice initiated in the 13th century by which a sinner can be absolved by donating money to the church. The church was literally selling tickets to heaven. This was one of Martin Luther's big complaints in his 95 Theses, objecting to "professional pardoners" selling absolution on a grand scale.

If you are still not convinced that the church is fallible, or that practices in place for millennia can change, consider the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II made significant modifications in doctrine and practice in the face of a rapidly modernizing world. How often does one hear mass in Latin now? After nearly 2000 years, communicants no longer kneel down at a rail to take the host, but continue to stand. After two millennia, the priest now faces the congregation instead of away.

The church is fallible; and practices that have been in place for a thousand years have been either proven wrong or changed culturally; this has been demonstrated beyond any doubt. Nobody today believes that the sun orbits the earth, yet nobody is burning at the stake for heresy for pointing this out.

So now let us revisit Bishop Blair's rationale for opposing a dialogue with the LCWR: ""...If you're a Catholic, this is part of our sacraments and practice for two millennia..." So because it has been thus for 2000 years it cannot be wrong. But we've just shown otherwise. Blair's argument is vacuous, unsustainable and desperate. The church was adamant, sure, unwavering in its belief that the earth was the center of the universe, that mass had to be celebrated in Latin, and that...woman can't be ordained as priests, that same-sex marriage is a sin, that birth control is an affront to god. The church's credibility on the latter issues is no greater than on the former, that is they have no credibility or moral standing at all to oppose their own most pious followers who seek only to question doctrine that has remained unquestioned for far too long. The church's moral bankruptcy was demonstrated clearly enough with the global scandal of child abuse; now the church further undermines its moral foundation by muting nuns who dare question Vatican authorities, the progeny of those who insisted with such certainty for 1600 years that the earth was the center of the universe. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

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