THE BLOG
05/12/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Pope Francis I, the Nun-Busters and Why Catholics Should Buy "Quest For the Living God"

Last week, Prefect of the Confederation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Gerhard Mueller, condemned the Leadership Conference Women Religious (LCWR) for honoring Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson and her book Quest of the Living God. The CDF argues that the book fails to be in accord with Roman Catholic doctrine. This magisterial spanking aims to dictate to a group of highly intelligent, well-educated women which books are suitable for their honors -- this promises to uber-boost sales of an academic work and, I believe, puts the pope in a tricky spot. (See my 2012 piece, "Just Buy 'Just Love' for more on how such condescending condemnation works.) The pope is the pope. He can speak when he likes. But I think this pope, this time around, unlike the last time around, will have to say something.

Today's pope is, after all, everyone's favorite pope. At present, Francis I is re-examining the way the church hierarchy looks at LGBT Catholics, divorced and remarried Catholics and so-called "artifical" contraception. This kinder and gentler pope has exhorted Catholics to respond more vigorously to the marginalized among us, and to look more closely at our (I'm Roman Catholic) obligations to be conscientious stewards of the environment. This more Catholic-in-the-pew-friendly pontiff even appears to be more dramatically rethinking celibacy for priests. (That he's doing so as a means of staving off the clear call to examine more openly the case for ordaining women, though disconcerting to Catholic feminists, detracts only somewhat from the dramatic nature of this examination.)

We have seen a great shift in this Vatican's tone. But what have we not seen?

We have not seen the shift fully extend to the women of the church.

And we will not see Pope Francis I come down on this Mueller, despite that he ought.

Let Catholics recognize, at the very least, that this cuddly pontiff supports these Inquisitions, which had the Vatican monitoring women in convents. Let Catholics in the pews not push away the truth that the Vatican is still trolling its women -- and that this campaign is conducted with the imprimatur of Pope Francis. Let Catholics be aware, as well, that it is women's ordination activists the inquisitors seek, who dwell, more often than not, in convents.

Our very cuddly pope may be taking a bold lead in some areas wherein reform and a change in tone are needed, but he has no interest at all in even opening the door to discussion of ordaining women, and every interest in cracking down on those bishops who would ordain them.

Perhaps because I follow Vatican news closely, I have found it difficult to share the enthusiasm many non-Catholics and Catholics alike have had for this new pope. I knew (and predicted) that the first order of business in 2013, when Joseph Ratzinger stepped down (in disgrace, I believe) would be to install an "anti-Ratzinger," who could forestall an official schism and arrest the exodus of Catholics leaving the church. Thus it went down.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was not long ago called The Holy Office of the Inquisition -- its prefect has long been the pope's enforcer. Pope Francis I, inherited the prefect who served under Ratzinger, the author of these words written with regard to LCWR honoree, author, theologian and (Sisters of Saint Joseph) Sister Elizabeth Johnson:

...It saddens me to learn that you have decided to give the Outstanding Leadership Award during this year's Assembly to a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian's writings. This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the Bishops as well...However, following the August Assembly, it will be the expectation of the Holy See that Archbishop Sartain have an active role in the discussion about invited speakers and honorees.

Not only does Gerhard Mueller condemn the choice to honor Sr. Johnson, he implies that the failure to comply in the matter of future selections of honorees might result in punishment.

Those who have taken note of the Roman Catholic hierarchy's expensive campaign to prevent Catholics and non-Catholics alike from enjoying equal marriage rights know that Peter J. Sartain, Archbishop of Seattle -- who lobbied against equal marriage rights legislation on his diocese's dime, and who really, REALLY wants to be promoted to cardinal -- continues to take an active role in the nun-busting sister-crackdown.

Catholics should listen closely to Pope Francis's response and take note if the pontiff chooses silence.

Sr. Simone Campbell and the Nuns on the Bus introduced the world at large to intellectual tradition of Roman Catholic nuns. (See "Gunning for the Nuns" for more on this.) But in so many ways the "new" rebel nun is not new at all. While working as a New York City archdiocesan teacher in the 1980s, I came to know many progressive nuns. They were as expansive as they were faithful, departing from doctrine only when they had to. It was from such reverent, reserved, well-educated, quietly activist sisters that I first learned how deep misogyny promulgated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in Christ's name, ran. And still runs.

In many ways, Roman Catholicism was radically early to recognize the worth of woman. So substantial was Jesus' departure from his original religious practice (which had men and women worshipping separately) that the vestige of female divinity it persists -- even in the canonical Gospels -- and through our Marian traditions, despite the Vatican's great efforts through the past 2,000 years, to eradicate and minimize it.

The synoptic gospels have women following Jesus, praying with men, standing at the foot of the cross when the men (among them the man the church considers the first pope) ran. Catherine of Sienna, Hildegarde, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux are doctors of the church. The most exalted fully human being in the Communion of Saints -- Mary, mother of Jesus -- is a woman.

The Gnostic Gospels provide us with a glimpse of the extraordinary lengths to which Catholic teaching, through the ages, went, as it sought to scrub the power of women from Catholic history and consciousness.

This new pope who has won the hearts of so many remains a steadfast enemy to any discussion at all of women's ordination, while claiming to wish to see women gain a greater role in leading the church. I think Pope Francis I has some Christ-splaining to do, and it will be interesting to see whether he voices even the slightest challenge to the CDF's most recent storming of the LCWR.