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In Praise Of Courageous Nuns Facing The Vatican Crackdown

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Sister Joan Chittister
Sister Joan Chittister

It has been a rough spring for American nuns. They've been thinking unapproved thoughts and talking out of turn -- and the male hierarchy of the church is not happy.

And they are doing something about it.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog group, has accused the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) of promoting 'radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,' and appointed a Bishop to oversee the nuns, rewrite its statutes, review all plans, approve speakers, and watch over the nun's prayers and rituals.

The most recent attack came today on Sister Margaret Farley, a theologian who taught at Yale Divinity and author of the book 'Just Love,' which the Vatican claims poses 'grave harm' to Catholics.

Not surprisingly, the nuns aren't thrilled with these efforts to 'reform' them and accused the Vatican of making 'unsubstantiated accusations' at the LCWR's recent executive meeting in Washington D.C.

The Vatican crackdown on the nuns has been difficult to watch. What are we who stand outside of the Catholic church to make of this public struggle and why should we care?

I grew up Protestant in the Midwest. While I had a lot of friends who were Catholics, we didn't talk too much about religion and I never really thought too much about the Catholic tradition.

As a religion major in college I read Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and developed a fascination with the life of St. Francis. Like many Protestants, I found these and other Catholics inspiring, but my relationship with them was not personal.

Surprisingly, that changed in seminary. I went to Union Theological Seminaryin New York City, which held a distinguished place in American Protestant history with theologians such as Niebuhr, Tillich and Cone.

So it was with some surprise that I discovered that close to 30% of the students and faculty were Catholic, and the most immediately inspirational for me were the nuns such as Dr. Mary Boys who teaches practical theology; and Dr. Janet Walton, who teaches Worship and Art and who supervised my thesis.

At graduation I attended a gathering held by the Catholic women at Union that celebrated their accomplishments and consecrated their ministries, which might never be recognized by the Catholic Church. In passing, one of my classmates who had been a great friend to me, offered an informal invitation to be an honorary Catholic woman, a gesture and title that I cherish to this day.

These Catholic women, both students and faculty, formed me at Union with their liturgical literacy, concern for justice, compassion and deep faith. So it is with a sense of growing distress and outrage that I have watched them be silenced and demeaned.

Perhaps my greatest Catholic mentor is Sister Joan Chittister. I had admired her writing and spiritual practice for years before I met her. For the last several years I have had a chance to make her acquaintance and work alongside her. A couple of years ago we were having dinner when she said she thought of me as her spiritual 'little brother,' and I have been thrilled to think of her as wiser spiritual sibling as I sojourn in faith.

I recently called Sister Joan to check in with her.

So what is this all about Sister Joan?

"Well it is a hostile take over, there's no doubt about that. They're 'cleaning up the church' -- everything but themselves."

One of the speculations is that the crackdown has its roots in the nun's support for President Obama's health care bill.

I don't know about that for sure, but it seems like it may have been a turning point. It [the nun's position] was a model of thinking Catholic, thinking through this thing and coming up with another approach. There are other ways to impact the issue you care about.

Part of it, whether they know it or not, is a strong demonstration of the whole male/female aspect of every question. Sit down and shut up. Daddy knows best. We will tell you what to think, we will tell you what to do -- what would a woman know?

How are the Sisters are holding up?

There is prayer and fasting going on for the sake of the LCWA officers. We want to give them all the support we can. The sisters are mightily concerned, but they know there is no substance to these accusations. For instance, to talk about radical feminism when you don't have a clue as to what it is -- it is very embarrassing. Because the people who do know what it is sit back and say What?. It's bizarre.

There is a serious power play going on. It seems like they could take over.

Yes. Theoretically they can do it. If you were ranking the departments of the Curia, the CDF would be the ultimate department -- from which there is no official appeal.

No doubt that it is serious, but it's also putting people in a corner that nobody should. And not these people [in CDF]. And the lay people know that. If there is integrity left in this church it is in the people who are ministry on the streets.

Which are the nuns.

Yes.

Say this plays out -- do you ever think about leaving the church?

I don't seek to do that, I'm a Catholic, born and bred, I have learned that the tradition and the institution have often been at odds in the history of the Catholic Church.

The church has always converted slowly. The last time their sins were pointed out it took them 400 years to say that Martin Luther was right and that they shouldn't have been selling relics and that maybe people could read the scriptures in their own language and read the word of Jesus themselves.

It was the same thing. 'We tell you what to think about scriptures, because you will destroy the sacred word. You won't understand it. You'll destroy it.' We got through that. God willing we will get through this.

My fear is not the people who organize to leave the church, it is the amount of disillusionment and depression that is out there because of the church itself.

Everybody talks about how the Pope wants a smaller, purer church. Well, they talked about that in the 16th century. And they got it -- they lost half of Europe. Now they are losing Ireland, Austria, the American church is teetering. You have people who love their faith but cannot support these acts by the institution.

What happened to Vatican II?

Good question, somebody hijacked it when we weren't looking. Maybe this is the moment that we all decide what happened to Vatican II. Clearly there is an element of the institution that wants Vatican II destroyed, eliminated. That's because it makes the whole church, the church. For the very first time in history, Vatican II made being laity a vocation, and the laity have taken that seriously. So they are standing up in the streets to say what the church needs to study and make a decision

It's tricky, I'm a Protestant writing about this because I feel so strongly about supporting my mentors, but many will criticize me because I am not Catholic.

We are all Christians in this together, what happens to this church does affect you as a Christian. It will affect the way others see Christians around the world. We are not in this alone The laity are being very clear about that, not just because they have loved Sisters or see the work they are doing, because they know that this is damaging the church.

The whole notion that you would suppress thought and call that Catholic, call that Christian, call that a witness to adult ministry in an adult world is impossible to compute. Write this as a Christian. Don't absent yourself here, I need you.

Well, a lot of us are concerned and not sure what to do when someone holds all the trump cards.

Oh, there is no doubt about it; people may be destroyed here. And there may be people who want them destroyed. They either want thinking adults in the church who bring their own experience of the Holy Spirit to every question -- with great respect for the institution, ironically, or they don't.

I assume you saw the critique on Sister Margaret Fawley's book?

Oh, I can't tell you what that did to me. But that woman is so bright, and so precise. Her responses are superb; she said: "I never said I was producing Catholic doctrine. I'm a theologian, thinking through these issues. "

When you want to make all your thinkers parrots, puppets, don't talk to me about your respect for the Holy Spirit.