Gunning for Nuns, Part 2: The Nuns Respond

08/15/2012 06:36 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2012

About three months ago I was chatting with a New York City nun after mass about the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) crackdown on nuns. "It will backfire," Sister said. "The LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) won't back down," she chuckled.

Sister was laughing not because the situation was funny -- earlier in our conversation she had spoken of how hurt members of her "community" were -- but because the siege was absurd. The Vatican had nothing to gain by staging a tantrum and humiliating the nuns. Like a cool-headed mom managing a child demanding candy in the supermarket checkout line, the LCWR waited for the histrionics to pass, and yesterday a statement was released and Sister Pat Farrell the outgoing president of the LWCR commented, and left off with this eloquent, back-handed and not at all veiled (so to speak) insult: ""They can crush a few flowers, but they cannot hold back the springtime."

Sister Pat Farrell explained that she had learned this saying while working in Chile under a dictator. One need not examine the analogy all that closely in order to see that the crushed flowers are nuns; the springtime is the evolving, Christ-centered church; and that the Holy Father and his armies, for the purposes of this analogy would seem to be mass-murdering Chilean despot Augosto Pinochet and his armies. I have heard it said that Roman Catholic priest and peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a (Vietnam) Purple Heart, women's ordination advocate and founder of SOA Watch, claims his experience with dictators prepared him to contend with the Vatican (which has, within the past year, sought to defrock him). It would seem Sister Pat Farrell learned a thing or two, also, from a tyrant during her time as church worker in Chile. (Pinochet is not a SOA graduate but many of his intelligence agents were.)

Nine hundred representatives of the LCWR approved of public response issued on Aug. 10, in which the LCWR resolves to enter a dialogue with the Seattle's Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, who has been appointed to serve as their "minder"; push for equality in the church; and work to achieve an environment more hospitable to the discussion of differences. Farrell notes the LCWR's refusal to "compromise" on their "mission" -- and adds that the "dialogue on doctrine is not going to be our starting point" -- which really means: "Both the women and the men will set the agenda." On the face, the LCWR appears willing to play nice, but the Vatican may be more interested in monologue than dialogue. There are many reasons for the sisters to take the high road, not the least of which is that the nuns are more interested in peace than in domination.

And there are practical reasons. Ratzinger signs the payroll checks.

There is a curious "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" aspect to this conflict. The men (Vatican et al) want the women to do and say what they are told or, failing that, just keep silent. The women have been saying all along: "Let's discuss doctrine as it applies to contraception, sexuality, and 'right to life' issues beyond abortion." It is a bit ironic that both the accusations and the punishment in this conflict could center on dialogue, given that what landed the witches in the pontiff's caldron in the first place was the refusal of nuns to pipe down. The crime was talk. The penalty? Talk.

William Levada, an American cardinal in Rome who up until recently headed up the CDF, has warned that the Vatican might "withdraw official recognition" from orders that fail to act in compliance with CDF mandates. While "official recognition" by the current pontificate probably means little to many LCWR nuns, the withdrawal of it would be catastrophic for those within and outside of the LCWR. "Withdrawal of recognition" could result in nuns losing jobs ministering to the poorest of the poor, neediest of the needy and sickest of the sick. Nuns under such punishment could lose their homes, health care and retirement benefits. Withdrawing "official recognition" would cost the Vatican, too. Nuns work cheap. The effects on Catholic hospitals and schools would be catastrophic. The last thing the scandal-ridden Vatican needs now is to be forced to root around India and sub-Saharan Africa in haste searching for nuns who know how to behave.

The smart move for Ratzinger now would be to back off. He won't. The "Apostolic Visitations" now will be seen as a vigilance-developing wakeup call. If the CDF is right, and convents are secret think tanks for women's ordination, radical feminist politics and liberation theology, progressive nuns will continue doing what they have been doing -- but under deeper cover. That is what activists do. Bullies get their motors running. Dictatorial muscle unleashes the beast.

The CDF may have done the LCWR a favor this past spring, when it hurled its "finest" (nuns) under the bus. Every nun who was disgusted with the Apostolic Visitations is now on high alert thanks to the CDF's Captain Queegish smack-down.

Read "Gunning for Nuns, Part 2: The Nuns Respond" it its entirety on Indie Theology.