Bishops vs. Nuns: Who Spoke for the Catholic Church in 2010?


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In his opening talk at the November 2010 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, outgoing President Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago said that the Catholic debate over health care reform, in which nuns opposed the bishops, had caused “wounds to the church’s unity,” while raising the question of “who speaks for the Catholic Church.” Only the bishops, he said, “speak for the Church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them.” Everything else is just “opinion.”

But what is the unity that was supposedly injured? The unity of the Mystical Body of Christ is presumably not what George had in mind. He seems to be referring to a perceived unity of Catholic opinion in which the bishops and they alone speak for the Catholic Church. Their pronouncements define the truth, even when they speak from ignorance.

Health care is a subject most bishops do not really understand (any more than they really understand issues of gender and sexuality). Many women religious, however, have considerable experience and expertise in this area. Shouldn’t the Catholic truth(s) about health care have been sought in consultation with them?

The real issue may not have been what the religious sisters had to say, but their lack of deference to the institutional hierarchy.

Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM has written in the National Catholic Reporter that women religious have a prophetic vocation. Prophets, as she explains it, reserve unconditional obedience to God alone; even when that puts them into conflict with secular and religious authorities. They may consult many sources when formulating their truths, but they ultimately place God’s logic above human dictates.

They are typically quite orthodox.

The charge that religious sisters were somehow “pro-abortion” in supporting and offering constructive amendments to proposed health care legislation was completely off base, and probably disingenuous.

Choosing Life

The same charge was levied against Sr. Margaret McBride of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix when, as a member of the hospital’s ethics committee, she gave her consent to a theraputic abortion for a 27-year-old mother of four. As a result, Bishop Thomas Olmstead declared an “automatic” excommunication for McBride, and just recently succeeded in forcing St. Joseph’s to renounce its Catholic affiliation. The black-and-white thinking of Bp. Olmstead says that abortion is an evil, and that a Catholic hospital should thus never perform one. McBride is somehow “pro-abortion” because she found the strength to choose life (the life of the mother) in a situation in which the authorized, unyielding opinion of the institutional church was an inadequate guide.

The Pope said this year that the use of condoms by a male prostitute to prevent the spread of disease is, if not moral, a step on the road to morality. The ensuing ruckus required the Vatican to issue several clarifications, reminding all of us that the Catholic rules are still black-and-white, and the use of condoms is still wrong. Once again, the authorized opinion of the institutional Church can be an outdated, inadequate guide—especially when it comes to issues that the Church’s theoretically-celibate ruling caste does not really understand because they lack the wisdom born of mature experience.

Nuns may not always have the expertise the bishops lack, but they do have the hearts of the people, and the vast wisdom accumulated through their work in schools, hospitals, clinics, and shelters. While the bishops busy themselves with governing the institution, and “managing” the sex abuse crisis, nuns save lives and, arguably—in a time of scandal—the reputation of the church itself.

Bishops as Bullies

Around the time of the bishops’ conference, the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), which represents some 500 women religious, issued “Oppose Bullying, Not Marriage Equality,” a statement that blasts the bishops for their pastoral insensitivity:

On behalf of GLBT Catholics, their families and friends, and thoughtful Catholics across the United States, the National Coalition of American Nuns is appalled at the lack of sensitivity of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to lesbian and gay persons.

More than a month has gone by since the media broke the news about a series of gay suicides. During that time, the US Catholic Bishops failed to make a single statement regarding these tragic, preventable deaths. Not one bishop’s voice was raised to condemn a culture where youths are bullied for being who God created them to be and are sometimes pushed by society’s judgments to attempt suicide. Many people have accused certain segments of organized religion, including the Catholic hierarchy, of fueling these attacks and contributing to suicides.

The annual meeting in Baltimore of the US Catholic Bishops offered an opportunity to decry these horrendous events. Instead, the bishops chose to discuss “the defense of marriage,” their well-funded attack on same-gender couples. They fail to see that the Catholic community is embarrassed by their silence in the face of brutality and incensed by their push of a political agenda against marriage equality—all at a time when their credibility on sexual matters is at a record low.

The bishops have not learned from the Minnesota experience, where Catholics returned the anti-gay DVD’s the hierarchy sent to each household in the state. The anger of Minnesota Catholics is erupting all across our country. Faithful Catholics believe their bishops should be preaching a message of concern and understanding, instead of rejection and hate.

The National Coalition of American Nuns calls on all US Catholics to rise up and say, “Enough, enough! No more discriminatory rhetoric and repressive measures from men who lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and do not lift one finger of human kindness and compassion. We all need to work for a holy and just society and church.”

Once again, the position of the nuns as evidenced here is quite orthodox. They do not challenge Church teaching against “homosexual acts.” Rather they call the bishops to fulfill their pastoral responsibilities by opposing bullying, and halting their hurtful activism. Indeed, Ratzinger’s infamous “Halloween Letter” from 1986 (usually read as an anti-gay document) states:

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action, and in law.

Ironically, by remaining silent on the issue of bullying, and by undertaking an extensive nationwide campaign against marriage equality—a basic civil rights issue that has little or nothing to do with religious definitions—the bishops have themselves not only failed to live up to their obligation to protect the vulnerable, but have in some sense become bullies. This accounts for the indignant, accusatory tone of the nuns’ last paragraph.

As to who speaks for God, it is impossible to say with objective certainty. Nuns and bishops alike are committed to a logocentric tradition in which the divine Word plays an indispensable role in salvation. This notion is enshrined in Trinitarian doctrine, which places the Logos at the center of the Christian concept of God. Divine actions, it is believed, begin with the Father, are carried out through the Logos, and find their completion in the Holy Spirit. Clinging to the Logos (in a patristic usage), bishops see themselves as transformed by, and transmitting the saving truths of Jesus Christ. In that sense, they speak for God.

The nuns may also see themselves as speaking for God. Many would embrace Sr. Schneider’s definition of religious life as a “prophetic life-form.” Others might see themselves simply as persons created in the reasonable image and likeness of God, persons who read for themselves, think for themselves, work, pray, attend mass and come to their own conclusions. They, too, cling to the Logos (or Sophia).

Sister Mary McBride and Cardinal Francis E. George

Sister Mary McBride and Cardinal Francis E. George

Because the bishops claim to have exclusive possession of the measuring stick of orthodoxy (Rule of Truth), nuns are less likely than bishops to make doctrinal statements. That being said, nuns are quite devout and typically orthodox. The US nuns are not “bad Catholics,” as the Vatican implied with its notorious apostolic inquiries. The real issue is their criticism of the bishops, and their commitment to the principles of Vatican II. In a letter regarding women’s ordination, NCAN stated, “This teaching cannot be infallible because the teaching is unjust and, therefore, in error.”

Clearly for these religious sisters, the Word of justice/love supersedes the dictates of the Church.

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  • nancyk

    Great reporting Eugene

    I think the Catholic church just reflects the wider community; men want to fight and women want to fix.

    Congratulations to the wonderful women who speak up for compassion!!!

    Nancy Kennedy