In 2009, the Roman Catholic church convened an "apostolic visitation" - a sort of modern-day auto-da-fe - a rare step taken when the Vatican feels that a church-affiliated institution has gone seriously astray. The church officials in charge of the investigation conducted interviews at almost 400 religious institutions throughout the U.S., and this month, they submitted their final report, whose contents as of now are still secret.
What is this pervasive evil within the church that the Vatican is so determined to combat? If you guessed "priests who rape children with the knowledge and complicity of their superiors", you're thinking like a normal, decent human being, which of course makes you wrong. No, the real subject of the report is something far worse: the Vatican is worried that its nuns are becoming too feminist!
As this earlier news report says, the all-male Catholic hierarchy is upset that American nuns aren't hewing sufficiently to the church line on teachings like gay rights and the restriction of the priesthood to men. Cardinal Franc Rode, who launched the apostolic visitation, said that they were displaying a worrisome "feminist spirit". And those concerns appear to be well-founded, given that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group representing liberal American nuns, is almost ten times larger than the conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Some orders have openly refused to cooperate with the inquisition.
I read all this in this editorial by Mary Johnson, who was a nun for 20 years working for Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity. As she explains, she left the convent because of its anti-intellectual, cultlike insistence on absolute obedience and subordination of thought:
In 1976, at age 19, I joined Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, a traditional community of nuns. Liberal American sisters in polyester didn't appeal to me; Mother Teresa's mission to the poorest did. I didn't realize the community would observe every Vatican decree as though it came directly from God.
I was told that the highest use of my intellect was its unquestioning surrender in obedience; my superiors would always tell me what God asked of me. Eventually, I came to see that the Missionaries of Charity's anti-intellectualism and rigid separation from the world stunted our work and each sister's development.
The background to this story is that the number of active nuns in the U.S. is plummeting, paralleling a similar decline in the priesthood. As Johnson says, the number of nuns in America today is approximately 50,000, which represents a 75% decline since 1965. The apostolic visitation was convened in part to figure out the cause of this problem, and even without knowing its findings, I have no doubt that the Vatican will conclude excessive liberalism is to blame. The most likely response is for them to order nuns to be quieter and to do less advocacy for social justice, but they could go so far as to close down particularly stubborn convents and seize or sell the property they own, including colleges and hospitals.
If the church does this, as I expect, it will be another classic example of being too close to the problem to see the solution. The story of American nuns resonates with the larger story of Catholicism in general, which is that ultraconservative elements are fully in command of the church and are moving it steadily farther to the right, alienating more liberal members. And there's every indication that this is a self-perpetuating cycle: as liberals and moderates head for the doors, only the most conservative Catholics are left, and they can then assume even more power. Even though they're more liberal than the priesthood, nuns are still subject to the decrees of the church hierarchy, and it's very likely that prospective members are turning away for the same reason, especially now that the church has made it clear it will never permit them to become priests. In a world where female equality is more and more the expectation, permanent second-class status is too bitter a pill to swallow.
But as I said, there's little or no chance of the Vatican changing course. The Catholic church wants its women silent and subservient, and they most likely believe that if they double down on that insistence, God will reward them for their faithfulness by making their demographic problems go away. (The church's absolute refusal to give up its archaic prejudices, even while the rest of the world advances morally, is one of the most potent weapons atheists have.) And to the nuns who genuinely want to serve the cause of social justice, I applaud that desire, but I have to ask: don't you think you could do good equally well outside the church, without the looming fear that the gilt-robed old men of Rome might order you to desist some day soon?
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