The Vatican has launched a crackdown on the umbrella group that represents most of America's 55,000 Catholic nuns, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women's ordination.
This isn't the result of the "apostolic visitation" I wrote about earlier, but the findings of a separate Vatican inquiry (PDF) into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group representing the vast majority of American nuns. Even so, it gives us a good idea of what Rome thinks about the activities of its nuns. And although I was expecting something like this, the bluntness of its tone surprised even me. In effect, it says that American nuns are spending too much time fighting poverty and injustice and not enough time denouncing abortion and gay marriage. It also says they're showing too much independent thought on the issue of ordaining women:
[The LCWR] is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance in the life of the Church and society, such as the Church's Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.
And in even more Glenn Beck-esque language:
The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on "patriarchy" distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church...
In other words: "Catholic women, know your place and do as you're told. We men are in charge because God said so."
The "reform" commanded by the Vatican entails installing Peter Sartain, an archbishop known for his anti-gay views, as a doctrinal overseer of the LCWR. Observers expect he'll dictate revisions in the group's statutes, require proposed speaker lists at their conferences to get his approval, and take whatever other measures are necessary to squelch those disturbing currents of independent thought and open debate. (Note: I owe this and most of the other links in this post to Mary Johnson, who's been a fount of information on this story.)
As I said on Twitter, it seems as if the Vatican is actively trying to ignite a civil war within the church - although I'm sure they don't see it that way. The Pope is deeply sunk in the medieval mindset that he's a monarch sitting on a throne, and that the Catholic world will bow down at the crook of his finger. But he may be about to find that those Enlightenment ideals his predecessors furiously denounced - freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, free inquiry, tolerance, diversity - have spread a bit further than he thinks. I have no doubt that this will dramatically accelerate the already pronounced decline of American nuns, and I wouldn't be surprised if some orders decided to break with the Vatican entirely. There may soon be secessions, excommunications, legal fights over the ownership of church property, and maybe even some new theses nailed to cathedral doors.
It's sad to see some of the few real progressives left in the religious world being silenced, but for atheists, it presents no dilemma. We have no influence on the workings of the church. We can only point out what is happening, which is that the leadership is moving farther and farther to the right and is determined to exclude anyone who isn't willing to march in lockstep.
With that in mind, our counterstrategy should be clear: "Come out of her, my people." If you're a liberal or a progressive Catholic, the church is sending a message loud and clear that it doesn't need or want you. But you have an alternative! If you care about social justice, Catholicism is no longer the place for you, and you can do more good outside the church than you can staying inside the fold and beating your head against the brick wall of the Vatican. There's a thriving freethought community that's ready to receive all who have the desire to do good for humanity. If you have the courage to step out of the gloom of the cathedral and into the sunlight outside, come and find us.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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