Well, the Vatican has done it again. The Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith recently gave American nuns a damn good scolding for not toeing the line. For those of you who may not be so familiar with some of the more arcane practices of the Catholic Church, a Prefect is a cardinal who heads up one of the main bureaucratic branches of what is called the Roman Curia, the principal administrative arm of the Catholic Church. The former Prefect of this particular branch was Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The current head is William Levada, former Archbishop of San Francisco, who is famously known for having said that Catholic theology does not recognize the right to dissent. This organization, by the way, used to be known back when I was a kid as the Holy Office. But before that, and up to the very beginning of the twentieth century, it had a name with a more distinctive ring. It was called the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. Now, does that sound familiar?
The beef that Cardinal Levada has with American nuns (also known as “religious”) is that he seems to think they’re guilty of deviating from Church teaching and promoting what is being called “radical feminist themes.” Really? Women who have dedicated their entire lives to teaching children, tending to the sick, caring for the poor, the dispossessed and the homeless, and generally helping those in need, are criticized for doing what many people think Christ, himself, came here to do? I mean, didn’t he? Or please raise your hand if you think that Christ came instead to run a bloated bureaucracy, or to mercilessly harangue people for leading so-called “immoral lives,” or in order to hide priests who spent years harassing children, so that the bishops might protect the property and the reputation of a rich, inflated and soulless administrative structure.
But just what exactly did these devious and obstructionist nuns in fact do to so bring down Cardinal Levada’s wrath on them? It seems as though Levada and company think that these American religious were not sufficiently fervent in their condemnation of women who choose to terminate a pregnancy, that’s sin number one, and the other unmentionable act is that they apparently were too lenient, too cozy with those horrible gay people, who want to marry each other.
Now, it almost does not matter what you think about either of these topics. I can imagine, for example, that good people might think that abortions ought not to take place, because they are utterly convinced that fetuses are living human beings. I don’t agree with them, but I can at least understand their point of view. The opposition to gay marriage thing, on the other hand, is a complete mystery to me. What in the world can anyone have against two people who love each other deciding to enter into a civil marriage? It is simply a complete falsehood that such a thing could ever, in any way, weaken heterosexual marriage. I’ve read a lot about this, and I have never yet found one credible argument that would serve to substantiate this claim. But I’m getting off track a little. We’re here to talk about Catholic nuns. Some will say the fact remains that, for better or for worse, both of these activities are against official teaching and that the Church condemns them. So, isn’t that enough? Isn’t it sufficient, and reasonable, that their bosses in Rome should have every right to come down on those who profess to be special status members of the organization, but who don’t jump on the band wagon with the same degree of enthusiasm as is required?
Well, I guess the answer to that is yes, IF you believe that the Church is a bureaucratic organization only. Personally, I do happen to believe that, and so I was not in the least surprised when I heard that the cardinal who runs the team that used to be called the Inquisition might come down in this way on a bunch of deviant and recalcitrant sisters. I mean, how dare these women get so uppity? Let’s face it, men are in charge of the Catholic Church. It’s always been that way, and from what I can see, it probably always will be. So, it was clearly time for these ladies to hear from the guys in charge and to feel a little bit of the lash of discipline.
But let’s take another tack, shall we? What if the Catholic Church were something different? What if it were actually some kind of spiritual organization, dedicated to love and to compassion and to helping people who need assistance getting through the tough times in life? What if it were a bunch of people who actually took Christ’s teaching seriously, and even lived by those teachings? What if it were made up of individuals who genuinely wanted to find some connection with the Divine, and to help people in need, and who didn’t much care who those people were, since everybody is a reflection of Christ and of the Divine Spirit?
I actually know some Catholics who are like that. Again, I’ll admit to being not so enamored of the Church, or of any organized religion, and would rather just do things on my own. But not everybody thinks like me. Lots of people want to belong to an organization that they feel helps them personally and that helps other people at the same time. These good friends I have belong to a parish in upstate New York, which does wonderful work reaching out to the homeless and helping to feed the poor. They even tell me there are gay couples who are members of the parish, and that they are accepted just as if they were regular humans like anyone else. These friends of mine have never had a problem with my being gay, and frankly I don’t know what they think about abortion. But the point really is that it doesn’t matter much, does it? They are doing something that they feel feeds their souls, and which also reaches out and helps people around them. And guess what! The local bishop is totally exasperated at them for doing this! He’s angry and annoyed that they don’t toe the line, and that they spend their time helping people, rather than condemning them. Hmm, now is this beginning to sound familiar?
It kind of sounds like what Cardinal Levada has to say about women religious, doesn’t it? It sounds like the big bloated bureaucracy speaking, the so-called magisterium, coming down hard on people who are trying to do the right thing. Personally, I really hope that the Catholic laity AND the nuns are furious at the hierarchy for missing so totally and so woefully what the whole point of the Church really ought to be. I gave up on the Church a long, long time ago, and so it’s longer capable of disappointing me. But some people haven’t. Some people need it, and still think highly of it; they even love it. These are the folks I feel sorry for. I feel for all the nuns and the laity, and maybe even a couple of priests here and there, who actually get what the Church is supposed to be about.
But they’d all better watch their p’s and q’s, these dissenters, these radical feminists, these true believers. Or the likes of Cardinal Levada will come down on them like the avenging angel. And after all, he’s got the power, he and the rest of the red-robed cardinals, and the pope himself. As I see it, in the end the Church actually does not trust anyone who really believes in Christ’s teachings, or who tries to live by them. He was, after all, a radical, a dissenter, a lover of the poor and the dispossessed. He came to help those in need, not to support the administrative status quo of the day. And look what happened to him. So, sister, it’s time to sit up and fly right, follow the leader, and get in line, or – God help you – who knows what will happen to you next!