As a former (or as some say “recovering”) Catholic, I’ve been riveted by the public spat now occurring between Catholic nuns and the Vatican. The nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) have been accused of “radical feminism” and ordered to spend more time promoting the church’s pressing political initiatives of battling gay rights, abortion, and euthanasia. This, I assume, will leave less time for that trifling other stuff they do, such as serving the poor.
The nuns of the LCWR have responded with a resounding: “I’m sorry, what was that? I didn’t quite hear you because I was too busy FEEDING STARVING KIDS.”
Protesters have hit the streets across the country, carrying signs advising the Vatican to “clean up your house,” referring, I assume, to how it has handled (or failed to handle) numerous child sex abuse allegations against male clergy members, spanning many decades.
To the devout, publicly reprimanding the nuns for their perceived straying may seem like a great way to get the flock back in line with traditional church values. (Pope Benedict has often spoken about his desire to “prune” the congregation before expanding.)
To me, this just seems like really bad PR. As in, somewhere in Rome, there’s a marketing intern with a super bad headache and a ring tone set to “silent.”
Because it’s not just ideologies and snappy music that makes up a church, it’s the people. Or at least, shouldn’t it be? How the world sees the Catholic church is essential to its survival. Over the years, the nuns of the LCWR (who represent about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States) have transformed themselves from habit-wearing knuckle-crackers to selfless advocates for social justice. When I think about Pope Benedict and the boys, all I see is a big group of cronies — robed bald dudes with a crippling fear of change.
More than that, an obvious fear of women.
It’s not enough that women are denied the ability to become priests and administer to congregations in ways they are clearly capable of. Even in their subservient, zero-power roles as nuns, they must be called out publicly? Chastised like petulant middle-schoolers? (Ever heard of the inter-office memo, people?) Where has that passion for order and values been in relation to the thousands of child sex abuse allegations brought against Catholic priests in the last decade? Why aren’t the dudes in robes not more publicly pruning that troubled branch, so to speak?
Maybe the problem is that the Pope was never allowed to marry. Because if he was, he’d know that the wife (played in this scenario by the nun) is not just the cook or the maid. The wife is the goodwill ambassador, the gracious guest, and the one who apologizes for the husband when he gets too drunk and insults the boss’s wife at the office party.
“Well,” they say after he’s gone, “he’s kind of a dink, but his wife is a freaking saint.”
The women of the LCWR now have some tough choices to make about how they plan to proceed after their march to the principal’s office. Will they complete the separation they have already started, or repent and return to the fold?
Whatever they do will also send a very public message about their priorities — and about how women can expect to be treated by the churches they are trying to serve.
Caroline Burau is a freelance writer in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and author of Sugarfiend and Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat. You can also follow her on Twitter (@carolineburau) or www.carolineburau.com.