Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bullying the nuns (cont'd): E. J. Dionne Jr.'s faith in Catholic ideals is touching -- it's just too bad his church has such contempt for them


A remembrance of Pope John XXIII in Porto Viro,
in the Italian province of Rovigo (in the Veneto)

"Roncalli's selection was a surprise to all, most particularly to Roncalli, who arrived in Rome with a return train ticket to Venice and who hoped for a short conclave so that he could return home."
-- Wikipedia, on the October 1958 elevation of Angelo Cardinal
Roncalli (1881-1963), patriarch of Venice, then nearly 77

"John XXIII's personal warmth, good humour and kindness entirely captured the world's affections."
-- from the Wikipedia article on Pope John XXIII

by Ken

Let me make clear at the outset that I am not a Catholic and so have no standing to interfere in internal matters of faith. But given the numbers of the Roman Catholic faithful over which the "papal monarchs," as Garry Wills has called them, exercise such dictatorial control, the way the Church conducts its affairs (oops, bad choice of words?) is of basic concern to all of us.

I was fascinated and even touched, though also more than a bit annoyed, by Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr.'s declaration of continued faith in the Church, in a column earlier this week, "I'm not quitting the church," his response to a recent full-page ad in his own newspaper run by the Freedrom from Religion Foundatio (FFRF) imploring "'liberal' and 'nominal' Catholics" to quit the Church.
I'm sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. It may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can't ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.

And on women's rights, I take as my guide that early feminist Pope John XXIII. In Pacem in Terris, his encyclical issued in 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, Pope John spoke of women’s "natural dignity."

"Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument," he wrote, "they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons."


As regular readers know, I have yet to discover an upper limit for my admiration and respect for E.J. He's one of that select group of people I think of whose admirableness comes clearly not in spite of but in good part because of their religious faith. And when it comes to doing honor to their Roman Catholic faith, the writers I automatically think of are E.J. and Garry Wills, whose remarkable New York Review of Books blogpost "Bullying the Nuns," in which he stood up for American nuns under attack by the Vatican (its dirty work done by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' designated pit bull, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain), I reposted here recently.

The Wills piece, which can now be found in the new (June 7) NYRB, began:
The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops' thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don't. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.

I reread the piece when I plucked the new issue out of the mailbox, and it seems to me if anything more remarkable than it did orignally, and as always with Garry Wills, it defies -- no, positively mocks at -- the impulse to compress. It includes, among many other things, a stunning tribute to his seventh-grade teacher -- "Sister John Joseph when I met her, but she recovered her real name after the [Second Vatican] Council, and as Anne O’Connor congratulated me on anything I wrote," having "kept in touch with me for all the years until her death in 1996.
Anne O'Connor was just the kind of nun the Vatican is now intent on punishing. She had been a social worker before she became a nun, work that she loved and went back to several times as a Dominican. She was quick to shed the old habit (which was designed to disguise the fact that there was a woman somewhere in that voluminous disguising of hair, breasts, and hips), and quick to take back her own name. After she took on several high offices in her order, she became the mother provincial of the California branch of the Dominican order during the 1960s, coping with the changes of that volatile era on her college campuses.

Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in "the social Gospel" (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist). Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people-- which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens.

This is vintage Garry Wills, reminding us seemingly offhandedly that what the bishops are denouncing as "the social Gospel" is in fact the Gospel, whereas the things that now obsess the Church fathers and their bully-bishops, like abortion and contraception, have never had any place in the actual Gospel. Small wonder, then, that the Vatican --
stripped the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing most American nuns, of its powers of self-government, maintaining that its members have made statements that "disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals." Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has taken control of the Conference, writing new laws for it, supplanting its leadership, and banning "political" activity (which is what Rome calls social work). Women are not capable, in the Vatican's mind, of governing others or even themselves. Is it any wonder so many nuns have left the orders or avoided joining them? Who wants to be bullied?


It's hardly surprising to find E. J. Dionne Jr. responding not very differently to the Vatican assault on the nuns. "I'd like the FFRF to learn more about the good Pope John," he writes,
but I wish our current bishops would think more about him, too. I wonder if the bishops realize how some in their ranks have strengthened the hands of the church's adversaries (and disheartened many of the faithful) with public statements -- including that odious comparison of President Obama to Hitler by a Peoria prelate last month -- that threaten to shrink the church into a narrow, conservative sect.

Do the bishops notice how often those of us who regularly defend the church turn to the work of nuns on behalf of charity and justice to prove Catholicism's detractors wrong? Why in the world would the Vatican, apparently pushed by right-wing American bishops, think it was a good idea to condemn the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main organization of nuns in the United States?

The Vatican's statement, issued last month, seemed to be the revenge of conservative bishops against the many nuns who broke with the hierarchy and supported health-care reform in 2010. The nuns insisted, correctly, that the health-care law did not fund abortion. This didn't sit well with men unaccustomed to being contradicted, and the Vatican took the LCWR to task for statements that "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops."

Oh yes, and the nuns are also scolded for talking a great deal about social justice and not enough about abortion (as if the church doesn't talk enough about abortion already). But has it occurred to the bishops that less stridency might change more hearts and minds on this very difficult question?

As Wills noted in his piece, one of the crucial things "the papal monarchs" want to do is to obliterate the reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council, convened during the brief papacy of John XXIII. The Wikipedia article on him recalls a remark made to a friend by his eventual successor, the future Pope Paul VI: "This holy old boy doesn't realise what hornet's nest he's stirring up."

On the contrary, one suspects that stirring up that hornet's nest was precisely Pope John's intention. Much as I love that Wikipedia quote about Pope his "personal warmth, good humour and kindness entirely captur[ing] the world's affections," I think it's important to remember that he wasn't just a kindly old coot. He was animated by a profound, and profoundly humane, vision of the mission of the Church -- one that his successors by all indications loathe with every fiber of their beings.

One suspects that even Pope Paul VI, who presided over most of Vatican II and then its implementation, and thus wound up as an enabler of them, wished he could have gotten the hornets back in the nest. That task was left to a pair of hooligans who proved themselves well up to the task: the monstrous Pope John Paul II (whose genius for play-acting a fake humility that to foolish people recalled the genuine humility of John XXIII also fooled them into missing his deeply reactionary, poisoned soul) and the unmitigatedly loathsome Pope Cardinal Ratguts.


Garry Wills pointed in his piece to the current pope's zealous efforts to bring back into the Roman Catholic fold the gang of ragingly sociopath clerics who bolted in rebellion against the Vatican II reforms, notably the especially hard-core cases who, banded together as the Society of Pius X ("the Pius whose Secretariat of State had a monsignor (Umberto Benigni) who promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion"), under the spiritual leadership of dissident bishop Marcel Lefebvre. He notes that Pope Cardinal Ratguts "has already lifted the excommunication of four bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X, including that of Richard Williamson, who is a holocaust denier. Now a return of the whole body is being negotiated."
None of the anti-Semitic ties of the Pius X crew matter to Rome, since that crew holds to the hard line against women priests, gay marriage, and contraception. They have also retained the Latin Mass, which Rome has been inching back toward. All these things, you see, are the work solely of male hierarchs, distrustful of the People of God—who are the church, as defined by the Second Vatican Council. Those Lefebvre defiers of the Council are all the things the nuns are not, and all the things Rome wants to restore. The real Gospel must be quashed in the name of the pseudo-Gospel of papal monarchs. Poor Anne O’Connor -- she thought caring for the poor was what Jesus wanted. She did not live to see that what Rome wants is all that matters.

It's not that E. J. Dionne Jr. doesn't recognize that the current Church elders have turned their backs on the spirit and churchly practice of the brief cleansing and humanizing papacy of John XXIII.
Too many bishops seem in the grip of dark suspicions that our culture is moving at breakneck speed toward a demonic end. Pope John XXIII, by contrast, was more optimistic about the signs of the times.

"Distrustful souls see only darkness burdening the face of the earth," he once said. "We prefer instead to reaffirm all our confidence in our Savior who has not abandoned the world which he redeemed." The church best answers its critics when it remembers that its mission is to preach hope, not fear.

No, E.J. sees as clearly as Garry Wills "what Rome wants." He just chooses not to allow that to define his faith -- any more than Wills does. And every time either of these extraordinary writers writes about his faith, or more often writes inspired by his faith, I bet tremors run through the whole of the tightly knit R.C. hierarchy, all the way up to the highest reaches of the Vatican. Which is no small accomplishment, when you think about it.

Back by popular demand: I still think that when the U.S. bishops' designated hit man, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, plays dress-up, he feels ever so pretty.

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At 11:30 PM, Anonymous me said...

Everything the Catholic Church does - EVERY THING - is designed to increase the political power of the Catholic Church.

Personally, I am absolutely convinced that they would go back to burning people at the stake if they ever again get the political power they used to have.

At 4:23 PM, OpenID mike271828 said...

About going back to burning people at the stake: when I listen to Rick Santorum (which is the pretty much the same thing as listening to Opus Dei or the vile so-called "Legionaries of Christ"), I am in no doubt that it's a real possibility.

Of course, Santorum generally tries to sound sane, calm and plausible, even when he's saying insane things (for example, claiming that it's immoral for married couples to have sex, unless it's to make a baby). But then so, I'm sure, did the Inquisitors of the Holy Inquisition try to sound sane, calm and plausible, much of the time: "we hate to do it, but we have to torture them and burn them to death to save their immortal souls; and to save the faithful sheep from being misled". .


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