Friday, April 20, 2012

The Nuns' Story Plays On

I was at a funeral the other morning where I heard a story that explained why the deceased was not the most devout of Catholics.  When the 87 year-old deceased was in the first grade at the Polish Parish in Jersey City (80 years ago) the nun slapped her twin brother across the face for some offence.  The seven-year old twin then slapped the nun across the face.  He was expelled for this.  (He’s lucky, when I was his age I had always had thought you were struck dead for something like that.)  The pastor called in his parents.   They were poor folk, immigrants from Poland.  The step-father (the father had died some years before) was a barkeep; the mother stayed at home with her four children but took in laundry to make a few dollars.  The pastor said that for a healthy contribution he would let bygones be bygones, all would be forgotten and the boy could return to school.  The mother reached into her pocketbook, pulled out a roll of bills, put them on the desk in front of the pastor.  Then she stood up, looked him in the eye, and said “Thank you, but public school will be just fine for my children.” She turned and walked out, leaving the money on the desk.  The pastor kept the money.   I had thought, hoped perhaps, that this paternalistic Church where Father was always right and the people were expected to put up with injustices at the whim of the clergy—and be grateful for the opportunity to put up with it—was finished with the Second Vatican Council.  Apparently not.  
     I made a mistake in my entry yesterday about the nuns.  I should have caught it but I was working off news reports and took them at their word.  My bad.  This latest blast from Rome had nothing to do with the Vatican Investigation and Mother Mary Clare Millea’s report.  I had said, and correctly so, that this reaction from Rome had been written before the report of the Apostolic Visitation was even submitted.  It turns out that it wasn’t a reaction from the report on the Visitation at all.  If it were it would have come from Cardinal Braz de Aviz, the Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life, but it came from Cardinal Levada and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  On what then did Cardinal Levada base his decree?   The CDF had for several years been gathering information about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—speakers at their programs, materials distributed at their programs,  programs of worship services, etc.  They were frightened.  The sisters were opting for prayer services led by Sister-members rather than formal liturgies conducted by priest-visitors.  Theologians were speaking to them of wider visions of Church than the Institutional and hierarchical structures.  Topics that Rome did not want brought up—topics such as women’s ordination or morality of same-sex relationships were being discussed.  The Sisters were formulating ideas and opinions for themselves, independently of hierarchical leadership.  This was a threat to patriarchy.  Or rather, that women are educated and intelligent and capable of discussing complex theological issues without the conversation being guided by men whose qualification is a pectoral cross, is a threat to patriarchy. 
      I have to admit, I had not thought of the Church as an overly patriarchal organization until yesterday and I am troubled by it.  This isn’t to say that I was naïve or closed my eyes to things. Patriarchal, of course the Church is patriarchal.  Hell, everything in our culture is patriarchal to some extent.  It is how western society is structured.  I point out to my students, monasteries of nuns are governed by an Abbess.  An Abbess is not a mother, she is a female father.  Abbess is the feminine form of the “Abba,” the father.  This isn’t unique to the Church.   Isabella (of Ferdinand and Isabella fame) was King of Castile—a female King.  In fact, Elizabeth II in England is legally male.  In her role as monarch, in her Body Political, she exercises male prerogatives.  (Read Ernest Kantorowicz’s book The King’s Two Bodies to understand the difference between the Body Politic and the Body Personal.  This applies in the history of law not only to monarchs but other officials—including Bishops—who have a public persona attached to an office and a personal persona of their own identity.  It is where we get the idea that one must respect the office even if one does not respect the man.  Oopps, there again—see how patriarchy is just built into our way of thinking). 
       Well, pardon that digression but as I was saying I had not thought of the Church as being exceptionally patriarchal, that is more patriarchal than most other institutions in our society, until I read Cardinal Levada’s decree on the LCWR.  Wow.  Why can’t he just sit down with the ladies and iron this out—dialogue wise.  Oh, I forgot, dialogue presumes and equality of partners and there is no equality of partners here.  And so we are back to the basic models of pastors who can bully their flocks and think their flocks should be grateful to them for the abuse.  Maybe LCWR should just go over, plunk a roll of bills on the Cardinal’s desk and announce to him that they really don’t need his CDF and walk out with their pride—and integrity—intact.    
      In the end Cardinal Levada’s response reminds me of the play A Man for All Seasons.  When ol’ Henry VIII can’t find the evidence to convict Thomas More, he brings in a ringer to give false testimony to justify the Saint’s beheading. And when Mother Mary Clare came back with her report that despite a few problems, the American Sisters were in pretty good shape, Levada had to trump up some charges to justify lowering the ax.  But at the end of the day, I just wonder why the boys in Rome are so frightened of 55,000 female American septuagenarians.  It must have something to do with their relationships with their mothers—but then, hey, isn’t that what celibacy is all about?   Dear God, can’t You give us some healthy people—even if they are men—for leadership?  At least until we are ready to trust women with leadership?  Well things are backing up.  I still want to do one more entry on the American Sisters and the historical context of this current conflict, and I just heard that the Bishop of Peoria made an ass of himself in the pulpit comparing the President to Hitler and Stalin.  Dear Lord, slow down the making of history so we can go back to the sixteenth century when the Cardinals were too busy poisoning one another to worry about the nuns. 

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