Bishops, Nuns and Righteousness

One of the criticisms regularly leveled at organized religion is that theological rigidity and ritual formalities inevitably crowd out human compassion and the thirst for justice.

Enter the Vatican, and its recent reprimand of American nuns for emphasizing issues of health care and social welfare over same-sex marriage  and contraception.

As (Catholic) Andrew Sullivan writes

I don’t think the bishops will either ever forgive the nuns for backing universal healthcare as the highest priority rather than the control of women’s contraception. Their witness to a balanced and sane Christianity put the cramped authoritarianism of Dolan et al in an unflattering light, and Dolan takes his orders from Rome. An example of the nuns’ alleged “doctrinal problems”:

In 2009, a woman arrived in the emergency room at St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix. She was twenty-seven years old, eleven weeks pregnant, and she was dying. Her heart was failing, and her doctors agreed that the only way to save her life was to end her pregnancy, and that her condition was too critical to move her to another, non-Catholic hospital. The member of the ethics committee who was on call was Sister Margaret McBride. She gave her approval, under the theory that termination of the pregnancy would be the result but not the purpose of the procedure. The woman, who had four small children, went home to them. When the Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix heard what happened, he excommunicated Sister Margaret on the spot. A Church that had been so protective of priests who deliberately hurt children—keeping them in its fold, sending them, as priests, to new assignments—couldn’t tolerate her. A spokesman for the diocese called her a party to “murder.”

The report criticizing the nuns noted in passing the good work they did with the poor and in running schools and hospitals, but focused upon what it called a “grave” doctrinal crisis. It said the sisters were promoting radical feminist themes and criticised US nuns for challenging the bishops, who it said were “the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”.

Those of us who are not Catholic may be forgiven for drawing some unflattering conclusions about the male hierarchy of the Church from this unseemly effort to chastise the American nuns. From the outside, at least, it looks like a sclerotic group of insiders intent upon keeping control of an institution in crisis, of diverting attention from its own serious problems. It also looks like a group of men defending their authority over women who are increasingly unwilling to take their marching orders from bishops far removed from the realities of daily parish life.

Every religious community, ultimately, must choose between the righteous and the self-righteous. The lines between them aren’t necessarily easy to determine; there are reasons humans develop traditions and rules, and those reasons are often very good ones. That said, when a controversy pits the compassionate against the imperious, it’s hard not to take sides.

I’m with the nuns.

And I have to say, I have a feeling the Bishops may live to regret picking this particular fight.


  1. You are absolutely right, Sheila. The bishops may come to learn that there are a lot more dearly beloved nuns than there are bishops. I recently had an exchange with a one of my old high school teachers, and asked how the matter was playing with the girls in the convent. I expressed my disappointment with the bishops’ stance, and she replied that many of the Sisters had a similar p.o.v. “The headline in the Trib this morning was ‘Bishops confront Obama.” she wrote, “but someone around here remarked that it should have been ‘Women Confront Bishops.'” There have already been communities who have separated themselves from the Vatican, for example the Benedictine Women of Madison and the Benedictines at Mt. Tabor, in Martin, Ky. These regroupings are a couple of years old, but I now wonder how many other communities will follow suit. Unlike individuals parishes, the land and buildings are generally owned by the Order, not the diocese. So keep the popcorn handy, this could get good.

  2. The lives of millions of people world-wide are governed by one old, out of touch man. No surprise that someone is finally speaking out for common sense and reality and no surprise that those people are women.

  3. Some of this is reminiscent of what former New York Times religion editor Kenneth Briggs describes in his 2006 book “Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns”. The fresh air that the Second Vatican Council temporarily unleashed convinced women in American religious orders that at last they would be treated equally and with dignity in the same manner as secular civil society does or at least should. Then when they took that seriously the male heiarchy got more than a little nervous about its own authority and the communities have never been the same. Do folks ever learn?

  4. My dad is Roman Catholic and he chose not to raise us in his religion. My grandfather was a UCC minister and my dad wanted his priest to assist in the marriage ceremony and the priest refused.

    When I read the article I was stunned my the lack of common sense…the same group that secretly moved priests who sexually and emotionally abused children. Moved them to places like Belleville, IL and people in the community knew this way before it hit the news… Ole boys network I guess, the sins of the man certainly don’t out weigh sins of the women.
    Thank you dad for not raising me under this doctrine…kudos to the Nuns for being brave.

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