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.