NPR and the Nuns

The NPR site has a recent piece, “Nuns And The Vatican: A Clash Decades In Making”, that is informative in some ways, curious in others. One informative part is anecdotal and opens the piece:

When Harvard divinity professor Harvey Cox arranged to meet with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Vatican in 1988, a group of nuns thought he was wasting his time.

“I was chatting and having dinner with a number of Dominican sisters who were staying there for a 30-day retreat,” Cox says. “They were incredulous that I wanted to bother seeing Ratzinger. ‘Why do you want to do that?’ they asked. ‘Who pays any attention to him?’ ”

Even in 1988 there were at least two good reasons to pay attention to Cardinal Ratzinger: he was the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith and he was already rightly regarded by many as one of the finest Christian theologians of the second half of the twentieth century. But, then, you’d have to care about Church doctrine and theology to recognize those reasons.

One of the curious aspects of the piece is its heavy reliance on the experience and opinions of Cox, a liberal Protestant theologian and activist who is enamored with liberation theology. Not that Cox’s opinions aren’t interesting or even noteworthy, but it’s a bit like having Brian Boitano explain the fundamentals of playing defensive tackle in the NFL—sure, he’s an athlete, but it doesn’t add up. Not surprisingly, Cox interprets the situation as one of nuns being forced to knuckle under to the faceless power brokers in the Vatican:

Harvard’s Cox, who calls himself a “sympathetic outside observer” of the current drama, says the Vatican crackdown is likely to chafe for many nuns from orders that have long relished their independence.

“My guess is that the real worry here with the American sisters is that they are slipping out of the chain of command,” says Cox. “Rome gets very worried when the chain of command appears to be challenged, either overtly or covertly.” …

Cox, the divinity professor, says he doesn’t understand the Vatican’s approach given the way the clergy abuse scandal has played out.

“This is a bit humiliating and angering to have it played out in public this way,” he says.

“Why couldn’t they have done it much quieter? Why such a public thing over this?” Cox wonders. “They could have quietly met after they did their assessment of American nuns and found ways to counsel and negotiate with them.”

Is he referring to how Vatican officials have been giving interviews in the media, making public statements, and talking endlessly about the situation? Oh, wait—it has been women religious associated with the LCWR leadership, such as Sister Mary E. Hunt (“a feminist theologian, writer and activist”, quoted in the NPR piece) who are giving interviews and making public statements. Is Cox somehow privy to all of the communication and correspondence that has been going on for four decades between the LCWR leadership and various bishops and congregations? Does he not know that Church authorities have been seeking to “counsel and negotiate” with LCWR leadership for forty years without any success or progress? And what, exactly, does the clergy abuse scandal have to do with it? By that same sloppy logic, Cox shouldn’t be making any public statements about this matter since there have been plenty of Protestant clergy and university professors who have been guilty of sexual abuse and harrassment over the past fifty years. Do these people even listen to what they are saying?

But the most silly remarks—embarrassing, really—come from Fr. James Martin, S.J.:

Vatican II “asked them to respond to the needs of society,” says the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and culture editor for America magazine, a Catholic weekly.

But he says the changes ushered in nearly a half-century ago have largely fallen out of favor in Rome, and that has left many nuns caught in the middle.

“They have embraced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and they have thrown themselves into work for the poor and marginalized that other parts of the church wouldn’t go near,” says Martin, who refers to the nuns as “my heroes” and recently started the Twitter hashtag #WhatSistersMeantoMe.

“Many sisters I know are quite saddened, because many of the reforms that happened in the last 50 years were the result of their following the instructions of the Second Vatican Council,” he says.

If Fr. Martin is being quoted accurately, I’m saddened that an intelligent Jesuit priest could make such ridiculous comments. Does he mean to suggest that the reforms of the Council included denying the divinity and uniqueness of Christ, the nature and mission of the Church, the sanctity of marriage, the sinfulness of homosexual acts, and the proper role of Church authority? Because those are the main issues detailed in the CDF report (which can be accessed from this page)—and yet none of the documents of Vatican II ever encouraged or promoted such beliefs (I say so because I’ve actually read them. I assume Fr. Martin has as well).

Fr. Martin is, like so many others, not facing squarely the actual contents of the CDF document, the forty years of history leading up to it, and the very real and significant problems with the LCWR leadership. The constant talk of “nuns” and “sisters” is a smoke screen—after all, how many secular media stories have you seen in which women religious loyal to Church teaching and authority have been quoted or discussed sympathetically? Not many. The NPR piece does contain one such quote, the only quote in the entire piece from a source openly standing up for the Church:

Sister Donna Bethell, chairwoman of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., says the Vatican is simply fulfilling its responsibility to make sure the sisters reflect church doctrine.

“They’re expected not only not to contradict what the church teaches, which is one of the complaints, but also to be very active in … talking to people since more people see them than see bishops, talking to people about the fullness of the church’s teaching,” Bethell says.

Amen, Sister! But, of course, the NPR follows it up with a most dubious and misleading statement: “The Vatican oversight may hurt recruitment of U.S. nuns, whose numbers already have shrunk by two-thirds in the years since Vatican II, according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.” And yet those orders that are openly and joyfully Catholic are growing, some of them very rapidly, with an average age of 30-something, while sisters who are part of the LCWR are, on average, in their mid-70s. And their orders are, on the whole, dying out. As an example of the former, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (Ann Arbor, Michigan) were founded in 1997 with four Sisters and now has over 100 Sisters, with an average age of 28.

The fact is, the Church is trying to save wayward sisters who have lost their way and have, in many cases, caused scandal and confusion. Those who continue to denounce this essential and charitable work of the Church are either clueless, contrary, or worse.

(Minor edits were made to this post on May 4, 2012.) 

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.