If you haven’t listened to the interview that Terry Gross did on Fresh Air with Sister Pat Ferrell of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and her follow up with Bishop Leonard Blair from Toledo, you need to stop what you are doing right now and give them a listen. Gross does a fantastic job (as always) in asking the tough and necessary questions, and the answers that she elicits are both honest and extremely important to understanding the current controversies within the Catholic Church (including the current inquisition into American nuns for not hating gays and women enough).
As an outsider (whose family is about 4/5ths Catholic now), these interviews expose an obstinately self-defeating political ideology within the Catholic Patriarchy that I find fascinating. After listening to the Sister, as well as watching her colleagues from Women Religious on programs like the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, I wonder how the Vatican expects to survive in this country by attacking these women. In fact the attention that the Holy See has shined on this group has raised many questions, and none of them benefit the current strategy of the Vatican in any conceivable way.
First of all, how exactly does the Catholic Church expect to attract young converts to the religion or keep its current young adult congregants by acting in this manner? Adhering to a strict conservative ideology concerning one’s body and keeping it “pure” is almost pro-forma for modern organized religion. However placing this value as supreme in the church’s attention above feeding children, preventing the spread of AIDS, or even promoting a healthy sex life in a marriage is simply an issue of demographic suicide for the church at this point. Furthermore in a time when such immense economic suffering is happening across the country, does the church really believe that people are not going to notice the insanity of bejeweled and be-throned men telling others not to worry as much about the plight of the poor?
This leads into a second puzzling issue for the church. When nuns are the only force in American Catholic life over the past thirty years that have consistently fought for an end to the death penalty, have taking bullets in the developing world to help the poor, and are continuing to educate children throughout the world, why the fuck are you going to go after them for abortion and contraception? Many people might are stupid enough to thinking that abortion or contraception are a “serious” problems for the preservation of the culture of life. However using the well fed male representatives of the Holy See to harp nuns on this one issue just reinforces the idea that this focus on abortion is about controlling sex habits of women rather than any principled stand about preserving human rights.
The abortion issue specifically becomes even more troubling in this context, particularly when the Bishop in the Fresh Air interview attempts to distinguish political values from those of “faith”. It is frankly hillarious to claim that the church is not a political organization while at the same time engaging in a wholly political debate on this one issue, especially when recent history so visibly illustrates the progression of this political strategy. First the bishops object vigorously to abortion above any other issue that might concern the Catholic Faith (starting right after Roe v. Wade). The direct consequence of this strategy then resulted in an increase of power for the Republican Party leadership who is more than thankful for the Catholic money and votes. This bond between the GOP elite and the Catholic Hierarchy in the last thirty years then manifested itself in lax legal regulation of the Church in this country (which didn’t work out so well for many an alter boy), and also bought the silence of the Bishops as the GOP has gutted the social safety net.
So at the end of the day we are still left with the question as to why the Bishops have decided to make an issue with the nuns. These women are virtually powerless to change the church, and their efforts no matter how nobel (or popular) are completely ineffective compared to the high-level lobbying done between the Bishops and the Republican Party elite. Furthermore this attack from the Vatican has done nothing but help expose the Bishops as the retrograde fascists that they always have been (a fact that is always best left obscured when utilizing the politics of resentment to keep the voices of women and gays within the church from being heard).
If this is a fight that the church wants, they will probably win in the short term. The nuns will be forced to adopt the political desires of the Vatican (or they will do what everyone else does and become an Episcopalian). However this win will come at the expense of their long term legitimacy of the Catholic Church as a organization of faith, as even this country is increasingly wary of their bullshit.