Monday, April 20, 2009

Rome's Witch Hunt Against American Nuns: Women as Source of Vatican's Loss of Authority

When I first read about the recent Vatican announcement that there is to be a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States (here), I asked myself what sociological motives might lie behind this unprecedented attack on religious women in the U.S. I say “unprecedented” not because Rome cannot and does not investigate religious congregations, but because this is the second announcement in a matter of months that Rome has American religious women in its sights.

Last December, the Vatican congregation overseeing religious life announced an upcoming visitation of American religious women, to ascertain their “quality of life.” This latest announcement came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on 20 February, in a letter the officers of the LCWR received on 10 March. American nuns are now to be investigated on doctrinal grounds: are they upholding hard-line teaching about ordination (that is, hard-line teaching that ordination is to be forbidden to women) and homosexuality?

This is an unprecedented attack, then, because, to most of us observing the lives and activities of American nuns, nothing indicates the imperative need for not one but two investigations. American religious women are being used in some political game that transcends their own lives. Otherwise, there would not be the need to work up a case against this particular group of dedicated believers, at this particular time in history.

And as an aside, it bears noting that when a central investigating authority stages investigations of people or groups under its power, such an investigation always does constitute an attack. The very announcement that an investigation is underway is a form of an attack, an insinuation that something is there to be investigated. Powerful top-down systems of authority mount such investigations when they wish to give the signal that they are slapping down the person or group being investigated—and that this person or group is powerless to resist.

I have learned this lesson the hard way in academic life, when I was subjected on several occasions to “investigations” or “evaluations” that were all about consolidating the power of the big man/big woman on top. These “investigations” were always rigged. The person on top controlled them, feeding the “investigator” information, questions to ask, conclusions for his or her final report. There was no possibility at all to protest or to vindicate oneself, when the big woman/big man on top decided to mount such an investigation, since the point of the investigation was not to ascertain the truth about the one being investigated: it was to reinforce the power of the one on top.

As Colleen Kochvar-Baker points out in a thought-provoking commentary on the latest announcement (here), this attack on American nuns as possibly deficient both in the practice of religious life and in their doctrinal assertions is curious, to say the least, when the Legionaries of Christ, even after their founder was deposed following years of proven allegations that he abused seminarians in his community, are subject to only one investigation—and that reluctantly—and when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has never been investigated after it has come to light that a large majority of U.S. Catholic bishops have sheltered and re-assigned known sexual predators among the clergy. Colleen asks, “Why do American nuns merit two Vatican investigations when the Legion reluctantly only gets one, and the seminaries who cranked out all those abusers only got one?”

Why, indeed? Why this obsessive focus on refractory nuns now, when there have been almost no news stories in recent months about nuns attending women’s ordination ceremonies, or nuns speaking out publicly about the hot-button issues of ordination or homosexuality? Just nuns doing what they typically do: going about their ministries quietly, courageously, faithfully—teaching, healing the sick, caring for the indigent, praying, helping immigrants and street people and the elderly.

Nuns doing what they always do, suddenly in the sights of one of the most powerful religious juggernauts in the world, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: what’s going on here?

My first reaction, when I read about the doctrinal investigation, was to wonder on what grounds Rome is wagering it can score points by announcing a double investigation of American religious women in the absence of any strong indicators of serious problems to be investigated. There will inevitably be a very powerful sympathy factor at play in this investigation, one dangerous to the Vatican.

Women religious are aging. The women in religious congregations today have given their lives in service of the church. They have maintained schools across the United States, staffed the hospitals they have founded, operated and staffed nursing homes and countless other institutions serving the church and society in admirable, valuable ways. And they have done so without asking for anything. Many women’s communities today can barely make ends meet, as their members age and, in many cases, do not have access to social security benefits.

These are the new doctrinal bugbears of the Vatican’s CDF, these faithful and long-suffering women. These are the women who merit special attention from Rome, because of apparent lapses in how they are living their vows and in what they believe. It will be exceedingly difficult for Rome to paint its attack on these aging, devoted women who have been faithful to a fault as anything other than a witch hunt—to use the phrase highlighted by Joseph Leary in his blog’s summary of the Vatican initiative (here).

If the stakes are so high, why this witch hunt now, I have been asking myself? To me, the answer seems obvious—and lamentable. Women religious are being targeted because they are aging, and relatively powerless. And above all, because they are women.

Rome needs, quite simply, someone to bolster its power right now. Rome needs someone to bully, in order to demonstrate its power at a moment in which the Vatican has done just about everything possible in recent months to undermine its moral authority. Against the advice of many insightful advisors, Benedict chose to readmit the schismatic and anti-Semitic Society of St. Pius X to the Catholic church, without expecting that group to accept Vatican II as a precondition for readmission to communion. And when the Vatican made its announcement about this initiative, it noted that it timed the announcement to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the calling of Vatican II!

The reaction to the rehabilitation of SSPX—and how it was done—has been devastating in Catholic country after Catholic country. And the unilateral, anti-collegial appointment of a bishop for Linz, Austria—right-winger Gerhard Maria Wagner—on the heels of the SSPX initiative did not help matters, and caused the Vatican eventually to have to back down in this case. As the pope’s tone-deaf and counter-factual remark to reporters in mid-March questioning the efficacy of condoms in curbing the spread of AIDS also did not help . . . .

The church, in its institutional side, is clearly on the defensive. From an American standpoint (but one that also implicates Rome as well), the church’s unthinking alliance—in its institutional leadership side—with a single political party for decades now, and its unwillingness to accept and work with a new political majority, compounds the problems the church now faces. When a tiny, 106-year old American nun living in Rome endorses the president-to-be, calling him a “good man with a good private life,” at the very time in which powerful American bishops are suggesting that Mr. Obama is the incarnation of evil, things have clearly gotten out of hand (here), from Rome's viewpoint.

The men who rule us are losing moral authority. And they also appear to be losing what counts even more to them in the end: control. And they’re losing these weapons of the ruling elite rapidly, right before our very eyes.

It’s time for a witch hunt. It’s time to find some witches. I use Joseph O’Leary’s term here with full deliberation, because it’s a correct term. Read the discussion following the National Catholic Reporter’s story about the doctrinal investigation to which the first link above points, and you’ll see a troubling, surprising theme running through not a few postings. This is the claim that this particular witch hunt is necessary because, well, witches remain alive and well.

And they’re nuns. Those same elderly women who have worn themselves out teaching children, praying, tending to the sick, taking in orphans and the homeless.

The witch rhetoric is already running through what many Catholics of the far-right say about women in general and nuns in particular these days. And as Johann Hari’s article about the timeless allure of witch hunting at Slate’s website today reminds us (here), witch hunting—hunting, accusing, killing of women outrightly accused of witchcraft—is not even a thing of the past in some cultures in the world today. It’s still going on.

Hari notes that witch hunts break out particularly in times of trauma and stress. They are fueled by a deep sociological need of communities feeling out of control to find someone on whom to blame their problems—someone to scapegoat and sacrifice in order to reassert the illusion of control.

And those “someones” are almost always women, when it comes to witch-hunts. Hari notes the deep misogyny of Christian traditions about witches, which is strongly evident in the classic textbook for witch hunters, the 15th-century book Malleficus Maleficarum (Witches’ Hammer). As Hari notes, women are susceptible when powerful social groups seek a scapegoat in order to bolster the illusion of power of the men on top, because

Women are generally weaker than men. They are less able to defend themselves from braying mobs. They are easier to pin down and turn into a screaming, denying receptacle of evil. The mobs usually choose the weakest women of all—old women and little girls.

Are we correct to think that witch-hunting is a thing of the past today, a throwback to ancient prejudices that have disappeared from the enlightened Western world? Hari thinks not. As he notes, even a vice-presidential candidate in an American federal election—in this case, Sarah Palin—is apparently not immune to the suggestion that witches are still at work in the world. Hari notes that Palin has been prayed over for protection from witches by Kenyan pastor Thomas Muthee.

No doubt about it: Rome is involved in a good old-fashioned witch hunt with women religious. And the claim that women religious have not been faithful enough in assisting the men who rule us to disseminate homophobia is part and parcel of the dynamics of slander and subordination that are driving this particular witch hunt. Though the rules are made by men in the church, and though ordained men claim absolute authority to enforce those rules, women religious are now to be slapped around for not leading the charge against gays and lesbians?

This stinks. To heaven. The use of women and gays as scapegoats by a Vatican increasingly isolated and robbed of moral authority by its own truculent refusal to dialogue with the people of God and to empower anyone other than itself is scandalous. It will only further erode the wavering authority Rome hopes to shore up, through this witch hunt.