Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Catholic Bishops, Religious Women, Politics: Recent Commentary

In an essay just published in NY Review of Books entitled "Bullying the Nuns," Garry Wills argues that the following is happening as the princes of the church attack religious women: "The real Gospel must be quashed in the name of the pseudo-Gospel of papal monarchs."  As Wills notes, the priorities of the two groups have always been different: "The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them."

And so, as Wills points out, the Vatican is more than willing to welcome the SSPX crowd back into the fold, even with all their ugly anti-semitism on full display for the world to see, nor has there been nor will there be a strong rebuke of that anti-semitism, since the Lefebvrite bishops stand with their brothers in Rome in condemning women's ordination, same-sex marriage, and contraception.  While with the nuns,

Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist). Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens.

And in a piece posted yesterday at his Daily Dish site, Andrew Sullivan reminds us of the political backdrop against which the vicious attack on nuns by the U.S. bishops (who are right in the thick of the Vatican decision to go after American religious women) and Rome is taking place.  As Sullivan notes,

They barely protested when the last president authorized torture, but the Catholic hierarchy is now determined to use what's left of its authority to organize protests this summer against their right to deny insured contraception to Catholic and non-Catholic employees in schools and hospitals. This will be their cause - not saving universal healthcare from repeal, not bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows, not protecting the poor, but affirming that religious liberty is at stake if they cannot keep the pill from their female employees' insurance, 98 percent of whom use it at some point in their lives anyway.

In his view, the shock-and-awe (my term, not Sullivan's) strategy the Catholic hierarchy is now rolling out to try to influence the fall elections in the U.S. is risky, and could well result in a smaller, purer church of like-minded right-wing Christianist ideologues.  But as he notes, this may well be precisely what the U.S. bishops, whom Sullivan tags "these dim-witted Vatican apparatchiks," want.  (And Frank Cocozzelli reaches the same conclusion in a recent article about Jenky of Peoria to which I linked two days ago.)

In an article by Joshua McElwee at NCR reviewing what is taking place with the investigation of women religious--what we know and what we don't know--Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK, a lobbying group of religious women in D.C., also points to the political context within which the U.S. bishops and Rome are mounting their attack on religious women: as she notes, "Clearly, the U.S. bishops are involved in this." And she goes on to say,

Clearly church politics, as well as I think some secular politics, were playing into this.

And at Commonweal, even one of the bishops' staunch allies and a mover and shaker of Commonweal, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, expresses increasing impatience with the bishops' political overreach, and echoes Sullivan's judgment that said overreach may be just plain dumb.  Unfortunately, in classic Catholic centrist fashion, in the very act of critiquing the bishops' lack of intellectual acumen and pastoral wisdom, Steinfels contributes to the smaller, purer meme by arguing that the initial HHS mandates released by the Obama administration "unite[d] Catholics of all stripes in protest—at least temporarily."

That statement is, of course, simply untrue.  It's as untrue as the statement Steinfels makes in the same op-ed piece that the "dog days" of the sexual abuse scandal are over and done with.

There were many outspoken Catholics who have never gone along with the religious liberty meme the bishops began to trot out at the beginning of 2011, and which they ramped up in response to the HHS guidelines in order to try to undermine the Obama administration.  Many of us have known from the outset that, with their faux religious liberty crusade, Rome and the USCCB are playing cynical, unChristian political games that have nothing to do with the gospel.  And that they are playing these games at the behest of their super-rich right-wing handlers.

Many of us have had no choice except to know this, since we are the object of those games--gay and lesbian Catholics, for instance, or Catholics who have survived childhood sexual abuse by priests.  In pretending that "Catholics" of all stripes were united in protest when the HHS guidelines were released, Steinfels is playing a game of her own, the very tired and very predictable game of Catholic centrists: she is reading out of the Catholic fold all Catholics who do not toe her line and that of the USCCB.  She is acting as if we do not exist and do not count.  As if we deserve not to count because we have placed ourselves outside the Catholic pale--church leaders and their centrist collaborators haven't done so.

And she is acting as if we should not be talked to as brother and sister Catholics worthy of respect or inclusion in the conversation.

She's doing this, astonishingly, even as she has to admit that she and other centrist Catholics who meekly went along with the U.S. bishops' bogus religious freedom war were gulled, were spectacularly wrong.  And we Catholics shoved to the margins by the bishops and their centrist pawns, who immediately rang warning bells about what the bishops were doing with their ginned-up religious liberty crusade, and why they were doing it, have been proven right in spades by the bishops' increasing extremism, unabashed political partisanship, and outright stupidity, as they keep the fight going.

Though Steinfels and other centrist co-belligerents of the USCCB will never admit that we Catholics shoved to the margins (with centrist complicity) have been right all along . . . .  Because that would be to admit that we are in the room.  That we have something to contribute to the conversation.  And that shoving us from the Catholic table belies the claim of the centrist commentariat crowd (and the bishops) to own Catholicism in some exclusive way.

The graphic is a picture of the (all-male) Congressional hearing re: religious liberty and contraception, February 2012.

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