religion & philosophy

Nunsense…

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When it comes to the Vatican’s crackdown on women religious, I believe it’s time to declare that for the purpose of this struggle:we are all nuns…if you can spell Catholic, you are probably asking: how dare they go after 57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well over 70 and who work tirelessly for a more just world? How dare the very men who preside over a Church in utter disgrace due to sexual misconduct and cover-ups by bishops try to distract from their own problems by creating new ones for women religious?–     Mary E. Hunt, Theologian, Catholic Activist and Academic

I don’t really have a dog in this hunt anymore;  as an anti-theist who has reached the conclusion that the only way there could be a god would be if God was a very arbitrary and angry teenage girl named Tiffany who was primarily interested in Justin Bieber and whether or not her jeans make her ass look fat, I’m not a logical choice to defend the various orders of Nuns from the Holy See. Except, of course, that I remain a cultural Irish Catholic and a recovering victim of 16 years of Catholic confinement, most of which was largely under the attentions of the good Sisters of St Joseph and then of the good Sisters of St Francis. And, I have to admit, that the Sisters provided more encouragement to me than anyone else did. In many ways, the various orders of Catholic nuns were instrumental in most of what’s good in terms of Catholic teaching and social justice. The priests generally got all the “press” but while Father Damien gets the historical kudos for the colony at Molokai, the good sisters of the third order of St Francis – the ones who taught me from 4th through 8th grade – provided the nurses and the necessary assistance to make the leper colony actually work. At present, and one of the primary distractions I have been dealing with this past month, my wife is recovering from a colon resection at St Mary’s Medical Center which is managed jointly by an order of Christian Brothers and the Sisters of St Joseph of Orange, a spinoff of the Order of St Joseph that taught me how to read and cipher and make marks on paper.

Now, Nuns seemed arbitrary and overwhelmingly dictatorial to a lot of Catholics over the decades. But, beginning with Vatican II, the number of nuns has steadily decreased. Those who have maintained their communities are primarily involved in social and medical work and advocacy as well as in education and foundations. I find them very admirable; in fact, I think we can say with a certain degree of certainty that Sister Mary Twinkle Toes has long since vanished from the scene, and has been replaced by what was really always there – smart women who were dedicated to a cause and a belief in caring for others and trying to live the gospel as they understood it.

So the current nonsense by the Catholic hierarchy to try and “discipline” these women or drag them into compliance is a really difficult piece to justify. Nicole Brodeur of the Seattle Times does a good job of laying out the story as does Ms. Hunt. The Conference of Women Religious, basically the American Nun equivalent of the NCAA, isn’t doing what the bishops want them to do. The Sisters aren’t complaining about abortions, god, guns and gays and contraception. They’re arguing about the need for more attention to health care, poverty, education, hunger, the environment. Who the hell do these women think they are? Uppity bitches…They need to get back in their convents and bake some more wafers, say some more rosaries and iron some more Albs.

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting piece on this; I find it interesting that Drew has moved from a Republican apologist to someone to the left of, well, me on a lot of things. It actually gives me hope – people like Andrew Sullivan and George Will are really too smart to go along with that right wing crap as presented these days.  Of course, I say that conscious that Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene had no public complaints and that Teilhard de Chardin remained loyal to church and order despite intellectual persecution and religious toment.  Sullivan wrote in an article in the April 2 edition of The Daily Beast  that

The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be—except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead, they obsess about others’ sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance. Inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government after 9/11: these issues attract far less of their public attention.

I am no fan of abortion, but at the same time, since I could never bear a child myself don’t really think that I should have a say in the decision of a woman to terminate her pregnancy, and if that termination occurs, then it should probably be under the most humane and medically safe conditions possible.  The subject to my mind is open to debate, but contraception provides an alternative more palatable than unfunded orphanages and foundling homes or back alley abortions or the type I’m hesitant about. The good enough is enemy to the good, but the perfect is enemy to the good as well. I also have come to a position which for an ubermale old soldier and Holy Cross Grad is perhaps odd – but, I really don’t care about homosexuality.  Hell, I’ve had close friends who were gay and lesbian and they never threatened me in any way, except possibly in college with a forcing bid in bridge.  Their sex lives don’t interest me –Not my business, not my concern. Now Pedophilia is my business as a citizen of the civilized world who believes that we have a duty to protect those unable to protect themselves; the abuse of power is my business, as a guy sworn to uphold the constitution and to uphold the gospels. I’m a not a priest, or a minister, or a theologian or a Catholic anymore. But, I was confirmed, and I did swear an oath to do that. Since I feel very comfortable with the parts of the New Testament that are not batshit crazy, like Jefferson, I think it’s something I can and should support as the basis for the way we treat each other.

There are a lot of things in the New and Old Testament that are batshit crazy. They deserve to be treated with the same respect we treat Gilgamesh. Interesting, but not really instructive. But, the things that in the New Testament are real are certainly more direct and as articulated in the traditions of Catholic Social Justice and the Social Gospel as preached by folks as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr and Dorothy Day, more applicable to our lives as human beings responding to St Augustine’s imperative question of “How then shall we live together? “ than any other approach, tradition or set of concepts floating around. The princes of the Church pay lip service to this and then focus on issues tangential and to do with their own power. It lies in the Sisters, the priests who defend them and the poor, the orders of nuns, priests and brothers dedicated to serving the poor, the destitute, the abandoned, the condemned to live that code.

Jesus knew about homosexuality; it was not only a subject of condemnation in Leviticus but was a pretty common practice in the ancient world. He didn’t have anything to say about; he didn’t have a lot to say about sexuality; he did say a lot about love, and care, and concern for others. While I’ve seen articles that indicate the author believes that the Sermon on the Mount is like some Delphic statement or Sybilline book filled with ambiguous and confusing stuff, it’s really  not. Nor is there a lot of room for argument over what the many parables about the virtues of the poor and the need to help them. Yes, Judas complains that the oil used by the repentant hooker to tend to Jesus’ feet should have been sold to raise money to feed the poor, but Jesus’ response “The poor are always with us” seems pretty obvious to me. Leave her alone, she’s trying to do what she thinks is right and it harms no one, while doing her soul good.

Judas, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Rich, the Bankers, the Moneychangers, the Tax Collectors who cheat the poor get a lot of the back of Jesus’ hand…or, as Maureen Dowd put it in her column on Sunday, a sharp rap across the knuckles.  The Bishops and the Church Hierarchy joined the plutocracy of wealth and power when Constantine took over the rule of Rome and decided that everybody would be a Christian…or else. The Bishops have always sought that kind of ecclesiastical power; the Richelieus, the Borgias and the rest of the figures in Catholic history along with the Pat Robertsons, Ian Paisleys and Benny the Rat provide cover…Jesus has damn all to do with organized Christianity.

I’ve written of this before, of course, but I remember talking with a parish priest in College Station 20 plus years ago who spent his vacations in India, working with Mother Teresa. He told of being there when a journalist asked her, “How can you expect to win?” and she replied with a smile, “It’s not about winning.” I expect that the good Sisters will continue to do what they are doing, ignoring the hierarchy when they can and doing what they think is right. And, in focusing on doing good instead of telling the world, that they are good and holy  and everyone should listen to them, they show what should have been Catholicism in practice. And sadly, is not and never has been.

We probably should reflect that on Easter morning, the Apostles, those first Bishops led by Simon Peter, the first Pope, were hiding or trying to get out of Jerusalem as quickly as possible. Mary Magdalene and probably Mary and Martha were on their way to the tomb to anoint and care for the body, trusting that God would convince the soldiers, Roman soldiers, to move the stone aside so that they could tend to their duty…not because they had to, but because it was the right thing to do.

Odd, but in a way, both bishops and nuns are fulfilling their roles in Christian tradition.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve known Mary Hunt for over 45 years, and have followed her career with interest and occasional snark. We met as sophomores in the diocesan high school where we haunted the halls and occasional classrooms, identified by some of the good sisters as the “brilliant and obnoxious one” (Mary) and the“brilliant but erratic one,” (me.) I concede her brilliance and I guess I accept my erraticism. We agreed about a lot of things, disagreed about a lot and took very divergent paths. I have a lot of respect for her, and she’s an interesting person and author. And, probably still consistently obnoxious to people in authority. Go for it, dear.)

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One Response to “Nunsense…”

  1. Dear Michael,
    Imagine my surprise to read this piece by my old debate partner. I hope you’ll mail me at WATER and get caught up. I’d love to know where you are (LA?) and what you are doing. Most of all, I hope your wife is doing ok. My prayers are with her. By the by, Sr. Celine died a few months ago. She was only 98.
    With warm wishes, Mary E.

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