The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems."My first response is: These guys just don't get it. But, of course, they do get it. These forward-looking professed Catholic women -- the Conference represents 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the United States -- threaten the Church's creaky, anachronistic power structure, with its trailing ambience of paternalism, misogyny, Jansenism, homophobia, triumphalism, and medieval dogmatic theology.
The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”
During my years as a Boston Globe columnist it was my inspiring privilege to get to know several communities of Catholic nuns. The sisters were comfortable with my brand of religious naturalism, and I admired their socially and ecologically-engaged Catholicism. They practice a kind of Christianity that is inclusive and ecological. They might have just come down from listening to the Sermon on the Mount, fired up with a love for the creation that does not discriminate against "the other" or quibble over fine points of obtuse doctrine.
For this they get figuratively or literally hauled before committees of male prelates and made to explain themselves. For the life of me, I don't know why they stay. But their faith is sincere, and they love the Church, more than the institutional Church loves them in return.
Last year, Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University and a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, was raked over the coals by an investigating committee of American bishops, who advised that her most recent book, Quest for the Living God, should be removed from Catholic schools and universities. Of course, the book will not be removed from any but the most fundamentalist Catholic schools. In fact, being singled out for doctrinal condemnation insured that the book would be more widely read. Johnson's response to the committee, and their response to her response, are easily available on the web (scroll down for link to document).
Johnson is lashed by the bishops for many "failings," not least for promoting a notion of God that emphasizes unspeakable mystery. No word, no title, no human characteristic, no analogy, no metaphor is adequate to encompass the living presence of that mystery in the world, according to Johnson. It is a notion of God not so different -- at first glance -- from the agnosticism of the religious naturalist, and one can readily understand why the bishops felt impelled to act. After all, their patriarchal power is modeled after a God who is Father, Lord and King.
(A second –- more nuanced -- glance at Johnson's theology tomorrow. She and the bishops are also at odds on issues of scientific interest. More of that later, too.)