The National Catholic Review

Back in 1984, someone asked Barbara Bush what she thought of her husband’s opponent, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, and she famously replied, “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” This anecdote came to me as I read Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times yesterday in which she attacks the Catholic Church for…well, it is hard to tell exactly what she is attacking the Church for because her brushstroke is so wide.

Take this sentence: “The Vatican is now conducting two inquisitions into the ‘quality of life’ of American nuns, a dwindling group with an average age of about 70, hoping to herd them back into their old-fashioned habits and convents and curb any speck of modernity or independence.” Oh, of course, misogyny must be the reason for these investigations, not the aforementioned “dwindling” numbers. Nor does she note that there have been apostolic visitations of conservative women’s religious orders as well, most famously, the 2000 visitation of Mother Angelica’s order. Nor does she note that there was a similar visitation of seminaries just a couple of years ago. But, why seek the complicated truth when misogyny is so close at hand and it explains so much.

I hereby invite Ms. Dowd to visit the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. It is not too far from New York. There she will find nuns who wear habits and who live not only in a convent but in a cloistered one at that! She will find women for whom obedience is not the burden she imagines and who have seen the limits of “independence” as a model for family, still less religious, life. She will also find that more than half of the sisters have earned doctorates in everything from chemistry to animal husbandry to music. If you want to find strong, modern, smart, well-rounded, impressive women with a sense of their own human strength, go to the Abbey of Regina Laudis. 

Dowd sees anti-female bias at work everywhere, especially on the subject of the ordination of women. She writes, after recalling a childhood memory, “Nuns were second-class citizens then and – 40 years after feminism utterly changed America – they still are. The matter of women priests is closed, a forbidden topic.” I will set aside the apparent assumption that what is good for America must be good for the rest of the world. But, what about the Vatican’s stance on women’s ordination is problematic exactly? The fact that the matter is “closed?” Lots of issues are closed: No one questions heliocentrism any longer, nor does anyone argue for the economic value of slavery.

Ms. Dowd suffers from the misperception that the Church has said it won’t ordain women. That would indeed be an objectionable claim, and one with a prima facie suspicion of misogyny. But, the Church does not say it won’t ordain women; it says it can’t ordain women. The idea that something can’t be done is foreign to liberated, early twenty-first century Americans. Our politicians, of both parties, invoke the American Dream and advertisements tell us that we can be whatever we want. Horatio Alger lives. But, the Church believes that it received a definitive revelation to which we must always be faithful. In this sense, the Church is always conservative, conserving the deposit of faith. That faithfulness requires that we do certain things and not do certain other things. The sociological argument that feminism has changed women’s experience in other fields has absolutely no bearing on the issue but Dowd couldn’t find a theological argument if her life depended upon it.

There are other mistakes in Dowd’s column. She refers to “Rome’s most doggedly held dogma, against married priests” although celibacy is a discipline not a dogma and her claim ignores the fact that there are thousands of Eastern Catholic priests and have been for centuries. She notes the disciplining of Sister Mary Agnes Mansour, who took a job as head of Michigan’s Department of Social Services, which job required her to oversee funds that paid for abortions, and seems to think the discipline unfair without questioning if abortion is fair for the unborn. She concludes with a quote from the well known Church theologian, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur.

I have long been puzzled by the fact that the Times gives such prominence to Ms. Dowd. Her columns almost always have the snide, “I know more than you,” parochialism that haunts Manhattan alongside an astonishing ignorance. She called me once about a Catholic question, not to verify anything in her column which clearly is not fact-checked very well but about her boyfriend’s television drama. She spoke with that excessive familiarity that famous people sometimes use with the rest of us, as if her fame was such that she would not dream of thinking it was not a high honor to be speaking with her on the phone, and that such an honor as she was bestowing warranted her speaking to me as I would only with a familiar. It was creepy. And, so was her column yesterday. It is not that she is wrong, it is that she is so contentedly wrong, so confident in her ignorance, so comprehensively prejudiced against the Church. Why doesn't she just become a Protestant and have done with it? If you heard her rant on the street, you would give her a dollar and hope she doesn’t spend it on booze. Reading her rant in the Times, you can just flip the page.


Beth Cioffoletti | 10/27/2009 - 5:49pm
I want to belong to the church of Brendan McGrath (comments #8 and #11) - "I don't care what you've done, just come home!"
Beth Cioffoletti | 10/27/2009 - 5:49pm
I want to belong to the church of Brendan McGrath (comments #8 and #11) - "I don't care what you've done, just come home!"
ANN ODONOGHUE | 10/27/2009 - 5:18pm
So, I'm guessing, she didn't review your book, right? 
I think your last paragraph is very uncharitable and bitter. Disclaimers regardless, you are one of the voices of America magazine, this is not a stand-alone blog.
MATTHEW NANNERY | 10/27/2009 - 3:14pm

It is obvious from her columns Brendan; as per this one from a few years back:

I have to say that, like Michael, I was put off by Dowd's most recent column when I read it too. That said, she's done some very good stuff. Her obit-like column on the recent death of conservative columnist William Safire was very, very kind and showed how much she genuinely liked him.

Brendan McGrath | 10/27/2009 - 2:32pm
Thank you, Matt!  And I'm delighted to hear that not only is she still a Catholic, but that she still goes to Mass!  I don't read her columns in general, although over the years I've read several of them, and of course seen bits and pieces of them, and seen her on TV - I wonder if it's apparent or not from her columns that she still goes to Mass, etc.?  Perhaps it would be more rhetorically persuasive if she expressed that in some way.
MATTHEW NANNERY | 10/26/2009 - 9:52pm
Brendan, I just want to say that I feel exactly the same way you do. So what you said really struck a chord. When I did my pastoral year at St. Joseph's in Pennfield, N.Y., one of the priests-Bob Kreckel-gave a homily talking about how we in the parish should welcome the Mexican migrant workers who did seasonal work in the fields east of Rochester. Kreckel used to go out and say Mass for these guys once in a while. It was a nice thing to do. Anyway, I was cantoring or lectoring or doing some other seminarian duty, so I was seated so that I could see pretty much the whole congregation. When Fr. Bob was talking about welcoming the migrants, a man yelled out "I've had enough of this," grabbed his wife by the arm and proceeded out the right transept. Then, two other people got up and left their seats in the nave. In my whole life as a Catholic I had never seen anybody make an outburst and walk out of Mass, thank God. The homily was hardly estreme-and I agreed with everything Fr. Bob said. Still, immediately after that first guy left I found myself almost involuntarily praying that he'd come back-that he wouldn't deprive himself of a parish where he should feel comfortable and welcome. I'll never forget how immediate that feeling was for me, so I think that sense was the work of the Holy Spirit. Even though I agreed with what Kreckel said, it was very important to me that anybody-the Mexican fruit pickers and the this man who walked out of Mass-felt like they belonged in that parish. So, good for you, Brendan. I think you've got a great perspective on this.
MATTHEW NANNERY | 10/26/2009 - 8:52pm
Dowd's Catholic. She's a graduate of Catholic University and goes to my sister's parish on the DC line. Cokie Roberts goes to that parish too.
Brendan McGrath | 10/26/2009 - 2:09pm
"Why doesn't she just become a Protestant and have done with it?" - Is this just an offhand remark, or does Maureen Dowd still identify as a Catholic?  I hope she does identify as a Catholic; I never like to see anyone leave - I hope she's still able to consider the Church her home.  I don't care what she writes, I'd rather she stay and consider herself even Catholic, even if that means very little, than leave.
Jeremy Zipple | 10/26/2009 - 1:04pm
I spent yesterday evening with a group of 20 and 30-something young Catholics in Washington D.C. – moderate to left-leaning regular-mass attendees, employed mostly in social-justice nonprofits and social service agencies. Mo Dowd’s column came up in conversation, and I was surprised that nearly everyone had read it – had even emailed it on to friends. The consensus was that while Dowd is, per usual, guilty of all Michael Sean Winters accuses her of – pompous tone, sloppiness with facts, a dearth of real argument – her piece nonetheless resonated deeply. They shared Dowd’s exasperation at a Vatican which seems to bend over backwards to accommodate relatively small numbers of far-right-leaning Catholics, while ignoring the hemorrhaging of masses of more moderate faithful. Thus, I’m no fan of Michael Sean Winters’ prescription – “Why doesn't she just become a Protestant and have done with it?” – because, frankly, it’s not just Mo Dowd we’d loose but a multitude of similarly-minded Catholics.
And besides, the Church has so many loud, irrational voices on the right these days, we can spare room for a few on the left, no?
PATRICK DARCY | 10/26/2009 - 12:41pm
Many of Maureen Dowd's ideas are lost because she gets carried away and engages in too much sarcasm.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of places in this blog in which Mr. Winters similarly writes.  Also, his comments about his telephone conversation with her are out of place.  How are we to know that is how Ms. Dowd came across?  In any case, it is a personal attack which has no place in a serious discussion.
Certainly, no one argues today for the economic value of slavery.  What does that have to do with the ordination of women?  The former is a moral issue while the latter is about a discipline of the church as is celibacy.  It is a closed topic because the church has said so.  Who is to say that the church one day will open that issue? 
James Lindsay | 10/26/2009 - 11:05am
I don't know Maureen, so I can't comment on your impressions on her demeanor.  However, just because the Vatican thinks it can't ordain women, does not mean that this is the truth.  Indeed, the first "Benefactor" of the Roman Church was female.  Peter was not the first such, Priscilla was.  Can't has nothing to do with it.
ANTHONY ANDREASSI | 10/26/2009 - 10:50am
While I have serious reservations about this apostolic visitation (based largely on procedural grounds), I think Dowd's column did little to help American religious Sisters.  And I agree with much of your evaluation.  For me the column went down hill after the Nazi crack.
To be brutually honest, given the choice between having drinks and dinner with Maureen Dowd or any of the 60,000 American nuns out there, I would take a Sister any day of the week.  I think it would be far more beneficial to my soul to have a conversation with one of these excellent followers of Jesus rather than the wise-cracking Dowd who never ceases to the opportunity to make a cheap crack
Stephen SCHEWE | 10/26/2009 - 10:08am
Good morning Michael,
I know it's Monday.  How about a little sugar in that coffee, maybe another round of morning prayer?
Beth Cioffoletti | 10/26/2009 - 10:07am
Once a month I meet with a gathering of Catholic women friends and we talk about things.  There are both liberals and conservatives among us.  Last week we were talking about the ordination of women, and we all agreed that we thought that the Church was right.  One of the more theologically insightful of our group said that the place of women in the Church has not been fully recognized and assumed  - that women are the "vessels" of Christ and, as such, are not only different from preists, but called to a higher level(!) and it is up to women to become this Christ carrier in the world and in the Church.  
We ended our gathering with a recitation of the Litany to Mary.  It was kind of an awakening for me, seeing the place of Mary holds in the world - Cause of our Joy, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Comforter of the Sick ...  I came away wondering, why would a woman want to be JUST a preist?!
Brian Thompson | 10/26/2009 - 8:40am
Wow. That was a great explination!
I really liked how you did admit that to modern eyes, one might mistake the Church's actions as misogynistic, but when the reasons for those decisions are exmined closely one finds that they are not actually misogynistic.
I was really glad to read this, it is unfortunate that too often those who defend the Truth are shrill, this was not. amen.

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