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.