Readings: Of Nuns and Freedoms

I have not written about the reprimand issued against the Leadership Conference of America Religious by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The gist of the report is that at public events the nuns had spoken or listened to ideas which do not correspond to how the Congregation interprets the faith. The examples do not seem shocking, but coincide with ideas widely discussed in intellectual journals and among respected Catholic theologians, priests and scholars, and none concern the fundamental teachings embodied in the Scriptures or the creeds. But the accusers claim the nuns talk too little against abortion and gay marriage and too much about justice, peace and service of the poor.

Certainly my voice has not been needed when writers with bigger pulpits and sharper pens like E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post (May 13), Maureen Dowd in the New York Times (May 20 and 23) and Garry Wills (The New York Review of Books) have weighed in. All are Catholic intellectuals not afraid to speak truth to power. Dionne declares that he is not leaving the church because he sees the Gospel as a liberating document and cannot ignore the good done by sisters in the name of Christ. He sees the crackdown as perhaps the bishops’ revenge on the nuns for breaking with the bishops by supporting health care reform in 2010.


Maureen Dowd sees the bishops as intolerant of disagreement. “Absolute intolerance is always a sign of uncertainty and panic. Why do you have to have to hunt down everyone unless you’re weak? The church doesn’t seem to care if its members’ beliefs are based on faith or fear, conviction or coercion.” Garry Wills pas tribute to the nuns who taught him, above all supporting children whenever they spotted talent. In a tough passage he writes: “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).” They were concerned about AIDS, the spiritual needs of gays, the civil rights movement and soup kitchens.

I thought of this Sunday when I attended an inspiring ceremony at the 19th century convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn in which the sisters welcomed into their community as an associate, Kerry Weber, an America associate editor. I could not square the picture of these dedicated women in the chapel with the negative “Doctrinal assessment” from Rome. My father’s sister was a Sister of Charity in Hoboken and my mother’s sister was a Sister of Mercy of Plainfield, New Jersey. I was taught by Franciscans in my Trenton parish. All these women spotted my writing in grammar school challenged me to read and write and write more. It is tragic that when their numbers are slipping and they are fighting valiantly to serve till they drop, that they, as Wills says, are “bullied.”

Last Friday night in Washington D.C., after dinner with a friend from the Washington Post, we walked through downtown to the Newseum, a marvelous new museum dedicated to the history of American journalism. I stepped back from the façade and looked up to see the First Amendment to the Constitution bathed in light, spelled out on the outside wall in the night. The press had been filled with the stories of the bishops of several diocese mobilizing to take to the courts their case against the Health and Human Services requirements to provide contraception in the insurance plans of their institutions. No one questions their right to make their case on the basis of religious freedom to the Supreme Court. But as I read the Amendment again that night I was reminded that the Amendment guarantees four liberties, not one, all intimately connected: religion, the press, speech, and assembly.

Can American Catholics embrace one freedom and not the other three? Can the church authorities silence critics, theologians, sisters, writers — especially when their ideas do not attack the Creed, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Resurrection, etc — and still with credibility, wrap themselves in the flag of religious freedom?

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.


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david power
6 years 7 months ago

I am sorry if you see it that way. I suppose I  could have written a very sophisticated and studious comment pointing out that Maureen Dowd was not either really much of a catholic or much of an intellectual(although a clever woman).I criticize for reasons unknown to myself.I see poor writing  and repetitive themes etc and I feel the need to point out that something is amiss.I went for many years unable to criticise and so maybe I am just catchng up :)  .
It is easy to criticise I suppose. It may sound snarky but in the present case it is because I believe that the author is using a false language to get his points across.I probably do the same.
The idea that E.J Dionne is speaking truth to power is laughable.Fr Schroth is getting carried away with himself.Dionne writes the same article every week.I could write it for him.Wills is a great writer and  very much an intellectual but also a man with an axe to grind.Taking this trinity as some sort of back-up is poor argumentation.
In future I will try to tone down the sarcasm ....
Virginia Edman
6 years 7 months ago

I am reminded of a line from a  recent Prayer to the Holy Spirit ''whose peace can halt our patriarchal hunger for dominance and control.''

You comments about Maureen Dowd confirm my view that she is brave.  You prove that somewhere, someone will spend time finding out about her so that they can do the character assassination that so often follows taking on the hierarchy of the  Catholic Church.  Too bad she is not a nun because right now they are  fair game.

The abuse of children is universal, but it is clear that in the Catholic Church it is due to clericalism, and that can be changed.  To suggest that Maureen Dowd is an ''anti-Catholic satirist with a caustic and occasionally cynical bent'' does not do her justice.  She may be caustic, but she is not a cynic, nor is she anti-Catholic.  As John Doyle has pointed out, the media is not against the church.  The church can do the damage to itself without any help from the press.

This whold subject of nuns and freedom reminds me of something Pope John XXIII said in his first encyclical entitled On Truth, Unity and Peace.  He wrote; ''In essentials, unity; in non-essentials diversity; in all things charity.

Bill Freeman
6 years 7 months ago
@David Power - Why is it that so many of your posts are snide, sarcastic criticisms?
Mary Sweeney
6 years 7 months ago
I read Rick Fueyo's comment and focused on this segment:

''The obvious response, correct legally, is that a religious vocation in a hierarchical institution requires browser obedience, which means that you wave your First Amendment rights.''

One thing, which I imagine Rick is well aware of, but which does not get much public ink these days, is that Religious Orders do not belong to the Hierarchical structure/dimension of the Church. Rather they fall under the Charismatic dimension. Vatican II told them to go back to their foundational ''charism''. When a religious renews or professes vows, it is not a priest (unless a member of the Religious Congregation) who receives those vows, but rather the congregational representative. A brief reread of the biographies of Theresa of Avila, or Catherine of Siena or any number of religous women reveals that either they did not have ''browser obedience'' or that it is not a requirement.

This just seemed worth repeating as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost, the Spirit's outpouring of gifts.
Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago

Your use of intentions, means and what someone is doing...must not be anthropologically or theologically flawed, I ask "who determines this?" I assume you will say "the magisterium". As you know, the church is profoundly divided and in a crisis of truth over many issues involving things like sexual ethics and other issues for the past 40-50 years. The magisterium is not perfect and the magisiterim (e.g., popes and bishops) have made serious teaching errors as history has demonstrated, but the church often ignores.  

I don't want to go off point, but the use of the ethics of Aquinas to justifiy the morality of voluntary human actions is itself under debate. Make no mistake about it, I believe in the use of Aquinas, but I do not agree with the meaning and interpretation that the magisterium uses to morally specify certain acts as intrinsically evil. Nor do most theologians, many bishops and priests.

I do agree with your suggestion that we should not jump to conclusions and unjustly crticize Rome, before we know the conclusions of this review...thus, we should allow the process to proceed to a conclusion. However, most of us understand what Rome is doing, and I stand by my comments expressed in #4 above.
david power
6 years 7 months ago
(Note to self:no sarcasm).

Taking up the point from a previous article I think that although it is true that the vision of Bishops with regards the world can be defined as "manichaen" ,or at least that of the two characters we spoke of we must strive not  to fall into the same trap.
In this case with the nuns I am lost.I have little experience with nuns apart from those in Latin America and Italy who all would be at home in  a 50's hollywood movie.The only thing I have seen or heard of the American variety makes them look like overpoliticised and feminist types who throw a cloak of christ over their own ideological bents( I am at one with  Rome :D).But I have little or no first-hand experience of them.  
But I think that we are seeing the dying embers of old fogies on both sides.Those on the "right" and "left".This battle is of yesterday.The new nuns will bring a fresh air and biology will take care of those who are clinging to the prejucides of the past (left and right).I could be wrong and find that 20 years hence the bishops have the same mindset as those of today and that they and writers and nuns etc are more interested in playing Cops and Robbers than in speaking  of Jesus Christ .  
Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago

It is ignorance of the LCWR, and insulting to their members, to think that they are overpoliticized and feminist types who throw a cloak of Christ over their own idealogical bents. As you said, you have no first-hand experience of them, only some hear-say.

The LCWR is standing up for their beliefs in the Gospel of Christ, and their work does not scandalize the word of God. I doubt the new nuns are much different than the old nuns, save for the few on either extreme. Frankly, the average age of nuns in the U.S. is about 72-75 and their numbers are decreasing far beyond the replacement rate. They deserve our prayers and support.
Virginia Edman
6 years 7 months ago
Maureen Down speaks for me.  I find her not only Catholic, but able to decern and speak truth to power.  The fact that men do not hear her is no big surprise.  She presents the American woman with insight.  I would also mention that she is very brave.  Seeing what happened to Jan Wong, another reporter who took on a powerful male institution, she is speaking the truth about the bishops as they bully women.
David Pasinski
6 years 7 months ago
Thank you. I
I greatly appreciate the awareness of tthe awareness of the ENTIRE First Amendment. The bishops largely polemic espousal of theh cherished "religious liberty" has not been juxtaposed with their own continued criticism of dissent from both without and within. We know that there is no Bill of Rights in the Catholic Church, but it would at least show some awareness of the American traditions in regard to press, speech, and assembly if they recognized these as HUMAN freedoms which they claim so facilely for themselves with "religious freedom."

A discourse on "liberty" and "freedom"in comparison and contrast from a scholar such as yourself would also be welcome!
Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago
Thank you for a good article on this most important subject. 

I will not repeat what has already been said by many authors and bloggers on America Magazine relative to this subject. However, I will add one long comment:

The papacy of John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI, have a profound distrust of the West, its culure, democrarcy, feminism, capitalism and pluralism. JP II believed that many of his own clergy were infected with the evil of the Western world. To JP II and Benedict, the secular evil of Western society is a cancer that is spreading to other countries throughout the world, especially after the fall of communism.

For the past 44 years we have been living in divided church because of profound disagreements over many sexual teachings, and to a lesser degree some social teachings. However, the non-reception of certain teachings came primarily from the general laity and theololgians, and to a lesser degree (but important degree) from bishops and priests. I say "to alesser degree from bishops and priests" because such "dissent" was severely ondemned and silenced by JP II's papacy with a hardened fist. Now, we see clergy and women religious standing up for "change" and "a different message deserving of Rome's most serious reflection....such as the Austrian Priests Initiative and now perhaps, with the LCWR. 

The Vatican or Curia wants to silence these types of initiatives and ministries, and change their very direction by tactfully silencing them. This is all under the cover, IMO, to eradicate this "evil" from Western secular society that is infecting and destoying "the truth" as only Rome sees it. Unfortunately, you cannot silence one's heart, faith, and love of Christ's Gospel and the movement of the Holy Spirit, by edic, pontification, condemnation, coercion, punishment, demand, power or authority.

The root of this problem is that Rome misunderstands the West and the good that it has brought to the world and the church.  
Amy Ho-Ohn
6 years 7 months ago
It is true that those who take a vow of obedience to the Church, or even those who sign a contract when taking a job, can't claim a right under the Constitution to violate their vows or contracts.

But I think Fr. Schroth's point is somewhat different. The rights enumerated in the First Amendment are guaranteed by the Constitution, but they were not created by the Constitution. The first three of these rights (freedom of religious, speech, press) are inherent in the human condition, because they are inseparable from freedom of thought. The Constitution simply makes explicit something the civilized world had discovered by the eighteenth century.

It is pointless and counterproductive to attempt to control prayer, worship, speech, communication. With great brutaility and a lot of trouble and expense, governments and churches sometimes manage to present an illusion of having suppressed undesirable ideas, but only approximately and only for short periods of time. If you forbid speech, wiretap telephones, open mail, employ informers, people will still talk to trusted friends in their living rooms. If you take away their printing presses, they'll use xerox machines, or the internet, or copy documents out long-hand and pass them around.

In attempting to control what prayers the LCWR's member congregations say, what theological ideas they find plausible, what they read, whom they listen to, what they talk about in the rec room, how they understand the Gospels, how they advise people who come to them for spiritual guidance, the CDF can't help but end up looking both brutal and ineffective. It's just inevitable. Where Franco, Mao and Mubarak have failed, Levada and Law won't succeed.
Rick Fueyo
6 years 7 months ago
You make solid points Amy. No one can suppress an idea. But again, though  my sympathies lie with the sisters, I think there is a logical counterpoint that could be asserted from the Vatican.
Their point is that the LCWR is a juridical body with official standing. Thus, to the extent that they express ideas that deviate from the official Magisterium, there's a sense that they can cause "scandal" to the faithful, in the sense that that term is used in this context. Consequently, I believe their rejoinder to your point would be that the sisters are free to state whatever they like, they just cannot do so in an official capacity, on behalf of the Church.  I think that is why Sr. Joan Chissitter (sp?) (from memory), has suggested that the time for separation may be here.
Again, my sympathy is with the sisters, as I like to think it is always with the party that is being bullied, but I think there is a logical rejoinder to your point
Gregory Popcak
6 years 7 months ago
I appreciate Fr. Schroth's support of the good sisters, but I have to admit being a bit confused about his assertion that somehow the Vatican's action against the LCWR undermines religious freedom.  Surely, he is aware of the Catholic position on freedom and the difference between freedom and license.

Freedom, in the Christian sense,  represents one's capacity to speak the truth, serve the common good, and do what is right.  If the Vatican believes that somehow the LCWR has failed to do these things, do they not have a responsibility to ask the LCWR to account for itself?  This is exactly the kind of thing that needs to happen if one is to defend an authentic Christian understanding of religous freedom.   Either there is something to these allegations or there is not, and none of this takes away from the good work that the sisters are doing.  

That said,  as I point out to my students, the difference between social work (and I say this is a social worker) and Catholic social justice work is that while social work cares only about meeting a need in the most expedient and legal way possible, Catholic social justice work requires all of this PLUS a committment to meet needs in a manner that is consistent with the dignity of both the provider and the one being served.  If the Vatican believes that the LCWR is not fulfilling this aspect of Catholic social justice work, then WHAT the sisters do doesn't matter if the MEANS  by which they accomplish their good works or the INTENTIONS motivating those works are anthropologically or theologically flawed.  "What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?"

Of course, nothing has actually-practically speaking-happened and it seems to me that the most charitable thing to do would be for all of us to stop clucking and let the process unfold.  Or we could all just do our best Henny Penny routine.  That'd be awesome too. I guess.
david power
6 years 7 months ago
I seem to have a knack for offending people.
Devil's advocate and all.If these nuns were all they were all they cracked up to be they would have inspired a million vocations like their forerunners did,instead they inspire  only hyperbolic adjectives.72-75?This speaks of vines cut from the branch.
I can only imagine what the response will be to these words but as sure as I am that the Bishops and the Vatican are far from God I am sure that the Nuns in America are hardly any closer.
In every post we see clerics speak of how much good clergy do etc, it is disgusting.Impossible to find a useless servant.If you say anything at all critical of a cleric you are faced with the whole "he does" etc.There is no room for mystery anymore.
I was being disingenous when I said I had no experience of american nuns as I have read hundreds of articles from them and the one thing that sticks out is their lack of spirituality. 
The power of nuns was that they worked in silence and everybody knew the good they did ,it is a sad day when they are polishing their cv's and others are doing it for them.Michael , can you explain the difference between a nun and a female social worker?  
david power
6 years 7 months ago

Maureen Dowd writes for  the New York Times which has a notorious anti-catholic bias.If she were brave she would stand up to them at times and risk her hefty pay check.Knocking bishops at the Grey Lady is like knocking Jews in Nazi Germany.No guts required.
Brave?Where is the firing squad?She plays the tune the piper pays for ,nothing more.
She is a good and aceribic writer but incapable of challenging the status quo.
She is catholic to you? What does that mean?Was Hitler a catholic poltician?
Power is also the New York Times.She will never stand up to them as they sign the cheques.The Editor tells her to bite and she asks "Where", no heroics here.  
Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago
I am sorry David, but I find your argument unsupported by my experience. The nuns do much social and spiritual work. They are like all of us, imperfect human beings striving to do God's will. I am sure you can find some fault in their acts of comission or omission, but it is a form of extremism for you to assert they lack spirituality. You are entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is not mine, and I suspect not the opinions of the majority of Catholics.
Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago
I am sorry David, but I find your argument unsupported by my experience. The nuns do much social and spiritual work. They are like all of us, imperfect human beings striving to do God's will. I am sure you can find some fault in their acts of comission or omission, but it is a form of extremism for you to assert they lack spirituality. You are entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is not mine, and I suspect not the opinions of the majority of Catholics.
Virginia Edman
6 years 7 months ago
The New York Times is a liberal paper and Maureen Dowd is Catholic in her upbringing.  I think to analize her spirituality is not possible.  Your stating the obvious and then asking questions that cannot be answered.  How can you judge her except my her writing.  I am inspired by her insight and feel that she has challenged the status quo.  I am impressed with your cynicism and sarcastic criticism.  Fruits of the Spirit?  Remember, today is Pentacost. 

God bless you.
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 7 months ago
It is of interest that Fr Schroeth referred to Maureen Dowd as a Catholic intellectual. In examining her theological credentials, Ms Dowd did receive a BA from Catholic University, and she did win a Pulitzer for her coverage of former President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, yet this doesn't seem to have very much to do with say the Theology of the Body. So in turning to her major publications, we do find in her biography a mention of her publication, "Are Men Necessary?" 
Perhaps she is here defending and extending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and giving in wider currency, thereby qualifying as a defender of the faith for the doctrines of the First Vatican Council.
What we do know is that Ms Dowd has written many repetitions on the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church and parochial schools. Does this indicate she has a concern for protecting children from that scourge in the US school system?
To answer that question, we can turn to the area where our own US Dept of Education has concluded sexual abuse of children is about 100 times worse than in the Catholic church/school system: the US public school system. As Ms Dowd writes for the NYTimes, she would certainly be interested to learn that there were 561 complaints about teacher sexual misconduct last year in New York city alone. Additionally, the education department has reported a 35% increase in the number of complaints of sexual misconduct involving public school employees in the first 3 months of 2012 over 2011. And this is in Ms Dowd's journalistic hometown, a problem that has been going on for decades inadequately addressed.
How many articles has Ms Dowd written on sexual abuse of minors in US or NY public schools, where the problem is many multiples worse?
I have found zero. Perhaps I have missed her caustic tongue on this subject.
In sum, Maureen Dowd by what she has committed and omitted has established herself as an anti-catholic satirist with a caustic and occasionally cynical bent. By what she exaggerates and what she neglects, she obviously cares about attacking the church itself far more than the abuse of our school children. She might qualify as a polemicist, but that seems perhaps an exaggeration of her qualifications as such. 
As for her credentials as a Catholic intellectual she seems to fall just short of Bill O'Reilly's qualifications as such. 
david power
6 years 7 months ago
Maureen Dowd is a catholic intellectual?
That  is the funniest thing I have heard all week.As funny as her articles are.
Rick Fueyo
6 years 7 months ago
The obvious response, correct legally, is that a religious vocation in a hierarchical institution requires browser obedience, which means that you wave your First Amendment rights. That's good as far as it goes, and would be a totally adequate legal defense, even if the bishops were state actors, which they're not.
Moreover, I suspect the bishops would deny that they even need to abide by the spirit of the First Amendment, given that they represent an institution which predates our Constitution, although our Constitution is supposedly set up on certain inalienable rights granted by the Creator and only recognized by the Constitutional document.
But while strictly correct legally, it does give pause to those who are now lecturing everyone else on subjects should realize that they don't abide by the spirit of those same civil liberties.  Seems there is an emphasis on Cartman Catholicism of late – the Bishops seem transfixed on any "Respect my Authority” mindset.


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