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.