Since we’re talking Catholic Church here, let’s begin with a confession. I was raised and educated a Catholic. But I long ago concluded that religious institutions, of whatever make or model, are not too helpful in building a better world. I am a Marxist feminist, immersed in organizing and writing about the human struggle for liberation against oppressive forces.
So naturally I was thrilled at US nuns’ defiance of the “infallible” Vatican. And at the instant uproar and mobilizing this resistance sparked last April.
The Vatican had scathingly reprimanded LCWR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of US nuns. It accused the nuns of “radical feminist” ideas. Of spending too much time with the afflicted and dispossessed. Of not teaching the church’s rabid doctrines against birth control and same-sex marriage.
LCWR was formally censured and ordered to submit to an investigation, headed by three reactionary North American bishops. These worthies are empowered to change LCWR’s constitution, oversee its conference speakers and agendas, block development plans, etc. Said one nun, “If this were the corporate world, I think we would call it a ‘hostile takeover.’”
The story went viral. Columnists and commentators excoriated the arrogance of church big shots. Talk shows swelled with outspoken nuns defending their life’s work. Blogs surged with heartfelt denunciations from progressive rank-and-file Catholics.
Lay-organized vigils continue to take place across the country. Men and women march with picket signs asserting, “We Stand with the Sisters!” Nuns on the Bus, in direct opposition to US bishops, have taken to the road to defend government spending on social services and healthcare programs, including abortion. Tens of thousands of supporters have signed a petition to the Vatican to withdraw its sexist dictates.
Senior power is a noteworthy aspect of this drama. The average age of US nuns is 74. They were schooled in the progressive, ecumenical politics of Vatican II in the 1960s. They are strongly supported by lay Catholics and by other baby boomers educated during the militancy of the ’60s. They are fighters, not victims.
You can never predict exactly what will start an insurrection, but it can turn into serious rebellion, then revolution. In my opinion, this couldn’t happen to a more deserving target than the Catholic Church.
This 2,000-year-old religious institution preaches generosity, social conscience, and renunciation of worldly goods. But its practices have made it one of the wealthiest entities on Earth, with an estimated annual income of $170 billion—tax-exempt—in the US alone. From bleeding peasants dry in the Middle Ages to investments all over the world today, the history of the church is one of material accumulation through conniving, atrocity, and abuse.
Given the huge amount of money the church is now paying out to defend and pay penalties for its pedophile priests, could the hierarchy be going after the sisters in part to get its hands on their assets? I’d say yes. Does the church elite hope to distract public attention away from the infamy of enabling, lying about, and covering up decades of sexual assault on children? Very likely. Do the pope and his cardinals and bishops really think they have any credibility with most peoples of the world, Catholic or not? Hard to believe, but probably.
Whatever’s going on in those high-placed brains, the sisters of LCWR have made it perfectly clear that they are not intimidated. In August, outgoing President Pat Farrell opened the group’s annual assembly in St. Louis by telling members that the church’s offensive should not be accepted “with the passivity of the victim. It entails resisting rather than colluding with abusive power.” Amen to that!
At the end of that conference, its 900 participants informed the public and the Vatican that LCWR would continue talks with the Vatican, but not at the expense of the work they do. The nuns are sticking up for their right to live in the 21st century assisting people whose own rights are often denied—prisoners, the homeless, women, immigrants, LGBT people, the sick, and those with physical and mental disabilities.
This amazing conflict within the church encompasses profound and familiar issues—money and power, equality, democracy, class struggle, left-right political antagonism. It expresses a new level of tension between those who do the work of the church and those who guard its patriarchal wealth and position. It is full of promise for liberation from the deadening reach of medievalism in our time.
Monica Hill, a confirmed activist for abortion and immigrant rights, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally printed in the Freedom Socialist and printed here with permission.