I can’t remember when or how I learned that a great many nuns were not so down with the Catholic Church’s rules on abortion and birth control. It may even have been from my grandmother who, like many women of her social station and era, did a lot of charity work. She was nothing if not pragmatic and she saw the hard reality of women living in poverty who can’t plan their pregnancies. My grandmother was far more tolerant than many of her generation when it came to reproductive rights.
Nuns do a lot of outreach in poor communities and they have a better view of that toxic alchemy than does much of the greater society. And I dare say, they understand it a far sight better than do the men of the Church –especially in the hallowed halls of the Vatican. To the nuns who are working directly with women in crisis, there is nothing abstract or idealized about the birth control question. They see the toll of teen pregnancy, rape, incest – the endless cycle of abuse and exploitation from which so many women and girls in poverty have little insulation or means of recourse. They see the toll of ignorance that arises from the curtailing of sex education – yet another casualty of the culture wars.
In a way that it never has in dealing with the sex abuse crisis, the Vatican is cracking down on these uppity nuns who aren’t toeing the Church line. The main issues seem to be support from nuns for Obama’s health care plan, the nuns’ lack of full-fledged homophobia, and something the Church calls “radical feminist” ideas. I guess that means supporting anything that doesn’t keep women barefoot and pregnant. Oh, and any whisper of women’s ordination, which, if you’ll recall, Pope Benedict has named a “grave crime” on par with sexual abuse.
Targets of the Vatican’s crackdown have included the Leadership Council of Women Religious which they placed under the authority of an archbishop, NETWORK which they’ve charged with “corporate dissent,” and, most recently, a really uppity nun named Sister Margaret Farley.
“The Vatican on Monday sharply criticized a book on sexuality written by a prominent American nun, saying it contradicted church teaching on issues like masturbation, homosexuality and marriage and that its author had a ‘defective understanding’ of Catholic theology,” according to CBS News. ”The Vatican’s orthodoxy office said the book, ‘Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics’ by Sister Margaret Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order and emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School, posed ‘grave harm’ to the faithful.”
Oh. There’s that word again: “grave.” You can just see them, stroking their chins, muttering to each other, and shaking their heavy heads in dismay.
Farley, for her part, says that Just Love was never intended to reflect official Catholic doctrine. The highly respected theologian looked to other religious traditions and actual human beings of the non-celibate variety.
The Vatican began its formal review of the book in 2010 and allowed the sister to respond. They didn’t care for her answers and have now published formal opposition to the book. You can see why. The ethicist has carved out a framework that would legitimize gay marriage and validate masturbation as “moral” and beneficial to relationships.
As much as Farley’s views are consistent with a broader theology and based on a “criteria of justice,” they are too much at odds with a Catholic Church hierarchy determined to remain firmly rooted in a bygone era. They will continue to repress human – particularly female – sexuality even if it dooms them to extinction.
So the Vatican has officially and publicly dissed Sister Margaret Farley. It usually takes a lot for them to act on such “grave” concerns. For instance, it did finally bring the Legionaries of Christ in under its control. All it took was decades of scandal and a crescendo of press attention when it was confirmed that its leader had kept a separate identity and multiple households with mistresses and children… whom he’d raped.
Where was the media circus and public outcry about these nuns who help poor women take back a little of their dignity? Oh, right. There wasn’t any. Nope. Where it takes reams of press reports, outcry from victims’ groups, and an exodus of disaffected Catholics to get action from the Vatican on sexually abusive priests, all it takes for nuns to be publicly excoriated is quietly departing from the party line – “corporate dissent” if you will.
Priorities, people. Priorities.