May 15, 2014
I Shrunk the Church: The Vatican Manages Sexual Abuse, Canonization
and the Nuns
By Mary E. Hunt
Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian who is co-founder
and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and
Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic
active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on
theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.
Whatever happened to that great big Roman Catholic Church? It
seems to be shrinking before our eyes despite unprecedented media
attention. No amount of hype can disguise the Vaticans disappearing
act at the United Nations on sexual abuse, the sleight of hand
in Rome at the papal canonizations, and the failed attempt to
usurp womens power through the hostile takeover of the Leadership
Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that may still turn the nuns
out on their ears. The leaner, meaner church desired
by many conservatives during the John Paul II/Cardinal Ratzinger
era is on the horizon, indeed may already be in place. Signs are
hard to misseven for those with papal stars in their eyes.
thrilled by the election of Pope Francis. They were hopeful that
with his pleasing personality, personal commitment to simplicity,
his Inequality is the root of social evil tweet, and
positive pastoral instincts he would bring about a new day for
Catholicism. I wasnt entirely convinced; it takes more than
one person, however charming, to dismantle a system thats
rigged in favor of a few and needs complete overhaul in order
to function like a discipleship of equals.
I remain open
to the possibility that the big tent that ought to be Catholicism
may one day lower its top and open its flaps. But Im no
more persuaded now than I was four months agoand perhaps
a little less. The institutional church now appears more like
a pup tent from which all but the most entitled are excluded.
A review of current affairs demonstrates the reasons for my concern.
big institution with a global reach that divides up the known
world into dioceses has suddenly evaporated. Its now a country
of 109 acres, roughly an eighth the size of New Yorks Central
Park, with a population of about 600, many of whom are posted
abroad. Did someone cast a spell? Was there a natural disaster
that I missed in the news? No, the Holy See signed some United
Nations treaties and now, when confronted with abiding by
them, is scrambling for legal cover.
are claiming that they meant for the treaties to apply to their
headquarters, located in Vatican City, but not for the corporate
entity, the thousands of dioceses they oversee on the planet.
Those folks are suddenly on their own when it comes to liability.
Romes hands are off.
The Holy See
is the juridical personification of the Church, considered
the government of the Catholic Church. It is located in Vatican
City (which really is not, by most lights, a state). Will the
real Roman Catholic Church please stand up? This is all quite
murky, resulting in the current ambiguities. Some of these distinctions
emerged in the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929 when Italy
gave the land that is now Vatican City to the institutional church.
But in fact
theyre distinctions without much difference, except apparently,
when it might be convenient. Since when does anything apply only
to the papal enclave? Maybe the contract for mowing the grass,
but certainly not the institutions position on birth control
as part of government-funded health care, or even divorce and
remarriage when it comes to who is welcome to receive the sacraments.
The long arm of the Vatican reaches into those matters, but the
real estate shrinks right up to nothing when liability lurks.
In early 2014,
the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child
(CRC), which monitors implementation of that Convention, questioned
Vatican officials about sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy
and its systematic cover-up by church officials. Former sex crimes
prosecutor for the Church, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, in watershed
testimony, admitted that the Vatican bore some responsibility
but insisted that steps were being taken to prevent the obstruction
of justice andhopefullyfuture abuses. By way of defense,
the Holy See claimed that its responsibility in terms of the treaty
literally extended to its gates, inside of which few (probably
fewer than a dozen) children live, not to its dioceses around
the world. Needless to say, the Committee, with ample cause, took
a dim view.
in May 2014, the United Nations trained its attention on the Roman
Catholic Church as a global institution, not a tourist destination.
The Committee Against Torture (CAT) that monitors compliance with
that UN Convention is now insisting that sexual abuse of children
by adults in authority qualifies under its definition of torture,
which is defined as (emphasis mine):
by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,
is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as
obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession,
punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed
or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing
him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination
of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by
or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence
of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
that last part in bold thats so chillingly familiar in the
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy Sees U.N. ambassador,
tried to take refuge in its postage-stamp sized headquarters as
the extent of its responsibility, the same shrinking tactic, with
similar results. He didnt take exception to the definition
of torture in the Catholic case, leaving open many questions.
Vice Chair, highly regarded human rights advocate Felice D. Gaer,
pushed Mr. Tomasi on the obvious: by distancing itself from the
vast majority of the Roman Catholic Churchs corporate being,
the Holy See would create important gaps in the coverage
of the treaty as written and intended. In essence, cases of sexual
abuse that did not take place within the confines of Vatican City
would not be the Churchs responsibility. This is a hard
case to make since the headquarters, not the dioceses, laicized
848 priests and punished in a lesser way 2,572 from 2004 to the
church is shrinking before our eyes precisely to avoid potential
litigation. If a crime is prosecuted as torture, the statutes
of limitations in many jurisdictions no longer apply. In essence,
this could result in a new spate of lawsuits against the institutional
church especially by people who were unable to articulate the
harm done to them within the time limits set on reporting/litigating
sexual abuse cases. No wonder officials are willing to make the
embarrassingly dubious argument that they are really only a little
tiny place after all. Would that such modesty were employed when
it comes to contraception or marriage equality where the Vatican
spends millions of dollars trying to make its view stick all over
disappearing act took place during the recent canonization (that
looked oddly like a coronation) of Popes John XXIII and John Paul
II. John XXIII seemed to disappear in a sea of Polish flags celebrating
John Paul II. I wasnt there, but from television and press
reports one got the sneaking suspicion that this wasnt really
about two saints, but rather one prominent one and a runner-up
who was grandfathered in. After all, John XXIIIs case had
been made far earlier and it would have been unseemly to fast
track John Paul II, despite his popularity.
largely bought the Vaticans talking points that this twofer
celebration was meant to unite widely divergent contingents of
Catholics. Juxtaposed were the aging progressives who remember
and thank John XXIII for his leadership of Vatican II, and those
with shorter memories who have known only a more doctrinaire church
led by John Paul II, and by extension, Pope Benedict XVI who arguably
called many of the shots in the latter years of John Paul IIs
papacy before assuming the Chair of Peter himself.
the reality was a bit more complicated than that, beginning with
the transparently messy theo-political process of naming saints
at all. The speed with which John Paul II glided through the hoops
and hurdles made clear just how fishy, not to say corrupt, the
whole deal is. The requirement of two miracles was suddenly waived
in the case of John XXIII with the assurance that people already
consider him a saint. That is a claim most of us would make about
our mothers, but that doesnt get them the Vatican treatment.
In my view,
all of this amounted to a timely reinforcement of the monarchical
model of church. Lest anyone labor under the delusion that things
have really changed with Pope Francis, the celebration featured
the kyriarchal church doing as it pleasedclergy dolling
up in their best duds, bureaucrats putting the current pope through
his paces to be sure that hes really what the cardinals
elected him to benamely, a company man in every
sense of the term (The Society of Jesus, of which he is a member,
was called The Company of Jesus by its founder Ignatius).
It was a time to fill hotels and buses with pilgrims, many from
Poland, who favor a model of church that is telegenic, profitable,
otherworldly, elitist, and hierarchical. That John XXIII convened
a council at which seeds were planted for a very different modela
more horizontal, participatory churchwas all but lost in
cartoonist Tom Toles depicted the whole farce in a memorable cartoon
in the Washington Post. Gazing at a poster that says Prevent
child abuse, a person asks, What do you call someone
who drags his feet on identifying and punishing abusers?
A person reading from the works of John Paul II replies, Saint?
of the whole event were not lost. The hoopla of an outdated organization
was used to celebrate one of its own, and, ironically, one of
the people responsible for its potential transformation. No wonder
the John Paul II people were there in droves and many of the John
XXIII types took a pass.
The net impact
of the canonizations was to reinforce and reinscribe the hierarchal,
clergy-centric church by naming two of its recent leaders as saints.
Pretty clever. And it worked effectively to shore up the foundations
once again and assure people, especially those inside the walls
of the Vatican, that they are still firmly in charge. The rest
of us have been disappeared in the incredible shrinking
Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)
different kind of shrinkage can be seen in the failed attempt
on the part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
to domesticate the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The
Congregation issued a Doctrinal Assessment in April 2012 alleging
that the women were not upholding and promoting the institutional
churchs view of the world.
For the next
five years they were to reform themselves and function under the
aegis of Archbishop Peter Sartain and two auxiliary bishops who
would review both their annual meetings and publications. The
Vaticans unrealistic hope was that the women would see the
supposed error of their ways and comply with the Vaticans
wishes, parroting their theology and championing their priorities.
In fact, what
has happened in the two years since the hostile takeover is something
quite other. The nuns (who after all are lay people until the
first one is validly and licitly ordained) enjoy a great deal
of support among other rank and file Catholics, more support than
most of the clergy. The womens ministries focus on those
who are poor, marginalized, ill, young, or otherwise on the periphery
of an unjust world. They are Earth-loving and engaged in structural
change to eradicate injustice. Their simple lifestyles and commitments
to the poor are well known. Their contributions to theology and
ministry, their ways of being responsible adults in mature, loving
communities are something for the clergy to emulate, not condemn.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller made his April 30, 2014 Opening Remarks
in a meeting with the Presidency of the Leadership Conference
of Women Religious he complained that the women were going about
their business without feeling any need to consult Archbishop
Sartain on matters that are internal to LCWR. No surprise there.
The women characterized the meeting as respectful and engaging
and let the prelate prattle on in the press.
that broke the camels back was apparently LCWRs decision
to honor Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology
at Fordham University and a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood,
with their Outstanding Leadership Award at their August 2014 Assembly.
The U.S. Catholic
Bishops Committee on Doctrine singled out Professor Johnson
for criticism in 2011. They declared that her book, Quest for
the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (NY:
Continuum, 2007), contains misrepresentations, ambiguities,
and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church
and contaminates the traditional Catholic understanding
theologians shared this assessment of her work; most colleagues
praised her as doing solid feminist work in an ecclesial context.
Sales of her book increased with the attention, but theres
no trivializing the harm done by such egregious judgment of the
Bishops Committee. Still, Elizabeth Johnson continues to
write and teach according to the data she gathers, exhibiting
the kind of leadership that LCWR values, and well within the conversations
and parameters of the institutional church.
If LCWR really
wanted to pull the prelates pigtails they could have chosen
to honor theologian/philosopher Mary Daly posthumously for her
earthshattering insights that took the world beyond God
the Father. Or they could recognize the leadership of theologian
and biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza who named
kyriarchy as interlocking forms of oppression that
privilege some and oppress others with the Roman Catholic Church
as Exhibit A, and offered a biblically-based antidote to itnamely,
the concept of a Discipleship of Equals.
Or, they could
extend their praise to theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether who
has spelled out the historical foundations of womens full
personhood, connections between Earth and the divine, and useful
insights into ministry, ordination, and ethics. LWCR could look
south to Latin American theologian Ivone Gebara who articulates
consistent, justice-focused ideas that reflect her context and
commitments. All of these women fit LCWRs stated criteria
and push the theological envelope far beyond the confines of the
institution. Elizabeth Johnson was a wonderful choice, and there
are many other fine picks for the future. The Cardinals
negative reaction only reveals the size of the gap between the
womens reality and the worldview of the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith.
issue that got Mr. Müllers goat was the LCWRs
exploration of the various relationships between religion and
science which the Vatican mistakenly collapses into something
generically pegged as conscious evolution, a phrase
used by one of LCWRs plenary speakers, Barbara Hubbard.
While Hubbards work is helpful, there is much more at play:
how faith and reason function in postmodernity; the various new
cosmologies that ground theological thinking; and the exciting
insights emerging from gene theory, to name just a few examples.
LCWR provides educational opportunities for its members. Perhaps
the Congregation thinks theyre still learning the alphabet,
but these women are sophisticated thinkers, well read, and eager
to plunge into the complexities of our day. Drawing a parallel
between such study and the Gnostic tradition makes
no apparent sense. Do the men have any idea of what Gnosticism
was, or is it just a scary word thrown out to make a point?
I doubt that
it occurred to Mr. Müller to ask Mr. Sartainjust sort
of archbishop to archbishop if you know what I meanwhy he
thinks the women did not ask his permission or beg his pardon
about their choices. The answer is because they dont need
it. Im left to imagine these teeny, tiny archbishops and
the great big women they need to control. The men must be terrified
in their impotence.
around Cardinal Müllers trump card was in an expression
set off by commas toward the end of his discourse. Having worked
himself into a lather over the nuns purported failure to
comply, he closed his statement with the notion that religious
life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the
Church. The LCWR, as a canonical entity dependent on the Holy
See [emphasis mine], has a profound obligation to the promotion
of that faith as the essential foundation of religious life. Canonical
status and ecclesial vision go hand-in hand. I.e., shape
up or ship out. This threatto make the institutional church
even smaller by ousting LCWR and probably replacing it with the
Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious that would be more
likely to do the mens biddingis consistent with the
other two examples of church shrinkage.
be beautiful, and less is usually more. But as the kind of shrinkage
to which Ive pointed continues, the robust, diverse, committed
Catholic community that so many hoped would accompany Pope Francis
papacy seems a distant dream. The current reality more closely
resembles a bad movie. With many others, Im working on a
different sequel, one that features expansion and inclusion, openness
and a warm embrace for all.
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