Bishops" Move against Women Religious a Hard Sell, Indeed

By Thomas C. Fox
National Catholic Reporter
June 5, 2012

Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley (Yale Divinity School)

You can bet that in the eyes of the Vatican, its Monday condemnation of the book Just Love by Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley has nothing to do with other recent and not-so-recent actions taken against U.S. Catholic sisters.

No, the move against Farley, one can hear the officials saying, stems solely from an independent Vatican investigation that began more than three years ago.

It needs to be seen simply as that, an investigation into one wayward book.

That it comes a mere six weeks after the very same congregation issued a highly critical doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the single most prominent voice for U.S. Catholic sisters, is coincidental.

That the Vatican critique of Farley's book, which tarnishes her as a Catholic moral teacher, comes a month after the congregation placed LCWR in receivership with the intent to diminish its independent voice is not to be viewed as related in any way.

Or at least, that's the way I think the Vatican would have it.

No, the prelates would have us believe their three-year investigation of the Yale theologian's book and their three-year investigation of U.S. women religious communities, the works of two separate congregations, have nothing to do with each other.

After all, the left hand inside the Vatican doesn't always know what the right hand is up to.

And then there's that other doctrinal critique of a book by another prominent Catholic sister and theologian, St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a professor at Fordham University. The Farley and Johnson matters are separate, I can hear the prelates say.

After all, the condemnation of Johnson's book was not the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but rather, that of the U.S. bishops' doctrine committee, a group of half a dozen men, which found her work similarly inconsistent with Catholic doctrine, even undermining the Gospels.

If, indeed, I am right and this is what our prelates want us to believe, they are going to find it a hard sell.

Given these cumulative actions, it's near impossible for anyone with half a brain to not think our bishops and Rome are frightfully afraid of our Catholic sisters and are trying as they might to keep them closely tethered to their staffs and miters.

What's going on? Why the fear? Why these repeated efforts to re-establish a blind obedience to the hierarchy more associated with the Middle Ages?

Who among our sisters, their supportive laity or in popular media does not find in the actions of our bishops hints of undeniable misogynists?

Why is it that each episcopal move against a consecrated woman or group of consecrated women follows secret episcopal meetings and correspondence? Why the darkness?

Why is it our bishops find it so difficult to deal with the women as equals? Yes, we play different roles within the church. But aren't we all fundamentally equal by right of our baptisms? And haven't the sisters, just like the male religious and clergy, given their entire personal, ministerial and professional lives to the church? Doesn't this account for something?

Why is it our prelates refuse sit together around a table in a room with the sisters and discuss issues with them respectfully, God forbid, as might be expected of Christians? Of inhabitants of the 21st century?

I am not envisioning here the kind of discussion that comes at the end of secret conversations, papers and investigations by the men, but rather, the kind that happens before any of these are first set in motion.

Don't our bishops realize that some of the things they are saying to and about women, consecrated or not, only distance them further from women -- the very ones whose unstinting service to the people of God in their homes, parishes, schools, youth programs and so many other places are the very backbone of the body of Christ?

A lot gets written these days about the weakened credibility of our bishops, but nowhere are such comments more applicable than when we find our bishops speaking about women, sexual ethics and reproductive issues.

Who in their right mind today would give credence in such matters to any group of men that willfully excludes all women from its innermost deliberations? What a handicap this is for our church. In a world that needs clear moral voices, we can only lament this diminishment.

And as women worldwide become more educated, this disability will only get worse.

The single strongest action our Catholic hierarchy could take to fight abortion would be to ordain women as priests. Doing so could set our church on the journey to level the gender terrain, edge us into the 21st century and begin to re-establish lost Catholic authority on reproductive issues.

But instead of promoting women, instead of promoting platforms for our most visible and credible women, our women religious, our bishops appear determined to tear them down -- and themselves in the process.

Try to find a Catholic today who doesn't think the Vatican critique of LCWR said more about the men than the women.

As Boston College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill put it when she learned of the Vatican action against Farley: "The timing of this intervention is incredibly and ironically bad. The U.S. bishops, and at their instigation the Vatican, are already attracting an enormous amount of negative press over their prosecution of the American nuns. They have just thrown another log on the fire."

Cahill zeroed in on one of the core differences between the guiding concerns of the bishops and Rome on one hand and Just Love on the other when she noted, "A huge concern of the book is gender-based violence and sexual oppression of women worldwide. ... They receive nary a mention in the Notification, which seems to find masturbation more important."

The issues on which the Congregatoins for the Doctrine of the Faith focused "reflect nothing so much as the polarizing 'culture wars' now consuming the internal politics of the U.S. Catholic church," she said.

I hope and pray some episcopal guardian angels quickly awaken the men to perceptions widely held (and spreading) among Catholics. Among these are that the bishops' moves against the women religious are intended:

to limit the impact of their pastoral lessons, lessons stemming from lifetimes of involvement with other women, with the poor and marginalized, lessons that lead to pastoral accommodations and solutions that often do not necessarily fit neatly into official church teachings.

to eradicate from the church alleged "radical feminist" thought, which is nothing more than thought itself.

to stamp out alternative ways to fight abortion -- arguably more credible ways, including moral persuasion by attacking the social and economic causes that lead to abortions, by working side-by-side with women and children to support and educate them.

to put the women religious back into more controllable and obedient convents and motherhouses.

It is truly difficult to imagine there are not at least a few bishops who cringed when they learned the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had decided to critique the Farley book. The wise among them must know that, if nothing else, the action would bring worldwide popular attention to a book that until now has largely had a more restricted audience of academics and students in college or graduate courses on religion and sexual ethics.

The Spirit is at work in a universe of Her own making.

While the Vatican might claim it has no grand scheme to put down our U.S. women religious or to limit their influence while so many others are listening to them with great admiration, the sum effect of the Vatican actions argues an opposite case.

And, thus, our bishops face a hard sell; a hard sell, indeed.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.