Nun wars: Is the pope Catholic?

Truth be told, for several days now I have been trying to find ways to avoid writing about the whole nun-wars story. I mean this thing just keeps going on and on. The key is that the story was already several years old when it broke, yet the mainstream press continues to act as if this conflict is brand new and that the powers that be at the Vatican picked this fight. At the same time, it continues to be hard to find coverage that accurately quotes the document at the heart of this story -- the "doctrinal assessment" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Now the sisters and nuns of the Catholic left are preparing to barnstorm the nation in buses, lobbying for their causes. Reporters may want to ask if the women who are organizing this effort are seeking input from the bishops of the dioceses they will be visiting.

One thing we have learned for sure: It certainly appears that many, if not most, mainstream journalists assume that the phrase "working for social justice" includes work on behalf of abortion rights and gay rights, as well as helping the poor and the sick, while Pope Benedict XVI and most (but not all) Catholic bishops disagree. It also appears that most journalists assume that the government of the Roman Catholic Church is essentially the same as The Episcopal Church. Hey, the vestments do look a lot alike. That can be confusing.

At the moment, there appears to be a debate on these issues taking place between the Vatican and The New York Times, which is acting on behalf of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. I thought that this was supposed to be a story about a debate between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, with the Times and other elite newsrooms providing accurate, maybe even balanced, coverage of the views on both sides.

In a way, the whole story about Sister Margaret Farley, who taught theology at Yale Divinity School, and her book "Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics" is a step forward. The Vatican says this book is not a work of Catholic theology. Most people agree on that, since it is clearly a book criticizing Catholic doctrine and, thus, theology.

It may even help that all the publicity from the case is fueling increased sales of this manifesto on a wide variety of subjects, such as gay sexuality and female masturbation. "Just Love" is creeping up the Amazon sales chart, closer and closer to "Fifty Shades of Grey." At this point, I think it's safe to say that the more progressive Catholics read and discuss the contents of this book in public, the stronger the Vatican's case.

At this point, let me simply quote the commentary of my friend Rod "Crunchy Cons" Dreher.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A prominent American nun writes a theology textbook advocating for the moral and theological licitness of same-sex marriage and female masturbation, and for a view of marriage and divorce that contradicts Catholic doctrine. The Vatican takes two years to investigate, and finally gets around to condemning the book. The New York Times features the story prominently on its website, because, I suppose, it’s really super-crazy that the Vatican’s doctrinal office would say that a nun’s textbook promoting this stuff is morally inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Hide your kids, hide your wife, the Inquisition is back!

Do you know what those latter-day Torquemadas are doing to that poor old nun? Nothing. Seriously, not a thing. The newspaper quotes the Vatican spokesman as saying that the nun will suffer no sanctions from this action (PDF of the Vatican’s statement here).

And so forth and so on. So what is the key fact in this story, the point that the press may be missing?

As many stories have mentioned, Sister Farley is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. This means that she has been, and remains, a heavy hitter among people who to one degree or another work in higher education and claim the title "Catholic theologian." I think it is safe to say that the digital files of your typical mainstream religion-beat reporter is packed with the telephone numbers of these women and men, and rightly so since so many of them are important sources on one side of this debate.

Were Vatican officials sending a signal to the Catholic Theological Society of America, just as much as they were expressing displeasure with Sister Farley? Might this have something to do with the decades of debate about the implementation of the late, and now Blessed, Pope John Paul II's manifesto on Catholic higher education -- Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)?

Hey, wait! Wasn't all of this the subject of a talk by Pope Benedict XVI just the other day, in a chat with a circle of U.S. bishops? And what about that quotation in which the pope refers to Canon 812 and its requirement that Catholic theologians (teaching in a Catholic context) receive a “mandatum (mandate)” document from their bishops to certify that they are in fact "Catholic" theologians and, thus, in Communion with the pope of Rome?

Before all else, I would acknowledge the great progress that has been made in recent years in improving catechesis, reviewing texts and bringing them into conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. ...

On the level of higher education, many of you have pointed to a growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel. Yet much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines. The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.

I don't know about you, but I see a connection. The supporters of Sister Farley may see one, as well. Somebody ask them. OK?

That Benedict guy. He really seems to think that he's the pope or something. It seems that he is convinced that the man who sits in the chair of St. Peter has something to do with defending centuries of Catholic doctrine. That is so, so, pre-modern.

Please respect our Commenting Policy