Nuns on the run

Why is the Vatican cracking down on dissident American nuns?

Nuns aren't what they used to be.  Go to the website of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organisation that represents around 80 per cent of American convents and religious sisterhoods, and there isn't a wimple or a rosary in sight.  Instead you'll find a group of women who could be members of the WI: greying, wearing sensible sweaters, full of purpose.  

Probe further and you may detect a whiff of New Agery along with the calls to social activism.  The organisation hosts conferences with titles like "Women of spirit: creating in chaos", "Embracing the dream" and "Religious life on the edge of tomorrow".   "We welcome new ideas and new ways of living religious life into the future," proclaims the LCWR mission statement.  

A section entitled "Resolutions to Action" gives some insight into where they think their priorities lie.  The latest is entitled "We are the 99 per cent -- the Occupy Movement".  The one before that proclaims "Economic Justice Advocacy Critically Needed." There are calls to reduce the world's carbon footprint and to eliminate global hunger.  One is highly critical of WalMart.  There's a resolution calling for an end to capital punishment in the USA , but you look in vain for the kind of campaigns most closely associated with organised Catholicism; against abortion, contraception or gay marriage.

While no-one would claim that campaigns against global poverty are contrary to Catholic teaching -- Pope Benedict's major encyclical Caritas in Veritate was after all devoted to the subject -- the LCWR's emphasis stands in stark contrast to that of the male church leadership in the United States, currently waging war on the Obama administration's contraception mandate in the name of religious freedom.  Their campaign has won significant political concessions (though not enough to satisfy them), but left many ordinary Catholics cold. (It's no coincidence, surely, that most of Rick Santorum's support during his recently aborted campaign for the Republican nomination came from Protestant Evangelicals rather than from his fellow Roman Catholics.)

The LCWR, which recently infuriated the US bishops by publicly supporting the health reforms, has long been seen by conservative American Catholics as a swamp of unreconstructed liberalism stuck in a 1970s timewarp.  For the past few years it has been under investigation by the Vatican 's theological watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger's fiefdom for more than twenty years) and on Wednesday they dropped their bombshell. The LCWR is to be put under the control of the Archbishop of Seattle for the next five years, its constitution rewritten, its activities scrutinised, its liturgies reformed, its erroneous thought-processes set right. The report didn't quite demand that these nuns put their wimples back on; but it might as well have done.

The CDF describes the situation as "grave and a matter of serious concern". Among the theological and institutional errors it identified are "radical feminism", "corporate dissent" (for example, questioning official church positions on women's ordination and homosexuality) and  being "silent on the right to life from conception to natural death."  Heretical opinions, it complained, have been expressed at CLWR conferences and gone uncensured.

The organisation's leadership professed themselves "stunned" by the findings, asking supporters for prayers while they considered their response.  Sister Joan Chittister, a former LCWR president, was more outspoken, calling the report's conclusions "immoral" and the prospect of oversight "demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions." She accused the Vatican of "attempting to control people for one thing and one thing only -- and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age."

Church sources have stressed that the move against LCWR is motivated by doctrinal concerns rather than politics.  But in Benedict's Vatican the theological is political.  Take for example a speech delivered at the LCWR conference in 2007 by Sister Laurie Brink, which was singled out for criticism in the report.  The authors complain that she had spoken of some nuns "moving beyond the church" or even beyond Jesus, words that CDF chief Cardinal Levada interpreted as "a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs" but "a serious source of scandal [which] is incompatible with religious life."  Such "unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR," the report continued.

Sister Laurie did indeed appear to praise progressive nuns whose views she described as  "post-Christian", who went beyond the institutional church to find "a wholly new way of being holy that is integrative, non-dominating, and inclusive."  But even more explosive may have been her comments about the institutional church, which she accused of "reneging on the promises of Vatican II".  

For Brink it was "painfully clear" that there was a rift between the leadership of the Catholic Church in the USA and ordinary Catholics, and that "the more theologically educated the laity become, the more edgy the hierarchy".  She mentioned "theologians denied academic freedom", women who felt "scrutinized simply because of their biology", gays and lesbians who desired  "to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes" and young people who felt increasingly alienated.  She accused the church of "abuse, oppression, neglect and domination."

In its present mindset, the Vatican is unable to hear such complaints, let alone act on them.  It's no doubt convenient that Brink spoke warmly of groups who had given up on the church entirely and embraced religious pluralism.  Such language enables the CDF to present the crackdown as little more than a defence of core Catholic beliefs such as the divinity of Christ.  

The reality may be subtly different.  Must LCRW-affiliated nuns are not "post-Christian", but the organisation as a whole has developed a tone that doesn't fit well with the Vatican 's current  highly traditionalist agenda, which sees efforts to embrace change as a sell-out to secular modernity.  They're not singing from the same hymn-sheet, so to speak.  Without being reductive, it may partly be that a group of women, meeting together without male supervision, comes up with a different set of priorities than the US Bishops Conference.  Let alone the Vatican.
 

Two nuns walk towards Ground Zero in New York. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.